The Characters

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The protagonist of dem, Mitchell Pierce, is, paradoxically, the novel’s weakest character, a paradox compounded by his being the least vulnerable character. His existence, whether at home or at work, at play or when deadly serious, in Manhattan or in the housing projects of the North Bronx, largely consists of following the lead of others. Although these other characters have nowhere near as strong a claim on readers’ attention as does Mitchell, it is with them that the power rests to shape the course of his life. Kelley adroitly provides them with that power by equipping them with an institutional identity and the security of the type. Mitchell is so consumed with himself that he continually exhibits an air of futile fretfulness and vague unsettledness.

It is Mitchell’s narcissistic absorption by the minutiae of his own needs and status that deprives him of a perspective on the world around him. However, the manner in which his ego blinkers him also effectively protects him from the moral consequences of his social and psychological immaturity. His compelling urge not to be disturbed by what the world brings to his attention—whether a murder committed by a friend or his wife’s giving birth to a black son—sees him through life’s moral challenges unscathed. His ludicrous and impetuous decision to forsake his wife for the bohemian Winky, whom he believes to be the character Nancy Knickerbocker from the soap opera Search for Love, has its issue at the same level of moral vacuity that pervades Mitchell and his world. Were it not for the quasi-incestuous attentions of his mother-in-law, it is doubtful if Mitchell would pursue his “co-genitor,” Cooley.

The only area in which Mitchell leaves aside his spinelessness, biddability, and prevarication is in his sexual relations with Tam. His assertiveness here is less a function of emotional adequacy than it is the implementation of manhood conceived of as a set of generic cultural codes and preconditioned responses. The series of events that leads Mitchell to display his torso for the edification of a bathing beauty, in the hope that she might find a way of reciprocating, leads to his falling...

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Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Mitchell Pierce

Mitchell Pierce, the novel’s protagonist, a white, middle-class advertising executive. He is the husband of Tam, to whom he is unhappily married, and the father of Jake and of one of two newborn twin sons. Crude, demanding, weak-willed, easily led, and vulnerable in ways that he cannot imagine, he represents a peculiarly pampered version of complacent, bourgeois, American manhood.

Tam Pierce

Tam Pierce, Mitchell’s white, bored, and demanding wife, the mother of Jake and unnamed twin boys. Her sexuality is central to the development of the novel’s plot. Although their marriage essentially is a failure, Tam and Mitchell are counterparts, though they cannot recognize or take responsibility for the fact. Her shallowness and narcissism are the psychological equivalents of Mitchell’s cultural superficiality.

Opal Simmons

Opal Simmons, the Pierces’ black maid. She is fired by Mitchell on grounds of suspected thievery, then later pursued and rehired by Mitchell for his own protection. Her simplicity and directness make her obviously superior to her employer, as Mitchell’s shamefaced pursuit of her suggests. Although she does not take part in the novel’s action to any great extent, her position is pivotal in the novel’s development. She effectively embodies personal power and dignity that the role of servant often masks.

Calvin Coolidge Williams

Calvin Coolidge Williams, also called “Cooley,” Opal’s boyfriend and father of one of the Pierce twins. Mitchell becomes familiar with him without realizing who he is or the unusual, unspoken, relationship between them. Cooley is a somewhat enigmatic character, difficult to assess or pin down. His vitality and style are fundamental expressions of his nature.