The Characters

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Through the four principal characters of the novel, Michelle Cliff considers the question of slavery, as well as the denial of freedom in a broader sense and the importance of resistance by the disenfranchised. M.E.P. is a fictionalization of an actual historical figure who participated in the fight to abolish slavery. Cliff emphasizes her independence and success as an African American businesswoman. She utilizes the many stereotypes that surround M.E.P. in official histories to create a character who is powerful, determined, and feared by the white society to which she caters.

Cliff proves willing to alter Mary Ellen Pleasant’s life to suit the needs of her narrative. For example, she adds fortuitous incidents, as when M.E.P. slips away and returns to San Francisco after the failure of John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry. M.E.P. is a strong, disciplined individual who refuses to let her disappointment at the failure of Brown’s attempted slave revolt defeat her. Back in San Francisco, she continues to work for abolition, and after the Civil War she fights for the rights of African American citizens.

In contrast to Pleasant, Annie Christmas, christened Regina, retreats into an almost hermetic existence after her capture and servitude on the chain gang. Annie’s life in a sense comes full circle. She left the Caribbean to avoid a rich white man’s bed; on the chain gang, her sex is discovered. She is fitted out with a collar and leash...

(The entire section is 531 words.)