Phyllisia Cathay

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Phyllisia, the novel's first-person narrator, is intelligent, sensitive, and introspective, qualities which increase the difficulties she finds in her new environment. She is extremely unhappy at having been torn from her happy childhood in the West Indies and moved to Harlem where she is scorned for her accent and her scholastic ability. Like her father, Calvin, she is also rigid, inflexible, and snobbish, often looking down on others because of their appearance. She rejects Edith Jackson, as well as many other children in her class, because she sees them as "ragamuffins." When she finally spends some time with Edith, enjoying her company, the pleasure is marred by her conviction that everyone is looking at the holes in Edith's socks, and judging not only Edith but herself also.

Phyllisia is strong-willed. She refuses to placate her classmates in order to make life easier. She often battles with her father. The conflicts between the two continue throughout the novel since neither is willing to give in to the other. Although she loves her mother, the bond between the two has been weakened by her mother's cancer. Phyllisia is forced to cope with two shattering events in a row: her betrayal of Edith and her mother's death. When these incidents force her to reexamine her values and attitudes, she realizes that she has been unfair to almost everyone: Calvin, Ruby, and most of all Edith. This new self-awareness allows her to establish a connection with her father which also enables her to fulfill her promise to Edith.

Ramona Cathay

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Ramona Cathay, Phyllisia's mother, is an exceptionally beautiful woman whom Phyllisia compares to a fairy-tale queen. Her gentle voice, with its rich island accent, creates poignant memories of their beloved island home. She has much in common with both of her daughters. She shares Ruby's striking beauty. Like Phyllisia, she is both a reader and thinker; each has a strong need for privacy, which makes them, at times, lonely.

Unfortunately, she is seriously ill throughout the first part of the novel. Although she has already had one breast removed to combat cancer, the disease has returned. Since Ramona has always been physically beautiful, this disfigurement is difficult for her. At the same time, it allows her to recognize that dependence on external appearances is foolish, placing too much value on characteristics that are superficial. She tries to convey this to her family, particularly to her daughters, who are vulnerable in a society which judges women, in particular, by appearance. She is unable to deal with the difficulties her daughters are experiencing since her illness tires her, making her moody. She knows that she is dying. When Phyllisia brings Edith to visit her, Ramona treats Edith with respect. This angers Phyllisia, who insults Edith. Instead of scolding Phyllisia, Ramona reminds her that she will have to find a way to deal with her own guilt. Her death shortly after this incident devastates Phyllisia.

Other Characters

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Beulah, who is the toughest girl in Phyllisia's class, intimidates Miss Lass, the teacher. She dislikes Phyllisia, starting a fight with her after school. When Phyllisia manages to escape, Beulah plans to resume the fight the next day, this time really hurting Phyllisia. However, Edith intervenes, placing Phyllisia under her protection.

Calvin Cathay
Calvin Cathay is a proud, domineering man who has brought his family from the West Indies to Harlem. He likes to brag about his possessions, which include his beautiful wife, Ramona, and daughter Ruby. He is hardworking and determined to succeed, putting in long hours with strenuous labor at his restaurant. He announces to Mr. Charles, ''I'm going to be...

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one of the richest men in Harlem.'' He is also intolerant, usually judging people by their appearance. From the novel's beginning, he makes it clear that he doesn't want his family to associate with anyone who is poorly dressed.

Although he loves his family, he is accustomed to showing his caring through domination rather than communication. As the head of the family, his orders must be obeyed. When defied, he flies into a rage. He is unable to express gentler feelings and is completely unable to cope with the fact that his daughters are growing up. Although he is harsh because he is afraid for them, he cannot express this sentiment. His struggles with Phyllisia are particularly contentious because they are both very strong-willed and both convinced of the righteousness of their own behavior.

Cousin Frank Cathay
Cousin Frank, along with Mr. Charles, seems to function as the voice of reason in the novel. The two men, who are introduced to the children at the novel's beginning, always appear together. Because Calvin often acts rashly, the two function as a restraining force, often giving him helpful advice on how to deal with family problems.

Ruby Cathay
Ruby, Phyllisia's sister, is pretty, easy-going, and wants to get along with everyone. Even though her beauty enables her to make friends easily, she tries to please the people around her, even if it means disguising her true feelings or abilities. She is not as introspective as Phyllisia, but she likes caring for people. She spends hours with her mother and with Phyllisia during their illnesses, performing simple tasks for them. She also is fun-loving and enjoys gossip and socializing.

Mr. Charles
Mr. Charles is a large man, so big that at first sight he appears frightening. However, he has a gentle, reassuring voice. With Cousin Frank, he helps to guide Calvin Cathay.

Bess Jackson
Edith's ten-year-old sister. After the death of their youngest sister, Ellen, Edith sends her to the welfare department in order to make arrangements for a funeral. Although Edith warns her not to say they are orphaned, Bess is too young to keep the secret. When she reveals that they have been living on their own, Edith's sisters are taken away.

Edith Jackson
In spite of the fact that she bears most of the responsibility for taking care of her family, Edith Jackson is a cheerful and generous person. Throughout the novel, she is an object of scorn: Miss Lass, the teacher, attacks her appearance; Calvin throws her out of the Cathays' apartment, commenting that people like her ‘‘don't go with my furniture’’; Miriam Robbins calls her ''a beat up looking chick.’’ Most distressing of all, Phyllisia is ashamed of her. However, Edith never retaliates. The only time she seems affected by negative opinions is when Phyllisia is cruel to her.

Edith is intense and interested in everything around her. She is continually thoughtful, stopping to pick flowers for Ramona when she is ill, always remembering to compliment Phyllisia. Eventually, the burden of caring for her family takes its toll. When Phyllisia finds her in the employment agency, she looks as if she has aged. However, she is always forceful and determined.

Ellen Jackson
At four, Ellen is the baby of the Jackson family. She is a delightful child, warm and affectionate. Because of her wholehearted admiration, Phyllisia begins to develop a sense of confidence that she did not get at home where she felt that she was the ugly duckling of the family. Ellen's sudden death destroys Edith's attempts to hold her family together.

Minnie Jackson
Edith's seven-year-old sister.

Mr. Jackson
Mr. Jackson appears very old and tired-looking to Phyllisia. He is obviously unable to take care of his family, leaving most of the responsibility for raising the children to Edith. He watches the young children when they are well, but if they show the slightest sign of sickness, Edith has to stay home from school to care for them. He is an almost invisible presence in his own home, sitting quietly in his chair without speaking.

Randy Jackson
Randy, Edith's sixteen-year-old brother, is tall and intense. Although he gets a job to help support the family after their father disappears, he is fired because he is unwilling to take orders. His murder by the police fuels further tension in the neighborhood. Ironically, he had wanted to go to the police for help when his father disappeared, but Edith dissuaded him.

Suzy Jackson
Edith's eight-year-old sister.

José is a handsome Puerto Rican boy whom Phyllisia meets in the park while she is cutting school in order to defy her father's strict restrictions. Although she likes him at first mainly for companionship, after an intense kiss she decides she is in love with him.

Miss Lass
Miss Lass, Phyllisia's teacher, is an insecure and cruel white woman who both scorns and is afraid of her class. She is especially hostile to Edith Jackson, continually disparaging her appearance and behavior. When she insists on holding Phyllisia up to the rest of the class as a symbol of proper behavior, Phyllisia realizes that she is only doing this to divert hostility away from herself. Eventually she reveals the extent of her prejudice by calling all of her students ‘‘filthy pigs’’ and attacking their families.

The first boy ever to flirt with Phyllisia, Norman bolsters the newfound self-esteem she has gained through the affection of Edith's family. However, while Phyllisia is sick, he gives his pin to Miriam Robbins. His father is a doctor who is planning to move his family upstate.

Norman's brother, Orlando, admires Ruby, and the two begin to date. Interest in the two brothers brings Miriam and Ruby together in a casual friendship centered around gossip about boys and clothes, one which Phyllisia scorns. After Calvin sees Orlando kissing Ruby goodnight, he explodes, hitting Orlando, then keeping both of his daughters virtual prisoners in the house.

Miriam Robbins
Miriam Robbins, one of Phyllisia's classmates, lives across the street from the Cathays and belongs to a clique of well-dressed, middle-class teens. Because her father is a professional, she believes she is better than most of the other students. Although she rejects Phyllisia's first attempts to be friendly, finding her too unattractive and different to be a part of this select group, Miriam later seeks out an acquaintanceship because she admires the rest of the Cathay family. By then, however, Phyllisia finds her shallow and uninteresting.

Mrs. Robbins
Like her daughter Miriam, Mrs. Robbins is interested in social roles and status. She dislikes Harlem and would like to move to a better neighborhood. Phyllisia is rather scornful of the fact that she attempts to take part in her daughter's social affairs.

Carole Smith
A shy and quiet classmate whom Miss Lass shames in front of the entire class.




Critical Essays