The Characters

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Like One of the Family is dominated by the character of Mildred Johnson, not just because she is the only person whose thoughts are presented firsthand but, more important, because of the quality of her mind. It is this which produces the suspense in a book that has no real plot; one is drawn from paragraph to paragraph, page to page, simply to find out what Mildred will say next. For example, in one of the few chapters set outside of the apartment building, “Ridin’ the Bus,” Mildred surprises Marge by insisting on riding in the back of the bus, as African Americans had so often been forced to do. In the observations that follow, Mildred produces a brilliant discussion of freedom as the principle that enables both African Americans and whites to ride where they like. She then gives a definition of an ideal society as one in which people not only sit where they like but also choose their seats without even noticing the race of others. In every chapter, there are similar illustrations of Mildred’s intellectual abilities, her skill in analyzing and synthesizing, her genius at seeing the profound implications of the simplest action.

Mildred’s friend Marge is also essential to the novel. It is Marge, the accepting and trustworthy listener, who permits Mildred to speak with perfect freedom, whether she is indulging in fantasy, such as her dream of a Christmas of real peace, or exploring controversial subjects, such as the idea of a union for...

(The entire section is 473 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Mildred Johnson

Mildred Johnson, a thirty-two-year-old African American woman, originally from the South, now living in a three-room apartment in New York City and earning her living doing housework for white families. Her character is developed in a series of one-sided conversations, primarily with her friend Marge. Many of these conversations concern Mildred’s experiences as a day maid in a variety of white homes. Mildred encounters many stereotypical assumptions about African Americans in these homes, but her responses are not what one would expect of a domestic servant in the mid-1950’s. In the first conversation, from which the book takes its name, Mrs. C. has been holding forth to a friend on Mildred being “like one of the family.” After delivering a litany of the ways in which she is not “like the family,” Mildred notes that after having worked herself into a sweat all day, “I do not feel like no weekend house guest. I feel like a servant.” She then asks her speechless employer for a raise. At other times, she is less direct but no less effective. In “The Pocketbook Game,” she holds her peace “for months” as Mrs. E. keeps her handbag close to her whenever Mildred is in her apartment. She finally has her opportunity when Mrs. E. sends her on an errand. Mildred reports to Marge that she had waited in the hall a few minutes, then frantically rushed back into the apartment to get her own purse. When the embarrassed Mrs. E. says that she hopes Mildred does not think Mrs. E. distrusts her, the sassy Mildred cuts her off, saying that she understands, “ ’cause if I paid anybody as little as you pay me, I’d hold my pocketbook, too.” Mildred’s interests...

(The entire section is 695 words.)