Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1804
Sister Birdie Lee
Birdie Lee is a “little old lady” who is called to God during one of the Reed Sisters’ street corner services. She had followed God in her younger days, but since then she “backslid, backslid, backslid.” Now she has determined to stay on the path of righteousness. As is typical in this kind of service, Birdie Lee shouts out her story, or “testifies,” right in the middle of Laura’s preaching. She grabs the tambourine, sings a song of praise, and shakes the tambourine “so well that the whole corner started to rock and sway, feet to patting, hands to clapping.” From that moment, she is a member of the church, and from that moment Laura resents her, because Laura perceives Birdie Lee as competition. Birdie Lee is a faithful member of the church, helping with the scrubbing when they move the church into the apartment, and joining in the rejoicing when Crow-for- Day is converted. In the end, her weak bladder proves Laura’s undoing, when a need to rush to the toilet puts Birdie Lee in a position to witness Buddy’s murder. Birdie Lee saves Essie from prison and makes up for all her past sins by promising to testify once more and tell what she saw.
C. J. is a young Christian boy who plays guitar in the band at the Tambourine Temple. He is in his first year at City College, studying chemistry, and is sweet and polite if a little dull. When Marietta comes to Harlem, he is the natural one to court her. As the two fall in love, C. J. struggles, with Marietta’s firm insistence, to keep his lust under control. By the end of the novel, the two are engaged to be married.
Chicken Crow-for-Day—tall, thin, and aged sixty-five—is the first person converted after the Reed Sisters open their church indoors. By his own account, he has been a life-long sinner, who spent his time drinking, gambling and chasing women. Dramatically, as he announces his salvation before a crowd, he pulls a pistol and a knife out of his pockets and flings them through the window into the street. With the support of the congregation, he apparently does change his life. Crow-for-Day stays with the church as it grows, eventually earning the titles “Brother” and “Deacon.”
Essie Belle Johnson
Essie Belle Johnson is an unemployed woman of about forty, living on welfare in Harlem. She came up North from Richmond, Virginia, years ago, and has been trying ever since to get together enough money to bring her daughter to live with her. Essie does not have much education or many skills, and she is passive, prone to sitting and staring at the wall in “long, long, very long pauses,” but she has a beautiful singing voice. When she and her friend Laura start to joke about starting a church as a way to raise money, Essie thinks and prays about it and makes a sincere connection with God. She and Laura do form a church, with Laura preaching and Essie singing, and they make a success of it. Even before she decided to pray, Essie lived a quiet life. She did not drink or gamble or chase men. Her only close tie was with Laura, who lived quite a different life. For five years, Essie and Laura have been neighbors and friends, sharing scraps of food and looking after each other in spite of their differences. Now that they are the Reed Sisters, partners in the church, Essie is less comfortable with Laura’s sins. She prays that Laura will find God, and she scolds Laura about her behavior, but she does not try to exert any control over Laura’s actions. Essie refuses to take any of the money from the phony Holy Water, but neither does she speak against the scheme.
The church grows larger and more successful, and Essie sees this as a sign that her work is blessed by God. With every hymn she sings, her faith grows deeper. She turns her energy inward, into private study of the Bible and of religious writers, and withdraws emotionally from Laura. After Buddy starts sleeping at the new apartment with Laura, and Marietta arrives, the distance between the women increases until Essie and Marietta take a small house outside Harlem. It is not until Laura kills Buddy and frames Essie for the crime that Essie realizes her passiveness has worked against God’s plans for her. “I should have riz in my wrath and cleaned house,” she thinks, instead of “just setting doing nothing but accepting what comes, receiving the Lord’s blessing whilst the eagle foulest His nest.” When Essie is released from jail and returns to the church without Laura, she is a new woman, full of energy and plans for the future.
Marietta is Essie’s daughter. She has grown up in Richmond, Virginia, in the home of her grandmother, and has not lived with her mother for more than two of her sixteen years. Essie’s greatest wish has been to get enough money together to bring Marietta to live with her, and after about a year of running the church she is able to send for her. In June of the second summer, after school gets out, Marietta comes North on the Greyhound Bus, as so many people have before her. She is polite, wellmannered, fresh and pretty; to Buddy she looks like “a tiny, a well-formed, a golden-skinned, a delicatefeatured, a doll-handed, a pretty-as-a-picture, a blossoming peaches-and-cream of a girl.” Buddy tries to move in on Marietta on her first day in Harlem, but Essie thinks the Christian boy C. J. is a better match for her. Although she found Buddy’s passion exciting, Marietta agrees. Marietta and C. J. begin a swift but chaste courtship, and by the final chapter Marietta is already planning to begin nursing studies in the fall and to marry C. J.
“Big-Eyed” Buddy Lomax is the latest in Laura’s string of young men. One night after services, Buddy walks down the church aisle and asks Laura to go out for a drink. He takes her to the Roma Gardens, which seems very elegant to Laura, and he is handsome, “a six-foot, a tower-tall, a brownskin, a large-featured, a big-handed, handsome lighthouse-grinning chocolate boy of a man.” Like Laura, he likes flashy cars and clothes, he likes to drink and gamble, and he is as charming as he is dishonest. Together the two scheme to get more money from the church through the sale of phony Holy Water and through announcing “lucky texts” from the Bible that are really coded messages for playing the numbers. Only Laura believes that Buddy really loves her and is faithful to her; others can see that he is casually sexy and sexist in his dealings with her, crudely praising her large breasts and using her for sex when there are no younger women available. To keep his favor, Laura buys Buddy new clothes and a car, and gives him cash that he spends on gambling and on entertaining other women. When Marietta comes to town, Buddy makes a play for her with Laura and Essie in the next room, and Laura sees him kissing Marietta. Soon afterwards, Buddy steals a hundred dollars from Laura’s purse. She confronts him in the basement of the church, and he cruelly reminds her of the difference in their ages, and admits that he stays with her only because of her money. When he pulls her in for a kiss, Laura stabs him to death with Essie’s knife.
Marty is the white man behind Buddy’s schemes, the man who can pull strings and get things done. He is able to get an apartment for Essie and Laura, putting them ahead of people who have been waiting longer. He arranges for them to take possession of the fire-trap theater with no inspections or licenses. Later, when his illegal numbers operation is doing poorly in Harlem, he improves his business by having Laura announce “lucky texts” during church services, encouraging the congregation to bet on the numbers in Bible verses. Marty is never seen or heard from directly in the novel—all of his communications come through Buddy.
Laura Reed is Essie Belle Johnson’s best friend, another woman from the South now living on welfare in Harlem. She is a little younger than Essie, with a good figure and a taste for life. She likes to drink and to gamble, and she has a string of men who pass through her life but do not stay. Laura does not really seem happy with her fast life, sharing her money and her body with men so that she will not be alone, but she does not dare slow down. When the women come up with the idea of starting a church, it is just a money-making idea for Laura. Her mother and her bootlegging stepfather did not raise her to be religious, and she does not believe in God now. But she sees no harm in taking money from those who do believe, if they are willing to give it, and she soon finds that the faithful are indeed willing to put their coins in the tambourine for a chance to be closer to God. After the first street corner service, when the women collect $11.93, Laura goes back on her promise to put all of the money toward a Bible; she takes out $3.93 for her “earthly needs”—some liquor and a bet.
The two women run the church as partners, although their motivations and their methods are as different as they could be. Laura is an effective preacher, but she does not mean anything she says from the pulpit. She uses her share of the money from the collections for gambling, clothes, highpriced liquor, a fur coat, a Cadillac, a chauffeur, and presents for Buddy, while Essie sets hers aside for the Lord’s work. Laura is eager to help Buddy by selling fake Holy Water and calling out the numbers of “lucky texts” to support the gamblers. She enjoys seeing her name in lights on the new church marquee, and has a wardrobe of shiny robes to wear while she is preaching. She loves having Buddy in her bed, and tries to believe she can trust him. Greedy for more money, she sees only Essie and Buddy standing in her way: “One’s too honest, and the other one ain’t honest enough.” Laura murders Buddy and tries to frame Essie for the crime. In the end, she is in jail, alone again, out of money, and still wanting a drink.
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