Uncle Tom's Children Characters
by Richard Wright

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Uncle Tom's Children Characters

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

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The characters in Uncle Tom's Children struggle against an environment of racial animosity that pushes them toward savagery. Through their efforts to resist this process, Wright's black protagonists attain varying degrees of self-awareness at the cost of physical and mental suffering. Ironically, some achieve a momentary vision of freedom and a better understanding of themselves only at the point of death. Their determination, despite overwhelming opposition and terrible suffering, makes them tragically doomed heroes. The arrangement of the stories presents the reader with a rough progression of increasing sophistication, as characters achieve more advanced levels of knowledge and move toward collective solutions to their social problems.

"Big Boy Leaves Home" describes Big Boy's initiation to the harsh social reality of the rural South. The story moves from the playful innocence of a day at the swimming hole to the brutal execution of one of Big Boy's companions by a white mob. Similarly, Big Boy is forced to change from an overgrown child into an emotionally hardened young man who calmly kills a rattlesnake and a dog before escaping the South and his childhood in a truck bound for Chicago.

In "Down by the Riverside," the symbolically named Brother Mann is a sacrificial character caught in a devastating flood and then destroyed by a racist system of justice that values property more than human life. Mann steals and murders to save others, but he cannot kill merely to protect himself from incrimination. Mann's heroic effort to preserve life is, in the end, as futile as any single man's effort to hold back the flood.

The two central characters in "Long Black Song" portray opposing reactions to oppression. Silas, embittered by the infidelity of his wife and the frustrations of chasing the bourgeois dream of ownership in a social system that does not treat him equitably, realizes that, "The white folks ain never gimme a chance! They ain never give no black man a chance!" The story concludes with a gunfight between Silas and several white men, and although Silas is murdered, he briefly experiences a sense of manhood and freedom. His wife Sarah, from whose perspective the story is told, embodies the enduring strength of southern blacks, their ability to suffer and survive.

Reverend Taylor, the central figure in "Fire and Cloud," is a leader of the black community, a man who has won influence through accommodations with the white establishment. A revelatory beating administered at night by white thugs finally convinces Taylor that whites will never willingly give up their oppressive ways. Taylor is the only protagonist in Uncle Tom's Children who triumphs, for he realizes that he must abandon his individualism and join in collective action.

Aunt Sue in "Bright and Morning Star" has been convinced by her Marxist sons that the Communist vision of heaven on earth is the reasonable equivalent of Christian salvation. Her heroic murder of an informer who is about to reveal the names of other Communist sympathizers is a selfless act undertaken for the collective good.

Thus, Wright's characters portray three phases of development: the full awareness of oppression, individual efforts to strike back, and collective actions to change the system.