Themes and Characters

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Last Updated on May 14, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2358

Truth is the major theme of Walking to the Bus-Rider Blues. Twelve-year-old Alfa Merryfield is the protagonist who seeks to solve a mystery while bolstering his sense of pride in himself and his family. Named Alpha by his mother, which represents the first Greek letter, his name was often misspelled...

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Truth is the major theme of Walking to the Bus-Rider Blues. Twelve-year-old Alfa Merryfield is the protagonist who seeks to solve a mystery while bolstering his sense of pride in himself and his family. Named Alpha by his mother, which represents the first Greek letter, his name was often misspelled as Alfa which he accepted because he thought it was odd "being a second child named first." Ironically, Alfa's correct name truly identifies his role. Keenly aware that he is the man of the house, Alfa feels responsible to earn money to pay for necessities or pawn treasured belongings to insure that his great-grandmother and sister will not become homeless. He is intelligent, resourceful, curious, and creative. Like his great-grandmother, Alfa is tall, resulting in people assuming he is older than he actually is. His maturity enables him to plan his future and pursue his ambitions to become a doctor, stressing that "I was a scientist" when explaining his approach to comprehending life. He initiated finding, applying for, and securing his job at the grocery. Alfa wears a bow tie and tries to stay neat to present a professional image.

Alfa values education and considers it the means to escape poverty and become autonomous and free from oppression. He relies on the scientific method to solve the mysteries which confront him. His desire to learn is a theme throughout the book as Alfa develops his own intellect by studying books and gains knowledge from his experiences and the wisdom of his great-grandmother, sister, and other trusted adults such as his teacher. Alfa displays a variety of behaviors depending with whom he is interacting. He is sometimes submissive and cooperative to appease racist whites in order to avoid punishment and possible injury. Alone, he is independent and persistent. With his sister and friends, Alfa explores his surroundings and is assertive.

Embracing nonviolence, Alfa aspires to emulate Martin Luther King, Jr.'s ability to respond peacefully and not hatefully to white supremacy. He writes and sings "the Alabamy bus-rider blues," altering the lyrics to express he has "a bad case of rent money blues." Alfa frets that his family will be unable to pay their rent which is due in a few days. Someone has been taking the hard-earned money he and his sister and great-grandmother earn from their hiding places. Although emotional nurturing is ample at home and within the African- American community, the availability of food and sustenance are ever present concerns. The Merryfields often patch together meals from various food sources and work at diverse tasks only to earn low wages.

Uncertainty and worry are themes that Robinet develops. Alfa despairs that the family is unable to use banks because of segregationist policies and that they are stuck in a cycle which perpetuates the rent dilemma and prevents them from accumulating savings. He is determined to challenge white supremacy and change the "System," which is a character unto itself in this novel because it permeates everything and everyone. Racism is a basic theme of this book. Alfa proactively seeks to resolve his problems by facing them directly. He refuses to submit to his fears and logically assesses evidence. Alfa is not in denial and is cognizant of reality.

Limping because of a sore knee hurt in a fight with white bullies, Alfa also has a cut lip and injured eye which represents the stresses and resilience of the bus boycotters. Even though he is weakened, he will prevail. He emphasizes the theme of unity in which all Montgomery blacks will boycott the city buses until they can sit where they choose without being removed. Alfa wants to heal society, not provoke further strife. He capably mends wounded animals, setting a pigeon's broken leg and sawing off a wounded leg to save a dog's life which foreshadows the leg wounds he suffers when library guards beat him before Officer Newton offers long-denied remedies to fix Alfa's problems. Exoneration of false accusations represents Alfa's personal and social redemption.

Mama Merryfield personifies the themes of dignity, family, and loyalty. She has survived chronic economic deprivation but has been rewarded with the love and respect of her community. A Tuskegee Institute graduate, Big Mama stands six feet and six inches, describes herself as "Strong as an ox," and is kind to everyone. Almost ninety years old, she cleans houses to earn money to care for her great-grandchildren whose mother abandoned them. Her husband, Reverend Marcus Merryfield, was taller than his wife and respected for his preaching. The couple was known as "the Gentle Christian Giants," and people recalled them skillfully dancing the Charleston. Marcus died after contracting lockjaw during a flood, and Mama Merryfield took care of their three "gems," Diamond, Ruby, and Pearl. Mentioning that the two daughters died in an automobile accident suggests that at one time the Merryfields might have had access to more financial resources. Also, the love letters Alfa finds from his great-grandfather to Big Mama indicates that they valued literacy. Mama Merryfield reads the Bible and prays often.

Big Mama has fulfilled a nurturing role throughout her life, volunteering as a midwife and wet nurse for people who needed help with their babies. Whites respect Big Mama, whom they refer to as Aunt Lydia, because she "nursed them in sickness and cheered them in sorrow," and often whites' realization that Alfa is her descendant results in them ceasing racist behavior. Big Mama refuses to ride the bus even though most blacks would understand that walking is difficult for a woman of her age. She may have Alzheimer's disease, which was not known at that time, because she gets lost easily, sitting by the street waiting for help, and often does not recognize Alfa and Zinnia. Sometimes she seems to be in a fugue state perhaps due to exhaustion or as if she is unwilling to face reality. Yet, at other times, Big Mama's mind is clear such as making a map to help her navigate her way through Montgomery. When she begins to disrobe at the Williams's house, she upsets Officer Newton, whom she had nursed as a child, and stops his interrogation. Big Mama is self-reliant and has deep spiritual faith. She does not depend on others to support her or her great-grandchildren. She only gives the rent money to her blackmailers because she is afraid of losing Alfa and Zinnia when her blackmailers threaten to report her falsely for negligence. Big Mama calls the children her hope for the future.

Alfa's sister, Zinnia, is fifteen years old and works at a dry cleaners to contribute to the family's funds. She aspires to become a teacher and enjoys reading fiction, especially mysteries. Zinnia is bossy, businesslike, sometimes mean, and daring, loudly and publicly voicing her distaste for segregation. She likes to attend dances, swapping dresses with friends when she cannot earn extra money to buy new attire. Zinnia also walks to the white movie theater so she can see film stars' pictures on the posters because the black movie theater does not show those motion pictures. Zinnia believes that her mother will return for her someday. Her dreamy nature balances Alfa's realistic outlook so that they can combine their abilities to strengthen their pursuit of justice and resolve conflicts. Sometimes their roles reverse because Zinnia can see the reality such as warning Alfa that the pawnshop clerk would not pay him a fair price for their great-grandmother's frame. Together they emphasize the theme of intelligence. Although boys are interested in her, Zinnia ignores them to not be distracted from her plans to earn scholarships to nearby Alabama State College.

All three Merryfields are vulnerable to many antagonists. White characters are mostly derogatory and patronizing toward African Americans. Derisive and "faultfinding," Evans Greendale scolds Alfa that he must have a plan to deal with the bullies who torment Alfa. A former boxer, he is a "small, wiry man" who "looked ridiculous dancing around in the heat" with "fists jabbing the air." He accuses Alfa of being late to work when he is not and does not appreciate the care Alfa takes in displaying groceries and assuming tasks to carry heavy boxes. Mr. Greendale displays mixed messages to Alfa. Perhaps to show respect he calls Alfa by the more formal name Alfred, although sometimes he says Albert by mistake. He often permits Alfa to take home dented cans and other groceries. Mr. Greendale reveals his weakness when he has to cater to whites who suggest they will shop at other grocery stores if they are dissatisfied with his services. He fires Alfa when he asks for time to defend himself against accusations of thievery, but then is friendly and generous when he realizes Alfa is innocent.

The Merryfields and most Montgomery blacks rely on whites as a source of salaries. Dr. Silas L. Williams and his wife represent affluence and apathy. Although they should care about people's well-being because of Dr. Williams's profession, they are focused only on their own desires and interests. Mrs. Williams does not care that she humiliates the Merryfields to cover her own guilt and greed. Dr. Williams is more interested in protecting his wife's reputation than doing the right thing. He does not seem to feel indebted to Big Mama who had saved the life of his cousin, "carrying him to the hospital on her back when he had a heart attack." Paul Adams, Mrs. Williams's brother is present only by name and description, but he emphasizes Mrs. Williams's narcissistic tendencies. Emily Logan is as uncaring toward African Americans and self-absorbed as Mrs. Williams. She leaves Alfa in dust as she drives away, expecting him to deliver her groceries by walking and pulling a wagon instead of loading them in her car. Other whites in authority positions, including the gas station and pawnshop workers, demean Alfa when he tries to ask questions. In contrast, Dr. Williams's nurse helps Alfa and confides in him that she has not been paid. One of Emily Logan's white neighbors tells Alfa where Logan lives, and a white woman tells Alfa the names of bullies who assault him and steal his wages. Similarly, Louise Cook, the Williams's African- American maid, assists the Merryfields and gives them food.

Fear is a prevalent theme due to abusive and aloof policemen such as Officer Jimmy Newton who do not protect Alfa when bullies are beating him and the library guards who hit Alfa for merely entering the building. Officer Newton is gruff but ultimately treats Alfa more humanely than most of his white contemporaries. He is stirred to act compassionately when Mama Merryfield reminds him that she had helped save him during a breech birth and nursed him with her own milk. Officer Newton gives Alfa money because he realizes that the Williams will never pay the Merryfields. His unprofessional reaction to Alfa's evidence shows how whites protected whites during segregation.

Alfa fears three bullies, Raymond Baker, Luke Cook, and John Martin, but does not resort to violence and chooses to use his brains to deflect their hostility instead of his fists. He surprises them by introducing himself and calling them by name. In contrast, three white children, Donald, Turner, and Nancy, walk with him and say they will continue to walk until blacks are treated fairly. They address Alfa as their equal and wave goodbye to him, an unexpected social gesture from whites.

Undeveloped characters who serve as red herrings or offer resolution to unexplained mysteries include a woman who is probably Alfa's and Zinnia's "phantom mother," the man in gaudy, flashy clothes who accompanies her, and the loan shark, Mr. Plumber. Susan Merryfield, the daughter of Big Mama's son Diamond, is an unsavory character. A drug addict who loses large sums of money gambling, she remains distant and writes hateful letters asking for money, even though she says she made $10,000 but is in debt, and telling Big Mama to send Alfa and Zinnia to a workhouse because they are delinquents, but Big Mama knows who the real troublemaker in the family is. The unseen presence of the Merryfield's landlord, Mr. Harris, looms at the end of every month. He rents out most of the homes in Sundown and must be inflexible and unsympathetic towards his renters because of Alfa's fears of becoming homeless.

Historical figures are characters in Walking to the Bus-Rider Blues. Alfa hears Martin Luther King, Jr., who was a minister in Montgomery in 1956, urge blacks to reject mistreatment but to avoid physical confrontation. Alfa wants to avoid the tragic fate of Emmett Till, an African-American boy who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955 because some people thought he had spoken inappropriately to a white woman. He often reminds himself of Till's death to warn himself not to act too brashly because he knows most whites at that time do not value black males.

Animals are important characters. Alfa reminds himself to be deliberate like a turtle slowly crossing a yard. He saves the pigeon he names Blue Boy and salvages popcorn from a dumpster to feed him. Blue Boy is Alfa's consistent friend, not caring about his race or socioeconomic status. The bird permits him to stroke his feathers and trusts him, eating popcorn from Alfa's ear. Blue Bird always seems to fly to Alfa's shoulder when he needs comfort. He also saves the life of a dog and befriends other dogs in his neighborhood, pondering how anyone could spend money on a dog when there were so many stray dogs that need homes. This comment underscores Alfa's worries about becoming homeless when so many people in Montgomery are prosperous and could pay their workers more fairly. He often fantasizes about being able to take flight or having a flock of birds defend him. At the prayer meeting, Alfa was so inspired that he stated "I felt like rising on wings like a bird." Alfa's ability to heal animals with rudimentary tools such as toothpicks and a hacksaw reveal his competency and potential to become a physician. African Americans in his community recognize his skills and publicly state that he would be a good doctor.

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