Alfred Brooks The protagonist of the novel, Alfred hopes to transcend the repressive atmosphere of Harlem and find a worthwhile life for himself.
James Mosely Alfred's best friend, James descends into drug addiction as Alfred climbs toward maturity.
Aunt Pearl Conway James' mother's sister. Pearl provides a home and spiritual base for Alfred; she works as a domestic for a white family, the Elversens.
Charlene, Sandra, and Paula Aunt Pearl's giggly daughters provide a family for Alfred.
Aunt Dorothy and Uncle Wilson Pearl's sister and her husband. Their family lives in the suburbs and provides Alfred with a look at a very different kind of life.
Cousin Jeff Aunt Dorothy and Uncle Wilson's college-educated son, who brings significant encouragement and friendship to Alfred near the novel's end.
Diane Jeff's younger sister; a cousin and friend to Pearl's daughters.
Major The primary antagonist of the novel, Major leads the gang and confronts Alfred until the protagonist sees him for the bully and coward that Major is.
Hollis, Sonny, and Justin As gang members, they are subservient to Major.
Mr. (Vito) Donatelli Owner and head manager at the gym, he serves as Alfred's mentor.
Clarence "Bud" Martin Donatelli's top assistant, he supports and critiques Alfred.
Henry Johnson Disabled by a childhood bout with polio, Henry is a rising apprentice trainer with special devotion to Alfred.
Bill "Spoon" Witherspoon A former fighter who has become a schoolteacher, Spoon serves as exemplar while he encourages Alfred to finish his education.
Betty Witherspoon Bill's wife is also a teacher. She dislikes boxing but cheerfully helps Alfred prepare for his fights.
Dr. Corey A dentist whose office is in the same building as the gym, Dr. Corey makes Alfred's first mouthpiece, a significant rite of passage for the aspiring boxer.
Jelly Belly The rotund Jelly's real name is Horace Marshall Davenport, Jr. Jelly Belly provides comic relief and occasionally wise observations.
Red A bad example of attitude, he picks a fight with the elder but shrewder Bud Martin at Donatelli's Gym.
Angel and Jose The lighthearted Puerto Rican fighters are friends of and valuable sparring partners for Alfred.
Willie Streeter One of Donatelli's most promising fighters, he is an example of wasted potential as he loses to Junius Becker, fails to train properly, and drops out of sight.
Elston Hubbard Easily the best of Alfred's opponents, Hubbard dominates the first two rounds but gets all he can handle from Alfred in the third.
Lou, Jake, and Ben Epstein The brothers own the grocery where Alfred works as a clerk; Lou was once a fighter known as "Lightning Lou Epp" and is especially concerned about Alfred.
Harold and Lynn These young black nationalists attempt to recruit Alfred and suggest that he help with recreation programs for black children in the community.
Reverend Price and Sister Lucille The storefront preacher and his wife put on a lively Sunday service; he later convinces Aunt Pearl to allow Alfred to pursue boxing.