Marguerite "Maya" Johnson The tall, vibrant, gifted daughter of divorced parents who lives with her paternal grandmother in the racist, unreconstructed milieu of Stamps, Arkansas. Delighting in books, which appeal to her braininess and provide escape from tedium, rigidity, and unfairness that permeate her world, Maya survives rape, but exists under an aura of guilt. Unable to bond with her flamboyant father or to mediate between her willful mother and equally willful brother, Maya copes haphazardly with familial unrest, often at the expense of peace of mind. Her coming of age, marked by doubts about the normalcy of her incipient womanhood, ends with the birth of a son, with whom she finally rediscovers a feeling of wholeness.
Bailey "Ju" Johnson, Junior Maya's small, intense, well-read older brother, who protects and cheers her during the worst of their Stamps internment. Adept at stealing pickles from the barrel, imitating ludicrous church scenarios, and inveigling young girls into his backyard tent, Bailey remains the focal point of Maya's loyalty, the mooring to which she clings when threatened by an unstable and sometimes hostile environment. On his departure from home, he lovingly offers to care for Maya if she chooses to come along. At sea with the Merchant Marines, he remains in close contact with his sister, particularly during her pregnancy.
Momma Henderson Former wife of Mr. Johnson, Mr. Henderson, and Mr. Murphy, Sister Annie Henderson, for twenty-five years the lone black female entrepreneur of Stamps, Arkansas, tackles daily jobs with biblical ardor and determination and never answers "questions directly put to her on any subject except religion." Eking a Depression Era living by selling fried meat pies and lemonade to local sawmill and cotton mill workers, she accepts government-issue powdered eggs and milk and canned fish in trade for store items, thereby maintaining solvency during hard times. Although poor in worldly goods and bereft of power, Annie is rich in the esteem of local people, both black and white.
Daddy Bailey Johnson A sanguine, conceited man vain enough to send his exiled children his picture as a Christmas gift. Speaking affected but proper English, Big Bailey, a former doorman at the Breakers Hotel in Santa Monica and later a dietician at a naval hospital in southern California, looms larger than Maya can take in. A definite contrast to his stuttering, crippled brother and to the "peasants of Arkansas," Bailey serves temporarily as hero and rescuer after Dolores knifes Maya in the side. Failing his string of promises to Dolores, he marries Alberta.
Vivian Baxter Affectionately known as Bibbie, Vivian, who is "Mother Dear" to her children, captivates Maya with her bold red lipstick, white teeth, Lucky Strikes, and "fresh-butter color [that] looked see-through clean." Not too prim to bash in Pat Patterson's head with a police club or shoot a two-timing business partner with her .32, she is the most lighthearted of the grim, vindictive Baxters and covers her criminal acts with a nonchalant charm, fairness, and gaiety that bobs this side of reality, walling her off from guilt at sending her children away during crucial stages of their lives. Trained as a nurse, she earns her living "cutting poker games in gambling parlors," sometimes to the detriment of her children.
Uncle Willie Anchored to a rubber-tipped cane and shaped like a "giant black Z" from being dropped by a babysitter when he was three years old, Uncle Willie suffers a withered left hand and distortion of muscles that pull down the left side of his face. Even more painful are the gibes of jokesters who ridicule his impairment. To facilitate counter work at the store, he leans on a special shelf. His desire for upright manhood strikes compassion in Maya.
Grandfather Baxter Speaking his choppy West Indian dialect, Grandfather Baxter, ever in the shadow of his politically astute wife, contrasts her "throaty German accent." An invalid from the mid-1930s, he continues receiving his grandchildren at his bedside and dies a few years after Maya's return to Stamps.
Grandmother Baxter A quadroon or octoroon, Grandmother Baxter, raised by Germans in Cairo, Illinois, was working as a nurse at Homer G. Phillips Hospital when she met Grandfather Baxter. A doughty, pragmatic precinct leader who conducts shady dealings in a thick German dialect with gracious, ladylike manners, Grandmother operates so smoothly that she glides over the matter of Mr. Freeman's murder and on to her granddaughter's health as if a gangland-style execution were business as usual. When Maya next encounters her, Grandmother Baxter, ramrod straight and adorned with pince-nez glasses, suffers chronic bronchitis and continues to smoke heavily while sharing her granddaughter's bed.
Baxter Uncles Vivian's three older brothers — Tutti, Tom, and Ira, the oldest — notable young men with jobs in St. Louis, stand out from younger brother, Billy, by their "unrelenting meanness," which compels them to avenge Maya's rape by kicking Mr. Freeman to death. Uncle Tommy, gruff like his father, consoles Maya for not being pretty by reminding her that she is smart.
Daddy Clidell The conservative, unassuming husband Vivian marries shortly after World War II begins. A successful but poorly educated property owner from Slaten, Texas, he is the first real father in Maya's life and teaches her to play "poker, blackjack, tonk and high, low, Jick, Jack and the Game."
Reverend Howard Thomas Texarkana resident who presides as church elder over the district including Stamps. Hated by Maya and Bailey for being ugly, fat, and pompous, he freeloads meals from Annie. During one Sunday morning worship, his teeth fall out while he duels with Sister Monroe during her violent response to his evangelism.
Sister Monroe An energetic, shouting churchgoer who makes up for infrequent attendance by jostling the minister and urging him to "Preach it!"
Miz Ruth, Miz Helen, Miz Eloise Young lower-class white girls who mock Annie Henderson by imitating her posture. The tallest one does a handstand in the dust, revealing her bare backside as an extra dollop of disrespect.
Mrs. Bertha Flowers A cool, thin, black-skinned Stamps matron who, with her voile dresses, flowered hats, and white gloves, embodies a refined, ladylike grace that is the antithesis of local squalor and misery. As baker of tea cookies, reader of Dickens, and representative of what Momma calls "settled people," Mrs. Flowers is an appropriate antidote to Maya's poignant self-loathing.
Viola Cullinan Maya's white acquisitive and tradition-bound employer and the barren wife of Mr. Cullinan, who fathered the Coleman girls, two attractive daughters of a Stamps black woman. Perceiving herself as Virginia-born elite, Mrs. Cullinan precipitates an early burst of rebellion in Maya by renaming her Mary, thereby denying her personhood. Shrieking for her mother's forgiveness, Mrs. Cullinan offers comic relief by wallowing among the fragments of her ruined dinnerware.
Louise Kendricks Louise, the daughter of a domestic worker, is a lonely girl and fellow ten year old who shares Maya's dreamy romanticism as well as the Tut language, a secret child's language. Loss of Louise's friendship is Maya's sole regret in departing from Stamps.
Tommy Valdon Maya's first male admirer, an eighth-grader who, without knowledge of her past, reawakens shreds of rape trauma.
Joyce A sexually precocious fourteen year old who seduces ten-year-old Bailey, instigating his petty thievery of sardines, Polish sausage, cheese, and canned salmon from the store, then runs away to Dallas, Texas, to marry a railroad porter, one of a group of Elks that she met in Momma's store.
George Taylor A recent widower after forty years of marriage to wife Florida. Mr. Taylor, owlish, bald, wizened, and pathetic, visits Annie Henderson's house at suppertime to tell about a request for children from his wife's ghost.
Mr. Edward Donleavy A condescending white politician from Texarkana who patronizes Maya's graduating class by stereotyping their heroes as athletes and limiting their horizons to mundane trades, then exits the stage to attend to more important matters in the white world.
Henry Reed Valedictorian of the 1940 graduating class of Lafayette County Training School. Raised by his grandmother and trained by his teachers in elocution, he earns Maya's qualified regard for reciting "To Be or Not To Be" from Shakespeare's Hamlet, then lifts the general mood by leading his class in an impromptu singing of the black national anthem, James Weldon Johnson's "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing."
Mr. Freeman A large, flabby Southerner who unashamedly worships Vivian, his paramour, following her out of the room with adoring eyes. A foreman for the Southern Pacific Railroad, Mr. Freeman spends his life waiting for Vivian's return. Faceless, sinister, and smelling of coal dust and grease, he sexually abuses eight-year-old Maya, then rapes her. After stopping by her bed to repeat his threat against her brother if she reveals his crimes, Mr. Freeman departs from Vivian's house. His murder, although grisly, seems well deserved.
Miss Kirwin Maya's civics and current events teacher at George Washington High School in San Francisco. A twenty-year veteran with memorable stature and "battleship-gray hair," she impresses Maya by respecting teenagers enough to refer to them as "ladies and gentlemen."
Red Leg Along with Just Black, Stonewall Jimmy, Cool Clyde, and Tight Coat, Red Leg, a quick-witted underworld friend of Daddy Clidell, entertains Maya with a long-winded story of how he conned a Tulsa cracker.
Dolores Stockland Bailey Johnson's prim, pretentious small-framed girl friend, who interrupts her meticulous sewing of kitchen curtains to vent her temper and jealousy on Maya by stabbing her in the side.
Bootsie A tall boy who serves as spokesman for the rules of the junkyard commune where Maya lives. He maintains group finances by keeping everyone's earnings and doling them out equitably.
Lee Arthur The only member of the junkyard commune who lives at home. Lee welcomes the gang to his house on Friday evenings for baths.