Secondary Characters of Color Can Be First in Reader Hearts

On October 2, 1967 — 55 years ago today — Thurgood Marshall was sworn in as a U.S. Supreme Court justice, becoming the first African American chosen for that prestigious position following a long career as a prominent civil-rights advocate. Still, though Marshall had more smarts, accomplishments, and moral stature than virtually anyone to ever serve on the Supreme Court, he was always an Associate Justice — never Chief Justice — before retiring in 1991.

The anniversary of Marshall’s 1967 elevation made me think of supporting characters of color in novels, so I’m going to do a post about that after having written about various lead characters of color in a number of previous posts over the years.

I just read The Judge’s List, another ultra-compelling legal thriller by John Grisham, and a memorable supporting character — the 2021 novel’s co-star, really, to Florida Board on Judicial Conduct investigator Lacy Stoltz — is an African-American woman named Jeri Crosby. Her professor father was murdered by a serial killer who’s also a sitting judge (!), and she’s spent over two decades trying to out that psychopath — slowly making more progress in her brilliant amateur investigation than any police department in the various states where the crimes were committed. It’s noteworthy that Grisham makes Crosby’s color almost irrelevant; some white authors focus too hard on a “minority” character’s race and/or ethnicity. Ms. Crosby is basically depicted as a fascinating person dealing with lots of trauma, which definitely gets upped when the serial killer starts pursuing HER.

Speaking of thrillers, a key Black supporting character in Lee Child’s riveting Jack Reacher debut novel Killing Floor is Oscar Finlay, the intellectual chief of detectives in a southern town. (By the way, he’s played to perfection by Malcolm Goodwin in the Reacher TV series that began earlier this year. I haven’t watched any episodes in their entirety, but HAVE seen many clips on YouTube, and the show is absolute catnip for fans of Child’s books — with Alan Ritchson totally embodying Reacher himself.)

Sticking with crime fiction for one more example, we have J.K. Rowling’s first Cormoran Strike novel The Cuckoo’s Calling. The two major supporting characters of color in that excellent book are supermodel Lulu Landry and fashion designer Guy Somé.

In the general-fiction realm, the parents of teen-girl protagonist Starr Carter are quite well-drawn in Angie Thomas’ intense The Hate U Give. Lisa is Starr’s strict but loving mom who works as a nurse, while dad Maverick is an outspoken grocery store owner with a striking past.

Turning to more literary fiction, we have the eccentric, independent Pilate Dead in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon; the feisty and rebellious but insecure biracial teen Irie Jones in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth; the saddened-by-life-and-marriage Elizabeth Grimes in James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On the Mountain; and Queequeg the charismatic harpooner in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.

Among the many other supporting characters of color who leave a strong impression are scientist/professor Ovid Byron of Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, Brenda Peoples the real-estate partner with political aspirations in Fannie Flagg’s I Still Dream About You, and — to circle back to the courtroom and a Grisham novel — the memorable Judge Harry Roosevelt in The Client.

Any thoughts or examples related to this topic?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for every Thursday. The latest piece — about a bad firefighting deal with a wealthy neighboring town — is here.

80 thoughts on “Secondary Characters of Color Can Be First in Reader Hearts

  1. Dave , “The Racketeer” , a legal thriller by John Grisham .
    This became the best seller in NYT. .
    What a book !
    Malcolm Bannister, a middle-aged former Marine, is an attorney in small-town Virginia, was a talk about a movie but Mr Grisham was so hung up on Denzel, the movie was never made.

    The novel begins halfway through Bannister’s prison sentence.
    The Racketeer is a classic example of a revenge story. The main character is wronged early.

    The book was such a fantastic thriller I did buy the book.
    Now I am thinking of taking the book out from my shelf and re-read it again.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Thanks for suggesting The judge’s list and already found the eBook version. so awaiting to read further on that story. The way you’ve descried each suggestion was influential as usual. Thanks Dave for sharing this article with us.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Queequeg has already rated a mention, so I’ll move on to a secondary character of color who is, unlike many others cited, secondary but among others of his kind: Raymond ‘Mouse’ Alexander, short-fused psycho sidekick of Walter Moseley’s Easy Ed Rollins character. Mouse is, as might be expected, small and slight of build, but is possessed of an uncompromising nature. He can be depended upon to provide conclusions of a sudden and violent sort to seemingly difficult, even intractable situations, often without notice, except to the injured party, upon delivery. Suppose, for example, an adversary has threatened to kill our hero. Easy Ed will consider this circumstance from a few angles, and will in that time, develop a reasonable, sometimes complex strategy to handle the threat– yet, upon the arrival of Mouse, a simpler solution often appears: shoot the adversary as soon as you can draw your pistol. Mouse doesn’t blink and Mouse doesn’t miss.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, jhNY! I’ve only read the first two of Walter Mosley’s “Easy” Rawlins series, but I thought both novels were excellent and that the “Mouse” character was quite memorable in his menace and more. Loved your vivid description of him!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Dave, an interesting topic as always. I don’t read much modern literature, but the characters I can think of, off hand, are Mike Hanlon in Stephen King’s IT, Dick Halloran in Stephen King’s The Shining, Umbopa, or Ignosi, in King Solomon’s Mines (warning, it is a book written by a colonialist, but it’s depictions of Africa are gorgeous). I’ll think some more on this as I am sure there must be many more but I can’t think of them now.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Do you remember the line: “They call me MISTER TIBBS!” The first book that came to mind when I read your post was “In the Heat of the Night by John Dudley Ball Jr, who introduced Virgil Tibbs in this 1956 novel. What an opportune time for this novel. Consider what was happening in 1965: the civil rights marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama; Malcolm X’s assassination at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem; and the Watts Riots. Most of us know the story through the Oscar-winning film “In the Heat of the Night”, starring Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger.

    I just downloaded the 50th Anniversary edition via Kindle to reread. Another great post and follow-up discussion, Dave.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. A lot of the ones I was going to mention have already been said – “East of Eden” and “Huck Finn” primarily 🙂 You also left me with a lot of titles to add to my list in this week’s post! Especially Toni Morrison I really need to read more of her work. And the Hate U Give is one of those books that has always stuck with me, I still think of it often even though I read it a few years back. Have you read the prequel by chance? I think it’s called Concrete Rose and follows the father in his younger days. I haven’t read it yet but really need to!

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, M.B.! “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “East of Eden” are worth mentioning again. 🙂

      I’ve gotten to just three Toni Morrison novels — “Beloved,” “Sula,” and “Song of Solomon.” Need to read at least a couple more…

      I also haven’t read the prequel to “The Hate U Give.” I’m sure it’s good. The dad Maverick is certainly a very interesting guy.

      Liked by 3 people

  7. I know I’ve mentioned her before, but Mammy in “Gone With the Wind”
    I also know there are many issues with that book, but Mammy was my fave character, strong, loving and even belligerent.

    I must mention Tom Robinson in “To Kill a Mockingbird”.
    My examples aren’t as up to date as yours. Still, I think they count!

    Adore the Queequeg mention.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thank you, Resa! Yes, Mammy was a memorable character — even with all the baggage connected with her “job,” the virulent racism of her time and place, and Margaret Mitchell’s problematic depiction of her.

      Great mention of Tom Robinson!!!

      I’m also a member of the Queequeg Fan Club. 🙂

      Liked by 3 people

      • “Problematic” depiction? It accorded perfectly with the times, including those of Mitchell. You expected Margaret Mitchell to take up Harriet Tubman’s cause or something? She showed the times of the Civil War, but never claimed that the slaves’ depiction was accurate. The focus of the novel was the slave owners and their perspectives. Gone with the Wind was never supposed to be some kind of Solomon Northup autobiography.

        Liked by 2 people

        • Thank you for the comment, Diana. Fair points. Margaret Mitchell was indeed depicting things from the perspective(s) of white southern characters — including slave holders — in the Civil War era. Still, it was a conscious choice on her part not to nod a tiny bit more to that era’s African-American perspective, Union perspective, and abolitionist perspective. As for Mitchell also reflecting the time she wrote “Gone With the Wind” (the 1930s), there is certainly a lot of truth to that. But a few writers — Black and white — did better even during that 1930-40 decade (including Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, and William Faulkner, to name three).

          Liked by 1 person

      • Didn’t read “Reflections..” But saw the movie with Brando and Taylor, and it was terrific; however, I should read the book now. I am a big fan of McCullers. I did find a book by Ray Bradbury that I also wanted to read “The Other Foot” about segregation between the the black colony and white colony who settled on Mars. BTW I know this is off topic, but since I had mentioned Leonard Cohen in my comment in your last post re: the west. I want to share with you a new book which includes some of his writing:
        I read Beautiful Losers, but scarcely remember it; it was so long ago (1970s). For some odd reason, I remember a book by Capote, which included a black secondary character or perhaps it was Tennessee Williams instead. Geezaloo, where did I put my brain? Ha.

        Liked by 3 people

        • Never saw the “Reflections” movie, Susi. Definitely a couple of major co-stars! And that book by Ray Bradbury sounds fascinating! Nice that he was a liberal writer and person. Re the end of your comment, sometimes the brains of all of us are on Mars. 🙂

          Liked by 2 people

  8. Dave I am so glad you read “The Judge’s List” and liked it.
    I`ll be back.
    BTW almost October and as you might guess ” Jack Reacher”, book time.
    I only have regular TV stations anything extra would cost me a whole lot of money, so I miss the new Reacher sadly.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Bebe! Very glad you recommended “The Judge’s List”!

      Greatly looking forward to the next Reacher book — every fall like clockwork. 🙂

      I also don’t have cable or any other way to watch shows other than on a basic TV. But seeing some “Reacher” clips on YouTube is exciting.

      Liked by 3 people

      • Dave ” Gone with the Wind”, is a wonderful epic Novel in 1936 by Margaret Mitchell. Also a blockbuster movie. But lately there is a lot of criticism of the novel for being racially insensitive.

        Liked by 3 people

  9. Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee are two of my favorite characters. As members of the Navajo Nation, their heritage and culture figure strongly in the plots of “Listening Woman,” “Sacred Clowns,” and other novels written by Tony Hillerman. Beautifully written.

    Tony Hillerman, who is white, was made an honorary member of the tribe in appreciation for his realistic and respectful depiction of the Dine people and culture.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thank you, vanaltman! Excellent mentions! I’ve read a couple of Tony Hillerman novels — “The Blessing Way” and “People of Darkness” — and those books, and the characters you mentioned, are indeed quite interesting!

      Liked by 4 people

  10. What struck me as interesting about most of your examples is that I remember the books and the characters but don’t remember their skin color. To me, that suggests that the characters were compelling for their other qualities, for who they were as people.

    I liked your lines: “It’s noteworthy that Grisham makes Crosby’s color almost irrelevant; some white authors focus too hard on a “minority” character’s race and/or ethnicity. Ms. Crosby is basically depicted as a fascinating person…”

    I love books that do that. Race continues to be a factor in our world, and we have a long way to go. The struggles of racial minorities for dignity and fairness are worthy of literature, but it’s also great to read stories where race isn’t a factor and characters shine, simply for who they are on the inside. 🙂 Great post with lots to think about.

    Liked by 5 people

  11. Sometimes a great screenplay poses as literature 🙂 The story which came to mind immediately upon reading your post, Dave, was the movie, Something the Lord Made. It’s the true story of Vivien Thomas who was ‘literally’ the ‘secondary’ but essential and necessary ‘character’ in it. He was skillfully portrayed by hip hop artist and actor Mos Def. He played second fiddle (and experimental heart surgeon) to Alfred Blalock (actor Alan Rickman). Excellent screenplay, film, and true story which focuses on prejudice in society and medicine in the 1940’s. If it weren’t for Blalock’s professional authority and overbearing personality, Thomas would be considered the primary character. In reality, they were an unacknowledged team.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thank you, Mary Jo! I agree that the better screenplays can be considered literature in a way, and the “Something the Lord Made” one you skillfully describe sounds like a good, really interesting example of that. And, yes, a great supporting character can become essentially the co-star or even the star of a story.

      Liked by 4 people

  12. The Chinese servant Lee in Steinbeck’s “East of Eden” is a notable secondary character of color. However, since I am of Chinese ethnicity, I find him somewhat of a stereotype.

    Liked by 4 people

  13. Not Literature with a capital “L” here, but one character that comes to mind is Dick Hallorann, the chef at the Overlook hotel, who recognizes Danny’s psychic abilities and comes to his rescue at the end of Stephen King’s The Shining.

    Liked by 3 people

  14. In “The Secret Life of Bees” by Sue Monk Kidd, a young white girl goes on a quest to learn more about her dead mother. She leaves town with a black woman who had gotten into trouble standing up for herself while trying to vote, and in their travels they eventually meet a very interesting family of black female bee keepers. Such interesting characters!

    Liked by 3 people

  15. Another wonderful post, Dave! I’m recalling another Grisham work: “A Time to Kill.” In this book, race is central and figures prominently. The supporting characters include the teenage rape victim, her father, and a sheriff. They are a stark contrast to the heartless whites racist rapists. A difficult read, but strong characters.

    Liked by 4 people

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s