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 Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — about a bad firefighting deal with a wealthy neighboring town — is here.