Celie (Whoopi Goldberg) and Shug (Margaret Avery) in The Color Purple movie.
With tomorrow Martin Luther King Day and yesterday the actual birthday of the great civil-rights leader, it occurred to me to write a post about memorable Black or biracial characters in fiction. Adding to that inspiration were the recent deaths of magnificent actor Sidney Poitier and wonderful singer Ronnie Spector, and the announcement that renowned memoirist Maya Angelou is appearing on U.S. quarters — even as we wait for the promised picturing of courageous slave liberator Harriet Tubman on $20 bills.
I’ll focus on characters created by Black and biracial authors, while also mentioning — near the end of the post — several created by white authors. And I’ll mostly concentrate on three-dimensional characters, not the stereotyped ones we’ve too often seen — frequently in older fiction.
Where to begin? I guess I’ll go chronologically by the novel’s publication date.
Alexandre Dumas — whose father, an officer under Napoleon, was half-Black — was best known for novels with white protagonists. Most notably The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers. But Dumas did write the compelling Georges (1843) featuring a biracial title character who leads a dramatic slave uprising.
Ninety-four years later, Zora Neale Hurston’s 1937-published Their Eyes Were Watching God starred Janie Crawford — who resiliently navigates racism, sexism, multiple marriages, and more.
Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940) protagonist is Bigger Thomas, an impoverished young man who makes very wrong choices due to inexperience and living in an ultra-bigoted society, yet is in some ways a sympathetic character.
James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On the Mountain (1953) stars John Grimes, a smart teen torn between a religious and secular future in a New York City as racist as Chicago was for Bigger Thomas.
Wole Soyinka’s The Interpreters (1965) focuses on a group of five young Nigerian intellectuals — Bandele, a professor; Egbo, a foreign ministry clerk; Sagoe, a journalist; Kola, an artist; and Sekoni, an engineer-turned-sculptor.
Another Nigerian-born author, Buchi Emecheta, came out with Second Class Citizen in 1974. Its protagonist is the ambitious Adah Ofili — who deals with racism, sexism, a bad marriage, and time constraints (she’s a parent) while trying to get an education and do satisfying paid work.
Octavia E. Butler’s searing Kindred (1979) tells the story of a young woman — Dana Franklin — repeatedly yanked back in time from 1970s California to the brutal, pre-Civil War, slave-holding South.
The most memorable characters in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982) are Celie, whose life starts off quite miserably; and blues singer Shug, who helps her.
There’s also the proud, independent, haunted Sethe in Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987); laborer-turned-detective Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins in Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress (1990) and subsequent books; friends Savannah Jackson, Bernadine Harris, Robin Stokes, and Gloria Matthews in Terry McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale (1992); the two admirable women — Kiki Belsey and Carlene Kipps — married to less-than-admirable rival professors in Zadie Smith’s On Beauty (2005); Ifemelu, the young Nigerian woman who goes through major changes after moving to the U.S. in Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie’s Americanah (2013); and Starr Carter, the brave teen girl who witnesses a racist shooting by police in Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give (2017).
Among the compelling Black or biracial characters in novels written by white authors are harpooner Queequeq in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851); escaped slaves Eliza and George Harris in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852); the conflicted Ozias Midwinter in Wilkie Collins’ Armadale (1864); the troubled Joe Christmas in William Faulkner’s Light in August (1932); the kind, wrongly accused Tom Robinson in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960); scientist Ovid Byron in Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior (2012); and convicted-but-not-guilty attorney Malcolm Bannister in John Grisham’s The Racketeer (also 2012).
I’ve obviously just scratched the surface here. Anything you’d like to say about characters of color I mentioned or did not mention?
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 the impact of COVID’s Omicron variant on my town — is here.