The memoir’s protagonist, author, and narrator, Richard Wright is born into poverty in rural Mississippi, then shuttles between Jackson, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Memphis as a young man, and does all he can to educate himself… (read full character analysis)
Wright’s mother works hard to support Richard and his brother from a young age, but after her husband leaves the family, she must take on additional work in the kitchens of white families. Wright’s mother… (read full character analysis)
Though never named, Wright’s brother is Wright’s companion in childhood; he is then raised, partially, by Aunt Maggie in Detroi when Wright’s mother becomes ill. Wright and his brother grow apart during their teenage… (read full character analysis)
A stern religious practitioner, Wright’s grandmother lives in Jackson, Mississippi with Grandpa, and runs a household that includes Wright for a great many years. Granny tries desperately to get Wright to believe in God… (read full character analysis)
Granny’s youngest daughter, and Wright’s mother’s sister. Addie is also sternly religious, and runs the Christian school that Wright attends in Jackson. Addie attempts to discipline Wright early in the memoir for dropping… (read full character analysis)
Another of Richard’s mother’s sisters, Maggie early in the book lives in comfort in Arkansas with her husband Uncle Hoskins, a successful owner of a bar. This comfort is shattered when Hoskins is… (read full character analysis)
The husband of Maggie, who lives with her in Arkansas where he is a prosperous bar owner. For a while Richard, his mother, and his brother live with Maggie and Hoskins, and… (read full character analysis)
Another stern disciplinarian, and Grandma and Grandpa’s oldest son, Uncle Tom lives on the outskirts of Jackson and later moves into Granny’s house. Tom attempts to discipline Wright and beat him with the switch… (read full character analysis)
A kind and relatively uneducated girl, the daughter of Mrs. Moss. Bess falls quickly in love with Wright, but when Wright suggests that they get to know one another before getting engaged, Bess… (read full character analysis)
An optometrist from Illinois who lives in Jackson, Crane gives Wright a job in his shop, and says Wright will get a chance to learn the trade. Though Crane himself is not overtly racist, he… (read full character analysis)
The elevator operator in Richard’s building in Memphis (where he works at the second optometry shop), Shorty is willing to participate in racial prejudice—acting as a caricature of a black man for white entertainment—in… (read full character analysis)
An African-American man who works at another optometry shop across the street from Richard’s in Memphis, Harrison later agrees to box with Richard to entertain the white workers in that neighborhood. After the fight… (read full character analysis)
A kind woman who runs the orphanage in Memphis to which Richard is sent as a young child, Miss Simon takes a liking to Richard, who is so nervous that he cannot perform the tasks… (read full character analysis)
Richard’s father leaves the family when Richard is young. He lives an unstable and financially-precarious life, and after his abandonment Richard is raised mostly by his mother, aunts, and grandparents as he moves between homes in the South.
A kind woman who lives in Memphis, on Beale Street, Mrs. Moss takes in Richard as a boarder, and wishes ardently that Wright would marry her daughter, Bess.
A well-meaning and illiterate insurance salesman, Brother Mance takes on Wright as a secretary one summer, so that Wright can learn the insurance trade and help poor black families outside Jackson purchase life insurance plans.
Pease and Reynolds
Two white supremacists who work for Crane, Pease and Reynolds hound Richard, asking if he thinks he’s “white” for wanting to learn more about optometry. They eventually threaten Richard so severely that he quits his job.
A white employee at Richard’s optometry shop in Memphis, Olin initially convinces Richard and Harrison to box each other, saying he will pay each of them five dollars for the fight.
A mysterious man who becomes Maggie’s boyfriend in Arkansas sometime after Uncle Hoskins is killed, Matthews must flee with Maggie to Detroit in the middle of the night, after committing arson against a white family. Richard never learns the exact nature of, or motivation for, Matthews’ crime.
A kind man with whom Richard lives briefly in Mississippi, Clark attempts to provide food and shelter for Richard, but Richard is too frightened by the “ghost” of a dead child in his bedroom to adjust to family life there.
The wife of Uncle Clark, Jody is also kind to Richard, and hopes to provide a comfortable home for him, however briefly.
A woman Richard works for while in high school in Jackson. Richard tries to work also for Mrs. Bibbs’s husband at a sawmill, but is frightened by the physical nature of the work, and returns to work for Mrs. Bibbs.
A friend of Richard’s from high school in Jackson, Ned Greenley is notable for informing Richard one day that his brother, Bob, has been murdered by white men, who believe Bob visited a white prostitute.
Ned’s brother, Bob works at a hotel in Jackson. Bob is murdered by white men who believe that Bob slept with a white prostitute, thus violating the racial and sexual norms of the South.
Head of the junior high school where Richard attends ninth grade, the principal provides a school-sanctioned speech for Richard to read at his ninth-grade graduation. Richard refuses to do so, and the principal, in return, states that he will not hire Richard to teach in the Jackson school system.
A friend of Richard’s in Jackson, Griggs initially finds Richard the job at Crane’s optometry shop, and encourages Richard to behave with servility towards whites, if only to protect himself from white supremacist violence.
A kind woman who boards with Granny and works as a teacher, Ella is an avid reader of books. After she shares books with Richard, and after Richard is later accused of lewdness by Granny, Granny forces Ella to move out of the house.
A black woman who works at a movie theater in Jackson, owned by a Jewish businessman. Tel works with another, unnamed man and Richard to steal from the owner. Richard uses some of this money to leave Jackson and head to Memphis.
An Irish Catholic who works at the optometry shop in Memphis, and who is less inclined toward racism against African Americans. Falk lends Richard his library card so that Richard can check out books written by H.L. Mencken and other famous authors.
Another of Wright’s relations. Aunt Cleo already lives in Chicago, and Aunt Maggie and Richard stay with her at first when they arrive in the city.
A Jewish couple living in Chicago. The Hoffmans run a deli, and Wright finds work there soon after arrival. He later leaves the deli after lying to the Hoffmans about taking his postal exam.
The Finnish cook at the diner, where Wright works after the Hoffmans’ deli. Tillie spits in the soup she makes. Wright finds this out and tells the boss, who observes Tillie and fires her.
The Unnamed Woman
A woman Wright meets when working for the insurance company. Wright has an affair with her in exchange for “forgiving” her late policy payments. The woman finds Wright intelligent but strange, and wants him to take her to a circus.
Wright’s black comrade in the John Reed Club and Communist Party. Wright interviews Ross for a series of “biographical sketches” of black life in Chicago. These sketches raise the concern of Party leaders, who view them as “unorthodox.”
A prominent black Communist in Chicago. Buddy makes a series of veiled threats against Wright when Wright opposes Party propaganda in the John Reed Club.
A subordinate of Buddy Nealson’s. Green often tries to intimidate Wright by telling him that the Party doesn’t support his independent writing and reading.
A Jewish theater director. DeSheim is brought in to lead the Federal Negro Theater, for which Wright is a publicity officer, but the black actors don’t like DeSheim’s taste in experimental works, and force him to resign.
The Animal-lab Doctors
The white doctors who perform experiments in the hospital, where Wright cleans the floors. One of these doctors plays a prank on Wright, making him believe he’ll die from inhaling a harmless chemical.
Bill, Brand, and Cooke
Wright’s fellow laborers at the animal hospital. Brand and Cooke have a long-running feud, and one of their fights causes the animals to be loosed from their cages. The four men put the animals back in a disorganized fashion, though the doctors never learn of this.
The Diner Waitresses
White workers at the diner where Wright washes dishes. Wright remarks on the waitresses’ unconcern with his blackness. He also realizes he has read far more than them—that he possesses far vaster cultural knowledge than they do.