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KEY LITERARY ELEMENTS
The action begins in Stamps, Arkansas, in a black ghetto where the Maya lives with her grandmother and paralyzed uncle. Later, the setting shifts to St. Louis, San Francisco, and Southern California. A brief incident takes place across the border in Mexico.
LIST OF CHARACTERS
Marguerite "Maya" Johnson
A gangly "too-big Negro girl, with nappy black hair, broad feet and a space between her teeth." She is the author of the book, who serves as its narrator. The novel is really a story of her coming of age.
Bailey Johnson (Junior)
Maya’s older brother and the center of her life. He is loyal, good looking, intelligent, and mischievous. He adores his mother to the point of obsession.
Momma (Annie) Henderson
Maya’s paternal grandmother, who owns the black general store in Stamps. Maya and Bailey come to live with her when their parents get a divorce. Momma is a woman of substance, who is respected for being the only black female entrepreneur in town. She is also respected for her devotion to her religion.
Maya and Bailey’s father. He is a vain, selfish, and conceited man, who does not know how to be a good father.
Vivian "Bibbie" Baxter (also, Mother Dear)
Maya and Bailey’s mother. She is beautiful, smart, and willful. She is a trained nurse, but earns a living playing poker games in gambling parlors.
Maya and Bailey’s uncle. He lives with Momma Henderson and has been paralyzed since the age of three.
The children’s nearly white maternal grandmother. She is a precinct leader with ties to a shady underworld of characters.
An invalid who dies a few years after Maya returns to Stamps.
Tutti, Tom, Ira & Billy
Vivian’s brothers. They are a tough lot. When Maya is raped by Freeman, they kick the offender to death.
A poorly educated but successful property owner married to Vivian. He is the nearest thing to a real father in Maya’s life.
A former boyfriend to Vivian. He rapes eight year old Maya and is killed by her uncles.
Mrs. Bertha Flowers
Momma’s refined friend who helps Maya rediscover her self-esteem through books.
Maya’s first employer. She is a barren white woman whose husband has two children with a black mistress. Maya dislikes her when she tries to change Maya’s name for her convenience.
Daddy Bailey’s girlfriend. She is jealous of Maya and attacks her with a pair of scissors.
Maya’s first real friend.
Maya’s first admirer. He unknowingly reawakens Maya’s trauma of rape.
A sexually mature girl who seduces Bailey but breaks his heart by running away with a railway porter.
The leader of the junkyard commune Maya joins after running away.