Booker is a white man who recently joined the Communist Party. He is such a new member that he does not know the name of the other people who belong to the party nor where they are planning their next meeting. Booker comes to Sue’s house after she has been beaten by the sheriff. He helps Sue by giving her a cool, wet cloth to wipe her wounds. All the while he is assisting her, Booker questions Sue about the names of the other people who have joined the party.
After Booker leaves, Sue begins to doubt Booker’s sincerity. Once Reva confirms that Booker is the turncoat, Sue hunts Booker down, and at the end of the story she shoots him in the head.
Johnny-Boy is one of the two sons of Sue. The story opens with Sue waiting for Johnny-Boy, who is late in coming home. Johnny-Boy has taken up the slack in gaining membership in the local chapter of the Communist Party after the imprisonment of his brother, Sug.
Johnny-Boy is very quietly serious. He is driven by a mission: to liberate black people who have lived so many generations under the oppression imposed by white people. He does not necessarily like white people, but he does hold a ray of hope that if white people and black people can come together under the auspices of the Communist Party, then maybe blacks will be liberated. Toward this mission, Johnny-Boy risks his life and in the end sacrifices himself to the cause. He refuses, despite all the corporal punishment that is inflicted upon him, to name the secret members of the party. His actions reflect a vision that exceeds the personal. His life is not as important as the life of the party and its suggested rewards. His goal is freedom. If the only road to that freedom is death, he is willing to take it. However, he dies in a fashion that differs from the typical quiet black men of his past. JohnnyBoy has a vision of the future, and it is toward that goal that he gives up his life.
Reva is a young white woman. She is infatuated with Johnny-Boy, but the two never come into contact in the course of the story, symbolic of their ill-fated relationship. Reva is also a true believer, and she and her father help Johnny-Boy organize the Communist Party in their area.
Reva appears at Sue’s doorstep in the middle of a rainstorm. She warns Sue that someone has told the sheriff about Johnny-Boy’s activities. Sue, in turn, although she is concerned about Reva’s having to go back into the storm, tells Reva that she must return to her father’s home to tell him that JohnnyBoy is late coming home and might not be able to warn the other members of the Community Party.
Later in the story, Reva returns to Sue’s house, to find that Sue has been beaten. She helps nurse Sue, wiping her wounds, making her drink coffee. Then Reva tells Sue that she knows who the ‘ ‘Judas” is. It is upon Reva’s conveying this information that Sue knows that she has to find Booker and kill him.
The sheriff appears with a group of rowdy white men at Sue’s home. He and the group of men with him walk into Sue’s house without being invited and begin to eat her food. When the sheriff calls Sue “Anty,” she tells him, “White man, don you Anty me!” The sheriff has come because he suspects that Johnny-Boy is involved in the organizing of the Communist Party. This threatens the sheriffs power, and he wants to ask Johnny-Boy the names of all the members. The sheriff promises that if Johnny-Boy talks, his life will be spared.
Sue does not trust the sheriff, but she does not back down from him. She talks back to him to the point that the sheriff loses his patience. He feels insulted by Sue’s boldness and beats her before leaving her home. The sheriff tells Sue that if Johnny-Boy doesn’t talk, she had better bring a white sheet with her to wrap Johnny-Boy’s body in.
Later in the story, when Sue goes looking for Booker, she runs into the sheriff, who is in the process of torturing Johnny-Boy. The sheriff orders the breaking of Johnny-Boy’s legs, and then he crushes Johnny-Boy’s eardrums. After Sue shoots Booker, the sheriff comes over and beats her again. Then he orders that his men shoot both Sue and Johnny-Boy.
Sue holds the main focus of the story. She is the mother of Johnny-Boy and Sug. Although the story is told with a third person narrator, it is through Sue’s world that the tale unfolds. Keneth Kinnamon, writing in The Emergence of Richard Wright, describes Sue as having a ‘ ‘governing passion” that is maternal. In other words, she does what she has to do in the name (and love) of her sons.
Although her sons are inflamed with the need to create change in the rural southern countryside in which they were born, where racism sequesters them in a world of mortal fear, Sue is willing to take the punishment that is forced onto her, believing that she will be rewarded upon her death. Sue has a very strong Christian faith, and the image of Jesus suffering on his cross allows her to swallow her own pain in silence. She will one day go to heaven, and those who have inflicted wounds on her will one day suffer.
However, because of her strong maternal passions, she is infected with her sons’ zeal in the promise of the newly formed Communist Party in their rural setting. As her sons struggle with their clandestine activities in order to gain membership (both white and black) for the party and thus strength through the party, Sue is caught between her beliefs that she should suffer in silence, distrust all white people, and simultaneously support, nurture, and protect her grown children.
As Sue becomes more deeply involved in her sons’ activities to fight oppression through a united, communistic front, she gains an inner strength that is quite different from the spiritual, and somewhat submissive, strength that she has found in Christianity. Abdul JanMohamed writes in his article ‘ ‘Psychopolitical Function of Death in Uncle Tom’s Children,” that Sue “is so sure of her strength that she fantasizes about her ability to prove her toughness.” It is this factor that ultimately gets Sue into trouble. She almost romanticizes the act of confronting her dread, loathing, and fear of white people. She taunts the white sheriff until he beats her. This misfortune leaves her thoughts clouded, which ultimately forces her onto a path that can only end in death.
Sug is Sue’s other son. Sug has been in jail for one year. He has been beaten, but so far he has not given away the names of the members of the Communist Party. Sug never appears in the story. Readers only learn about him through Sue’s thoughts.
Carol Ullmann (Editor) Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 15, Richard Wright, Published by Gale, 2002.