Alberta is one of Buddy’s older sisters. She is a middle child in the family, as Lil is the eldest daughter. Alberta leaves home at the age of sixteen and moves north in search of work. This was a fairly common phenomenon for poor African Americans living in the South, as the industrial centers in the North offered far better opportunity for employment. Alberta’s leave taking also lessens the family’s burden; she is one less dependent to worry about and care for. Buddy’s graduation is so important that she travels back home to witness the event. Still, she is described as being ‘‘different,’’ set apart from the family to which she was once so close. Alberta’s physical distance from the family eventually becomes an emotional distance. As Charley points out, in the last few years, he has not so much as received a Christmas card from her.
Bea is Charley’s wife and the mother of Mary and Lucy. She works in a school cafeteria and lives in Harlem. These traits indicate her lower socioeconomic class. She holds a menial job and lives in a run-down neighborhood. Despite this, she is happy. The love in her home is evident as she cooks for her family. Bea points out, however, that the distance between Charley and his siblings is the result of their economic status. Everyone is too busy to visit because they spend all of their time just trying to get by. Notably, Bea’s homemade sweet potato pie is one of Buddy’s favorite foods. She shows her generosity by giving Buddy a huge slice to eat and then sending him home with the remainder.
Buddy is the story’s narrator and main character. He can also be seen as the hero, though this role is arguably held by Charley. Certainly Buddy believes this to be the case. Buddy is a professor and the only person in his family to receive an education. He was raised in near destitution as the child of sharecroppers, and his family worked day in and day out just to survive, with barely enough to make it from one harvest to the next. Still, Buddy’s family is determined to allow him the opportunity to escape this lifestyle, and they work hard to ensure that he can go to school. Buddy is well aware of this fact, and at his high school graduation, he acknowledges that he was chosen to go to school not because he was the smartest child but because he was ‘‘the youngest. And the luckiest.’’
Because his parents were always out working in the field, Buddy was predominantly raised by his eldest siblings Charley and Lil. He loves both of them, especially Charley, who always wanted the best for his little brother. Buddy is well aware of the debt that he owes them. He loves both Lil and Charley and feels nothing but gratitude toward them. Buddy thinks of Charley’s potential, lost because he had no education and no childhood. He is also proud of Charley, even though Charley is ashamed to associate himself in public with his brother on account of his lower socioeconomic status. Buddy refrains from warning Charley of his visit to prevent him from fussing over unnecessary preparations for his arrival. Buddy’s success has led him to live apart from his brother and from his own roots. Charley will not claim to be Buddy’s brother in public because of Buddy’s success; he will not even allow Buddy to carry the pie he so dearly loves into the expensive hotel.
Charley is Buddy’s eldest brother and the man responsible for raising Buddy and ensuring his success. Charley is described as loving and caring even when Buddy relates the episode of him hitting Buddy across the mouth with a wet rag. Even this violent act comes from a place of love, as Charley was attempting to cure Buddy’s stutter. Charley sacrificed his childhood to care for his younger siblings, particularly Buddy. As a young man, he gave up his own potential and chance at a better life in order to ensure the very same for his youngest brother. As an adult, Charley works a menial job and lives in a poor neighborhood. It is clear, though, that he is happy. He is married and has two daughters, and his home is filled with love and warmth. Charley never bemoans his circumstances or the sacrifices he has made, nor does he resent Buddy’s success or even demand thanks for his part in it. In fact, Buddy would like to thank Charley for this very thing; he wants to tell Charley that he would be no one if not for his brother. However, Buddy refrains from doing so because he knows it would embarrass Charley.
Charley’s only foible is that he feels that he is a nobody while Buddy is a ‘‘ somebody .’’ This belief forces a social distance between the two men. Charley even refrains from mentioning that he his Buddy’s brother, lest his own lower status reflect poorly on Buddy. Charley also feels that Buddy must comport himself according to his status, and therefore he will not allow Buddy to take the pie, wrapped in a brown paper bag, into the expensive hotel. Still, Charley understands Buddy’s desire for the pie, so he takes it upon himself to carry the brown bag in his brother’s stead. Once again, Charley debases himself for his brother’s sake.
Jake is Lil’s husband. It is mentioned that Buddy sent money to Lil and Jake’s children last Christmas when Jake was unemployed. Jake’s circumstances indicate how the legacy of poverty in Buddy’s family continues.
Jamie is one of the middle siblings in Buddy’s family. It is not clear whether Jamie is a boy or a girl. Jamie dies at age twelve, but Buddy does not say why or how. The fact is related simply, in one sentence, with no further comment. This is rather striking, but it indicates how commonplace death was in the world in which Buddy was raised.
Jess is Buddy’s wife and the mother of his children, who are never named in the story. When Buddy first mentions that he got married, he does not indicate his wife’s name or provide any information about her. Jess’s name is later mentioned in passing.
Lil is Buddy’s eldest sister, and she acted as a mother to him. Lil and Charley are the only two characters in the story whom Buddy devotes a great deal of description to, signifying their importance to him. He says of Lil that she was the loudest of the siblings, the one who cooked for them and cleaned them. She sent them all to school when they could go, and she administered both discipline and love. She captivated everyone with her singing and her infectious laughter. Buddy is aware of how indebted he is to Lil. He sends her family money when they are struggling, but he acknowledges that he owes her far more than money.
Lucy is one of Charley and Bea’s daughters. Her age is unknown, as is her birth order. Lucy, like her sister, is bashful around her uncle Buddy at first. She and her sister highlight the warm family atmosphere in Charley’s run-down apartment. She seems to have a better childhood than the one her uncle and father shared.
Mama is dead during the present action of the story, but Buddy recalls her counting out the money from the harvest and declaring the family’s financial solvency for another year. Buddy also recalls Mama at church, how she would be calm and serene and then become more animated as the spirit of the service affected her. He also recalls how happy and bright she looked at his high school graduation. These events, Buddy says, seem like the pinnacle of her life. Aside from these moments, Buddy had little interaction with his mother; she was always out working in the field.
Mary is one of Charley and Bea’s daughters. It is not clear how old she is or whether she is the eldest or youngest child. All that is said of her is that she is shy around her uncle at first but then warms up. Her presence largely serves to underscore the happy family tableau as Buddy visits with his brother. Her circumstances also seem much improved from those of her father and uncle’s childhood.
Pa is an even more elusive character than Mama. He, too, is always out in the field. Buddy recalls his face at church being like a ‘‘mask.’’ Buddy says that his father and mother seemed like ‘‘mountains’’ as he sat beside them. Aside from these memories, Buddy recalls Pa putting the harvest proceeds on the table for Mama to count out. He also notes his father’s insistence that Buddy get an education.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 30, Eugenia Collier, Published by Gale Group, 2010