Mama, the narrator of the story, is a strong, loving mother who is sometimes threatened and burdened by her daughters, Dee and Maggie. Gentle and stern, her inner monologue offers us a glimpse of the limits of a mother’s unconditional love. Mama is brutally honest and often critical in her assessment of both Dee and Maggie. She harshly describes shy, withering Maggie’s limitations, and Dee provokes an even more pointed evaluation. Mama resents the education, sophistication, and air of superiority that Dee has acquired over the years. Mama fantasizes about reuniting with Dee on a television talk show and about Dee expressing gratitude to Mama for all Mama has done for her. This brief fantasy reveals the distance between the two—and how underappreciated Mama feels. Despite this brief daydream, Mama remains a practical woman with few illusions about how things are.
Just as Dee embraces an alternative persona when she renames herself “Wangero,” Mama rejected a traditional gender role when she worked to raise and provide for her daughters and took on an alternative, masculine persona. She is proud of her hardy nature and ability to butcher hogs and milk cows. In the story, she literally turns her back on the house, the traditionally female space. She feels that it confines her too much. Despite her willingness to operate outside of conventions, Mama lacks a broad view of the world and is, to some extent, intimidated by Dee. She doesn’t understand Dee’s life, and this failure to understand leads her to distrust Dee. Dee sees her new persona as liberating, whereas Mama sees it as a rejection of her family and her origins. It is not surprising that she names familiar Maggie as the caretaker of the family’s heritage.
Nervous and maladjusted, Maggie is a figure of purity, uncorrupted by selfishness or complex emotional needs. Severely burned in a house fire when she was a child, her scarred, ugly appearance hides her sympathetic, generous nature. She lives at home and is protected by Mama, remaining virtually untouched by the outside world. As much as her homebound isolation protects her, she is also a victim of this seclusion: she suffers from a crippling shyness and lack of education. Maggie moves with a meek, shuffling gait and hovers awkwardly in doorways rather than getting involved in life around her. Although Mama mentions that Maggie is going to marry John Thomas, it is doubtful that even a marriage will help Maggie become a strong and clearly defined individual. Mama, protective as she is of Maggie, is frank about her shortcomings and problems.
Maggie’s relationship with Dee is rife with jealousy and awe. Mama recalls how Maggie had always thought Dee had been gifted with an easy life in which her hopes and desires were rarely, if ever, frustrated. Maggie seems to have taken both sisters’ difficulties onto her own shoulders, and although she never says explicitly that she finds it unfair, she clearly thinks so. The only time Maggie reveals the extent of her innermost desires is when Dee attempts to take the quilts that Mama had promised to Maggie. Maggie drops plates in the kitchen and then slams the door, outraged. Later, although she tries to win Dee’s favor by giving up the quilts, her reluctance to do so stirs pity and anger in Mama. Maggie does have a will, and although it is buried deep inside her, it comes through when what she desires most in the world is about to be taken away.
Dee is the object of jealousy, awe, and agitation among her family members, while as an individual she searches for personal meaning and a stronger sense of self. Dee’s judgmental nature has affected Mama and Maggie, and desire for Dee’s approval runs deep in both of them—it even appears in Mama’s daydreams about a televised reunion. However, Dee does not make much of an effort to win the approval of Mama and Maggie. Unflappable, not easily intimidated, and brimming with confidence, Dee comes across as arrogant and insensitive, and Mama sees even her admirable qualities as extreme and annoying. Mama sees Dee’s thirst for knowledge as a provocation, a haughty act through which she asserts her superiority over her mother and sister. Dee is also portrayed as condescending, professing her commitment to visit Mama and Maggie no matter what ramshackle shelter they decide to inhabit. Far from signaling a brand-new Dee or truly being an act of resistance, the new persona, Wangero, comes across as an attention-seeking ploy in keeping with Dee’s usual selfishness. Dee says she is reclaiming her heritage, but she has actually rejected it more violently than ever before.
Through Dee, Walker challenges individuals—including activists, separatists, or otherwise—who ignore or reject their heritage. These people prefer to connect themselves to an idealized Africa instead of to the lessons and harsh realities that characterized the black experience in America. Dee and Hakim-a-barber are aligned with the abstract realm of ideology, which contrasts starkly with the earthy, physical, labor-intensive lifestyle of Mama and Maggie. Dee is intrigued by their rustic realism, snapping photographs as though they are subjects of a documentary, and in doing so effectively cuts herself off from her family. Instead of honoring and embracing her roots, Dee looks down on her surroundings, believing herself to be above them.