Irene “‘Rene” Westover Redfield

A wealthy, light-skinned Black woman and the novel’s protagonist. Irene is intelligent, sophisticated, and socially prominent in the Black community of Harlem as the wife of a doctor and a member of the Negro Welfare League. Irene strives to be a good mother to her two sons and is often lost in anxious thoughts about her marriage. She is also afflicted by contradictory emotions about her friendship with Clare.

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Clare Kendry Bellew

A childhood friend of Irene’s, now passing for white and married to a rich, racist white man. Clare is beautiful and vivacious, but she is also dangerously unpredictable. Her selfishness is her main driving force, and she is loyal only to herself. Clare serves as Irene’s foil.

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Brian Redfield

A Black doctor and Irene’s husband. Brian has darker skin than Irene and cannot pass as white. Frustrated with the racist reality of life in the United States, he wants to move to South America, where he believes there will be more freedom for their family.

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John “Jack” Bellew

A rich white international banking agent and Clare’s husband. Bellew does not know Clare is Black and speaks openly of his hatred of Black people in front of her and Irene, whom he also believes to be white.

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Brian Junior

The ten-year-old son of Irene and Brian, dark-skinned like his father and practical and serious like his mother.

Theodore (“Ted”)

The younger son of Irene and Brian, outwardly charming but withdrawn and secretive.


The ten-year-old daughter of Clare and Jack whose skin is light enough that Jack does not suspect Clare is Black.

Gertrude Martin

A friend of Clare and Irene’s from childhood, now married to a white man. Unlike Clare, Gertrude is not passing, though she is light-skinned.

Fred Martin

A white butcher and Gertrude’s husband.

Hugh Wentworth

A famous white author who is friends with Irene. Open-minded and sharply intelligent, he enjoys observing the interactions of Black and white people and discussing his ideas with Irene. Larsen modelled Wentworth on the writer Carl Van Vechten.

Bianca Wentworth

The wife of Hugh Wentworth, beautiful and intelligent.

Felise Freeland

A glamorous and intelligent member of Irene’s circle who is too dark-skinned to pass.

Dave Freeland

A brilliant Black author and friend of Irene, sophisticated and taken with Clare’s beauty.

Ralph Hazelton

A dark-skinned and extremely handsome member of Irene’s circle.

Bob Kendry

The father of Clare, a drunken and sometimes violent janitor who dies in a fight during Clare’s childhood.

Aunt Grace and Aunt Edna

The white great-aunts who raised Clare after her father died. Very poor and very religious, they take Clare in out of love for her grandfather, their brother, though they force her to do all the housework out of a belief that Black people ought to work harder than whites. Living with them allows Clare to pass as white person when she meets Jack.

Liza, Zulena, and Sadie

The maids of Irene’s household. They are described as dark-skinned, a reminder of the colorism even in well-to-do Harlem.