Betsey Brown Characters

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Betsey Brown Summary & Study Guide Description

Betsey Brown Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:

This detailed literature summary also contains Bibliography and a Free Quiz on Betsey Brown by Ntozake Shange.

Eugene Boyd

Eugene Boyd is an older boy who plays basketball for the high school. Betsey has a crush on him, and her interest is soon reciprocated. Eugene is friends with Charlie, who brings him by the Brown house, where he flirts with Betsey and gives her her first kiss. Though Betsey rarely sees him, she thinks of him as her boyfriend. He is a decent boy who seems to sincerely care for her. His interest in her and the strong feelings he evokes fill Betsey with ambivalence. Betsey's mother and grandmother also worry about her sexual involvement with Eugene, though this remains quite innocent.

Allard Brown

Allard Brown is the youngest of Jane and Greer's children and the only boy. Throughout the novel, his parents and siblings try to prevent him from setting fires, which he has a fascination with doing. Toward the end of the novel, he re-channels his antisocial interest in fire toward a healthy one in music.

Betsey Brown

The novel is named for Betsey and she is its protagonist, the center of the episodic events of its plot. She is an intelligent and spirited thirteen-year-old girl facing the pains and pleasures of growing up in a black middle-class neighborhood in St. Louis in the late 1950s. The events of Betsey's life are not particularly dramatic - she gets her first boyfriend, changes schools, forms and breaks friendships, briefly runs away, and experiences her mother's temporary abandonment of the family. But Betsey is a particularly sensitive and perceptive person who seriously contemplates the events of her life, often from a special spot at the top of an oak tree. Though many of the tribulations she faces - struggles for autonomy from her family, relationships with her parents and siblings, questions of morality and sexuality - are typical for any young girl, the political circumstances of her life add additional stresses. She is part of the first generation of African-American children to attend racially integrated schools - a step forward in the struggle for civil rights, but a difficult and sometimes dangerous situation for the schoolchildren. Betsey's journey toward learning who she is centers on her developing sense of female identity and African-American identity. The novel charts her consideration of various role models - including other girls, figures from popular culture, household help, and, most importantly, her parents - whose influences she admires, rejects, and eventually integrates.

Greer Brown

Greer Brown is Betsey's father. He is a strong and outspoken man, eager to instill in his children pride in and solidarity with their race. He is one of the few black surgeons in St. Louis - and, indeed, in the whole country. He has a political commitment to helping the under-served, so he works long hours - a decision that angers his wife. While Jane wants him to put family life before politics, Greer seeks to inject family life with politics. Afrocentric in his outlook, he plays the bongos and quizzes his children on significant facts of African and African-American culture before school each morning. He is in favor of the children attending St. Louis's newly integrated schools and insists on bringing them to a civil rights demonstration against Jane's strong objections, which causes her to temporarily leave him. Despite their differences, he has a passionate love for his wife.

Jane Brown

Jane Brown is Betsey's mother. She is an attractive and sophisticated woman, with the light skin and 'good' hair of her privileged African-American caste. In addition to raising her four children and her nephew, she also has a job as a social worker dealing with the mentally ill. She has a tense but passionate relationship with her husband, Greer, a surgeon. Her mother, who lives with the family, thinks Jane made a mistake in marrying Greer because of his dark skin and Afrocentric ways. Jane loves Greer deeply but shares some of her mother's snobbishness toward blacks of a lower class. Despite her considerable work and domestic obligations, Jane remains something of a free spirit and enjoys luxury wherever she can find it - in solitaire, coffee in bed, or sex with her husband before dinner. Because of these competing impulses, her household is often in chaos. She disagrees with her husband about religion and how much the children should participate in civil rights politics, over which she leaves him for a time, hoping to retrieve some lost part of a younger self. She returns to the family certain she will not leave them again.

Margot Brown

Margot Brown is one of Betsey's two younger sisters. In the novel, she appears in tandem with Sharon. Both are sweet but boisterous girls.

Sharon Brown

Sharon Brown is one of Betsey's two younger sisters. In the novel, she appears in tandem with Margot. Sharon and Margot contribute to the general chaos of the Brown household.

Bernice Calhoun

Bernice is the first of three servants who come to help out in the Brown household. Betsey first sees her from her tree, observing her poor clothes and hearing her bluesy, autobiographical "Mississippi muddy song." She is, like Carrie, a simple country woman. She has just come up from Arkansas and needs work, so she rings the Browns' doorbell at a moment when Jane is feeling particularly overwhelmed. Jane hires her without first checking her references. Trying to win Jane's favor, she reveals Betsey's treetop hiding place. In revenge, Betsey arranges for the children to wreak havoc in the house the next morning, which results in Bernice's quick dismissal.


Carrie is the third and most successful of the housekeepers who come to live with the Brown family. She arrives shortly after Jane has left, thus taking on a maternal role in the household. Carrie, however, couldn't be less like Jane. She is a stout and simple southern woman who has unstylish hair, wears a rope around her waist, and uses the latrine in the cellar rather than one of the bathrooms. She nevertheless wins the affections of Mr. Jeff, the local gardener, and offers the children a balanced view of love and passion. She also teaches them the value of hard work, instilling pride in them for helping to keep the house in order. Vida is snobbish toward Carrie and suspects her of practicing witchcraft. When Jane returns, she criticizes Carrie, feeling threatened by her important role in the family. Jane fires her after she is arrested for taking part in a knifing. Betsey maintains a strong bond with Carrie and tries to do what she would have done in the house.


Charlie is the son of Jane's sister. He lives with the Brown family and they treat him like a son. He is in high school and is friends with Eugene Boyd, who becomes Betsey's boyfriend. Charlie is somewhat rebellious, which makes Jane worry about him. On one occasion he is brought home by the police for trespassing with Allard on the grounds of a Catholic school. On the first day at his new, integrated school, Charlie gets in a fistfight with five Italian boys.

Charlotte Ann

Charlotte Ann is Betsey's schoolmate at her all-black school and one of her closest friends. At school they hang around with another girl, Veejay, and after school they sometimes see Susan Linda, a poor white girl who shares their fascination with their growing sexuality.


See Greer Brown


See Vida Murray

Mr. Jeff

Mr. Jeff is a local man who earns his living as a gardener in Betsey's neighborhood. He falls for Carrie shortly after her arrival and courts her with flowers and sips of alcohol.

Mr. Johnson

Mr. Johnson is one of Greer's patients. He tends to him at a clinic after he is done with his regular job at the hospital because he feels a commitment to care for the most needy patients. Mr. Johnson has health problems and his whole family suffers from "too little of everything." Mr. Johnson and his family represent the privation of black life on the other side of the tracks from the Browns' middle-class neighborhood.

Regina Johnson

Regina Johnson is the second of the Browns' three housekeepers. She is the niece of Mr. Johnson, one of Greer's hard-luck charity patients. She has just graduated from high school and comes from an unprivileged background, but is hopeful for a future with Roscoe, her boyfriend, who wants to open his own gas station.Regina is popular with the Brown children because she is youthful, fun, and stylish. She offers Betsey a forward model of femininity and sexuality that intrigues her. Charlie has a crush on Regina, which leads to her being fired when he resentfully tells on her for kissing Roscoe in front of the children. Later, when Betsey discovers Regina pregnant, apparently deserted by Roscoe, and living at Mrs. Maureen's brothel, Regina becomes for Betsey a cautionary tale about the dangers of sexuality.


Mrs. Leonis Betsey's teacher at her new, integrated school. Betsey is reassured when the lesson on her first day involves African geography. Betsey knows all of the answers.


Liliana is one of Betsey's classmates at her first, all-black school. She and Mavis talk knowingly about Eugene Boyd in front of Betsey. Liliana has been held back, so she is older and more sophisticated than Betsey. Though they are not friends, she is a figure of female sexuality to Betsey.


See Jane Brown

Mrs. Maureen

Mrs. Maureen runs a beauty salon on the rough side of town, one attended by all of the middle-class women of Betsey's neighborhood. When Betsey runs away, feeling misunderstood by her own family, it is to Mrs. Maureen's that she flees. To Betsey, Mrs. Maureen's shop represents a safe and supportive atmosphere that is distinctly black and distinctly female. When Betsey reaches Mrs. Maureen's early in the morning, she is shocked to learn that at night Mrs. Maureen runs a brothel. Despite this revelation, Betsey is affirmed by Mrs. Maureen's and Regina's attentions as they do her hair and make her feel special and grown up before sending her home.


Mavis is Liliana's friend, another older girl who has been held back at Betsey's all-black middle school. She and Liliana talk about Eugene Boyd, which flusters Betsey. Betsey thinks of them both as models of adult femininity when she performs her poem in the elocution competition.

Mrs. Mitchell

Mrs. Mitchell is Betsey's teacher at her original, all-black school. She is a white woman who "hadn't reacted like some of the rest when the school turned over from white to black... she liked young minds." Mrs. Mitchell gives Betsey first place for performing a Dunbar poem in an elocution contest.

Frank Murray

Frank Murray was Vida's husband and Jane's father. Vida cherishes his memory and spends much of her private time in reverie, thinking about their courtship and past. Vida describes Frank as a "gentle man" who could pass for white, an implicit contrast to Greer.

Vida Murray

Vida Murray is Jane's mother. She lives with the Brown family, helping out with the children while Jane is at work. However, Vida has a heart condition that makes dealing with the rambunctious children difficult. Vida comes from a long line of middle-class blacks and is proud of her proper conduct, light skin, straight hair, and the fact that she is descended from freemen rather than slaves. She has reservations about Jane's husband, Greer, based on a snobbish application of skin-color hierarchy. Vida disapproves of the casual way the household is run and does her best to instill in the children a sense of propriety. She opposes the struggle for integration, believing that blacks do best in their own separate society. She is a religious woman who remains deeply devoted to the memory of her deceased husband.

Mr. Robinson

Mr. Robinson runs the local soda shop in Betsey's neighborhood near her school. He is part of the close-knit African-American community, reporting back to Betsey's parents when she skips her piano lesson and telling her that he is proud of her on the first day of busing.


Roscoe is Regina's boyfriend. She wears his ring on a chain around her neck and is in love with him, which is a source of fascination for the Brown sisters. He has plans to become a mechanic and open his own gas station, which would be a step up for him on the socioeconomic ladder. He also speaks of marrying Regina, though he worries about the extra responsibility that would entail. Later Betsey encounters a pregnant Regina; Roscoe has gone off to Chicago and says he is saving money to send for her and the baby. But given the circumstances, it seems unlikely that he will do this.

Susan Linda

Susan Linda is a poor white girl who, against the conventions of the time, is friends with blacks, despite the fact that she sometimes uses the offensive word "niggah." Her mother, who is openly racist, works long hours and does not know that Betsey and her friends come to the house. Susan Linda is fascinated with her developing sexuality and leads Betsey and Charlotte Ann as they explore their bodies.


Veejay is one of Betsey's schoolmates at her all-black school and another of her best friends. Unlike Betsey and Charlotte Ann, she is not middle-class. She is something of a moral voice for Betsey, leaving when Susan Linda shows them her nipples and chastising Betsey for getting housekeeper Bernice fired. Veejay's mother is a housekeeper for a white family.

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