This Child’s Gonna Live Characters

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1969

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social realism

Time of work: The late 1920’s

Locale: The eastern shore of Maryland

Characters DiscussedMariah “Rah” Upshur

Mariah This Child’s Gonna Live“Rah” Upshur, the protagonist, a young African American woman who is determined to escape from the poverty, ignorance, and religious hypocrisy of her community and save her children, even if it means leaving her husband, Jacob. Earlier, she had been driven from the church because of her pregnancy out of wedlock. Mariah finally is married to Jacob, but she is not reconciled to the church. In the course of the novel, she loses two children, leaves Tangierneck with her family and takes work with them as migrant laborers, and returns to her home.

Jacob Upshur

Jacob Upshur, Mariah’s husband, whose commitment to the land being stolen from him by his white relatives leads him to ignore his real circumstances. Though a religious man, he fathers a son, Ned, by his adopted sister, Vyella. He nevertheless condemns Mariah for bearing Dr. Albert Grene’s daughter, Bardetta Tometta. He seems unable to break away from his father, who taught him to believe that he is the master of his world. He is well intentioned but ineffectual.

Percy Upshur

Percy Upshur, Jacob’s father, whose sexual relationship with Miss Bannie, a white relative, causes him to lose his land and, ultimately, his life. He rules his family and is responsible for Jacob’s weakness.

Bertha Ann Upshur

Bertha Ann Upshur, Percy’s wife and a thorn in Mariah’s side. To prevent Mariah’s marriage to Jacob, she sent him to Baltimore and self-righteously condemned Mariah for her pregnancy.

Horace Upshur

Horace Upshur, called “Rabbit,” Mariah’s son. He suffers from a harelip and eventually dies from roundworms and tuberculosis. Bright and creative, he is to be a poet and is Mariah’s favorite. In order to save Mariah’s life, he takes the fatal blue pills away from her and later uses them himself. Although he is a “real” character, he is also a symbolic one–he is intellect housed in a flawed body, and his death ironically comments on the results of good intentions.

Bardetta Tometta Upshur

Bardetta Tometta Upshur, Mariah’s daughter by Dr. Albert Grene, named for the legendary Bard Tom, Jacob’s grandfather, whose rebellion against white society and his subsequent lynching made him a folk hero. The child serves a structural function, in that the novel begins shortly before her birth and ends shortly after her death.

Bannie Upshire Dudley

Bannie Upshire Dudley, known as Miss Bannie, a white mail carrier, landowner, and lover of Percy Upshur, her relative. She acquires control of the Upshur land, which is passed, after her death, to Mr. Nelson. She is almost drowned by Mariah, who cannot commit murder, and returns her to her home, where she takes the blue pills.


Vyella, Jacob’s adopted sister and mother to his child Ned. Mariah’s best friend, she is a woman whose “natural” religious feelings lead her to become a preacher and a foil to the religious hypocrites.

Albert Grene

Albert Grene, Percy and Miss Bannie’s son, a respected physician, and father to Mariah’s daughter, Bardetta Tometta.

Haim Crawford

Haim Crawford, a red-faced, racist patriarch of a family that is the “establishment” in Dormerset County. According to Mariah, he uses African Americans as spittoons.

BibliographyDavis, Thulani. Foreword to This Child’s Gonna Live, by Sara E. Wright. 2d ed. New York: Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 2002. Noted African American scholar Davis discusses the place of Wright’s novel in both African American and feminist literary history. This edition also includes an afterword by Jennifer Campbell and an “appreciation” by John Oliver Killens.Harris, Trudier. “Three Black Women Writers and Humanism.” In Black American Literature and Humanism, edited by Baxter Miller. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1981. Contrasts the hypocritical Christianity practiced in Mariah’s African American community with the humanistic, individualistic values of African American folk culture and folk heritage. Sees the novel as the tale of Mariah’s evaluation and rejection of Christianity, her struggle to retain her humanity, and her ultimate acceptance of her own folk heritage.Hollis, Burney J. “The Race and the Runner: Female Fugitives in the Novels of Waters Turpin and Sarah Wright.” In Amid Visions and Revisions: Poetry and Criticism on Literature and the Arts. Baltimore: Morgan State University Press, 1985. Discusses Mariah as a “runner” who rejects and flees from the injustice to which her birth and environment subject her. In her primarily mental flight, she is hindered by her paranoia and by the African American men whose romanticized definitions of themselves keep them bound to their circumstances.Howe, Irving. “New Black Writers.” Harper’s Magazine 239 (December, 1969): 130-131. Reviews several African American novels, among them This Child’s Gonna Live. Considers Mariah not only the central character but also the surrogate voice for Wright. Praises local color but faults characterization, suggesting that Wright needs “disciplined removal from her materials.”Schraufnagel, Noel. From Apology to Protest: The Black American Novel. Deland, Fla.: Everett/Edwards, 1973. Considers the novel part of the “apologetic protest” in the 1960’s for its focus on exposing the effects of white racism. Calls attention to the sexual aspects of racism as reflected in the economic exploitation of African Americans by their white relatives. Praises the novel’s stream-of-consciousness narrative and asserts that the novel does not revert to pure propaganda.Whitlow, Roger. Black American Literature: A Critical History. Totowa, N.J.: Littlefield, Adams, 1974. Compares Wright favorably to Zora Neale Hurston in terms of style, citing Wright’s use of dialect, her merger of humor and seriousness, and her diction. Also calls attention to Wright’s criticism of the vicious behavior of self-righteous African Americans who punish social “sins” and encourage conformity to “white” Christianity.
Categories: Characters