Anne is called "Essie" or "Essie Mae" as a child, and by family members as an adult. She changes her name to "Anne" or "Annie" after discovering a birth certificate misprint when she's a teenager, and finds she prefers the name Anne to Essie. Anne is an outspoken, brave, and academically talented young woman. She develops into an independent activist and leaves her Mississippi hometown permanently. She grapples with the violent history of racism in the South, the complicity of many black people in their own oppression, and the slow progress of the civil rights movement. Her relationship with her family is tense. Anne feels many of her family members don't see the need for change.
Mama begins the book as a cheerful and vibrant young woman. But a lifetime of hard labor, poverty, and prejudice wears her down. Mama's character arc is one of the book's most tragic. Anne sees how Mama has lost her hopes and dreams and determines to live her own life a different way. Mama discourages Anne's civil rights work, fearing for the family's safety.
Adline is a strong, responsible woman, finding work in New Orleans as a young adult. She is more risk-averse and cautious than Anne, criticizing Anne's activism and decision to attend college. Toward the end of the book Adline considers getting her college diploma and gains more respect for Anne's civil rights work, showing Anne's positive influence on Adline. She is the family member Anne is closest to in young adulthood.
Raymond struggles to earn economic independence after years of working as a sharecropper. His financial insecurity often makes him angry, and he takes his anger out on the family. Though Raymond sometimes treats Mama well and provides for her, his support is inconsistent, and he often fails Mama when she needs him. Raymond takes a sexual interest in Anne as she grows older. Anne's distrust of Raymond finally compels her to leave home for good.
Daddy leaves the family when Anne is young, deeply hurting Mama and leaving the family financially insecure. As his children grow older he occasionally tries to be involved in their lives by visiting and buying gifts. Daddy later settles down with his second wife, Emma, and becomes a more stable source of support for Anne.