The unnamed narrator is a young, light-skinned black man who becomes disillusioned in his quest to create a unique identity for himself within a racist society. The narrator feels invisible because everyone sees him as they wish to see him based on their expectations of black men, not as the unique individual he desires to be. Throughout the novel, the narrator is haunted by his grandfather's deathbed advice and, as a result, is "kept running" by the white men in power. In his pursuit of making a name for himself, he fulfills his grandfather's ominous prediction that he will act "treacherously" against his people by inadvertently "selling out" the black residents of Harlem.
When the narrator first arrives at the college, he idolizes everything about Dr. Bledsoe—his legacy, his sway with white men, his wealth, even his light-skinned wife. He blindly follows Bledsoe's philosophy that "white is right," hoping that it will earn him the same prestige. When the narrator is expelled from school, however, he learns that Dr. Bledsoe only acts subservient to whites because doing so affords him a position of power. In addition to expelling the narrator, Dr. Bledsoe also sends him to New York with treacherous letters of recommendation.
Mr. Norton is a wealthy, white trustee who has spent his life making large donations to the black college the narrator attends. Mr. Norton claims he supports the college because he has always felt his fate was tied to the fate of the black race, and to honor his deceased daughter's memory, but it soon becomes clear that Mr. Norton is only interested in creating a philanthropic legacy that suggests he is concerned with racial equality. He shows little interest in the real struggles of black individuals, except in the case of Jim True blood, whom he finds voyeuristically fascinating.
Living just outside campus, Jim Trueblood represents the black "savage" stereotype of the uneducated Southern black man. Trueblood gained notoriety in town for his incestuous relationship with his daughter, whom he impregnated while he was having a dream. Although "ignorant," Trueblood has learned to exploit the story to his family's advantage. He knows that white people like Norton want to save the lowest of black people, so he uses the story to gain work and charity, even if it means being forced into the outskirts of society.
Mary Rambo represents the strength of the black community. After witnessing the narrator collapse on the street after being released from the factory hospital, Mary takes him in, feeds him, and even offers him a room. When the narrator can no longer pay rent, Mary allows him to stay for free, hoping that he'll become a strong leader in the black community someday. Although the narrator is initially grateful for Mary's generosity, his time at the Brotherhood leads him to resent her.
Ras the Exhorter, who later becomes Ras the Destroyer, is a violent black separatist, which means he believes black Americans should start a society completely separate from white Americans. He refuses civil rights help from sympathetic whites, and believes anyone who takes it to be a traitor to the race. Ras believes that any relationship with the white race is a continuation of oppression, so he preaches for all black people to quit working for white bosses and to refuse to shop at white-owned stores or even hold civil conversations with white men. He hates the narrator and his affiliation with the Brotherhood, which is multiracial and therefore blasphemous.
Brother Jack is the white leader of the Brotherhood in Harlem. Although the Brotherhood is formed to improve the lives of black Americans, in reality, it is a corrupt system exploited by Brother Jack and his cohorts. When the narrator first meets Brother Jack, he seems like a heroic force, quickly giving the narrator a respectable job and wage. Over time, however, it becomes clear that Brother Jack is using the narrator as a tool to advance his own motives. He has no real desire to improve the life of Harlem residents—easily abandoning them at the end of the novel—and is only interested in amassing personal power and wealth. He is described as having red hair and a glass eye, two characteristics that illustrate his evil and flawed vision regarding racial equality.