The protagonist and narrator of the novel. To save the future existence of her family, Dana must repeatedly save the life of Rufus, the man who fathered one of her ancestors. Although Rufus enslaves her and abuses her, Dana cares for him. When she time travels, Dana must struggle to maintain her identity as a strong, intelligent, free black woman in a world in which women and all black people are utterly subservient to ignorant, cruel white men.
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The inconsistent, power-drunk slave owner and the father of one of Dana’s ancestors. Rufus rapes and enslaves Alice and attempts to rape and enslave Dana. He longs to be loved but expects to always get his way, using coercion and violence if he is denied.
A slave forced to bear Rufus’s children. Alice is like an antebellum-South version of Dana, a living reminder of what Dana’s life might have been like had she been born earlier. Although she does not immediately accept her position, Alice’s will is broken over time. Pushed too far, she becomes utterly desperate.
Dana’s husband and Rufus’s foil. Kevin is a relatively progressive white man who married a black woman despite the objections of his family. As a time traveler to the South, he frees slaves. Despite his progressive thinking, however, Kevin likes to be in control and sulks when he suspects his wife may be enjoying her time with Rufus. Because it does not affect him personally, Kevin is blind to much of the injustice around him.
Rufus’s father. A cruel, vicious man, Weylin beats slaves for minor insubordination. When crossed, he can be petulant and violent. In some ways, Weylin is fair, and he always keeps his word. He protects his slaves because he sees them as an investment. Weylin suspects that there is much he doesn’t know about the world, and he fears the unknown deeply.
Tom Weylin’s wife. Margaret spoils her son and goes half-crazy after her infant twins die. Dim-witted and temperamental, Margaret lashes out at the slaves. Once she begins using opium, she transforms from a peevish and overwrought woman into a mellow person who is sickeningly sweet to those she formerly abused.
The cook. Sarah is a slave who loves Rufus in spite of herself. The sale of her sons scares Sarah into submission. Unwilling to lose her daughter, she complies with Rufus’s demands and performs her physically draining work without complaint. Sarah is mother to Carrie and grandmother to Nigel.
The son of two slaves, Luke and Carrie, and the grandson of Sarah. Because Nigel’s father advises him to follow his own path, Nigel dreams of running away and views freedom as a possibility. Although he is whipped for infractions, Nigel’s usefulness makes him largely untouchable. As boys, Nigel and Rufus are friends. As an adult, however, Nigel realizes that Rufus does not view him as a true friend.
Sarah’s mute daughter and Nigel’s mother. Carrie helps everyone and doesn’t make waves. Because she chooses not to interact with whites, and because she is mute, Carrie succeeds in keeping a low profile. She takes a practical view of Dana’s role on the plantation and stands beside Dana when other slaves abuse her.
Nigel’s father and Carrie’s husband. Luke teaches his son how to disobey whites’ orders without overtly contradicting them. Weylin sells Luke simply because he tires of his sass, a decision that frightens Dana and show that no one is safe from the cruelty and arbitrary whims of whites. Luke’s fate demonstrates the ultimate ineffectiveness of passive resistance.
Alice’s husband. Rufus’s treatment of Alice fills Isaac with anger. Isaac’s fate as a runaway slave serves as a warning to Dana and the other characters.
The overseer at the Weylins’, and a cousin of Margaret Weylin’s. A cruel and small-minded man, Jake shows Dana how abusive a white man with power can be. He beats slaves for no good reason and demands physically impossible feats of labor from them. Jake is universally feared and hated.
The slave forced to sleep with Weylin and Edwards. When her value as a sexual slave is diminished, Tess is sold off. She is a kind and helpful person. She fears what eventually comes to pass: that she will be forced to work in the fields so that Edwards can keep a closer eye on her. Tess’s fate shows that slave owners afford no special treatment or consideration even to their lovers.
The field hand who flirts with Dana, despite her warnings about Rufus’s jealousy. Rufus sells Sam, separating him from his family, as punishment for exchanging a few innocent words with Dana.
The cleaning woman, who betrays Dana to Weylin. Like some of the other slaves, Liza is willing to do whatever she can to protect her own interests. She pays for betraying her fellow slaves, however.
The son of Rufus and Alice. Joe, who resembles Rufus, is smart and devoted to his mother.
Dana’s direct ancestor, and the daughter of Rufus and Alice. Hagar is a baby when the novel ends.
The infant son of Nigel and Carrie. Jude is born a slave.
Kevin’s sister. Although as a young person Carol is best friends with a black girl, as an adult she takes on the racist mindset of her husband.
The overseer who works at the Weylins’ following Jake Edwards’s departure.