Skip to main content
Select Source:

Taylor, Mildred D.

Mildred D. Taylor

In 1977, American children's author Mildred D. Taylor (born 1943) received the prestigious Newbery Medal for Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, one in a series of books in which Taylor chronicles a close-knit African-American family that survives the indignities of a Southern racist society. Taylor's use of racial epithets in her young-adult novels has met with protest from some quarters, but she has defended them as necessary to telling the ugly but truthful history of racism. A recipient of numerous awards, Taylor was recognized in 1997 with the ALAN Award for her significant contribution to young adult literature.

Mildred Delois Taylor was born in Jackson, Mississippi, on September 13, 1943, to Wilbert Lee and Deletha Marie (Davis) Taylor. While she had only one sibling, older sister Wilma, Taylor was surrounded by a large family. Her father, who had endured repeated racist assaults, was determined to leave the South and raise his daughters in a less-racist society with more opportunity. The family moved to Toledo, Ohio, when Mildred was only three months old, traveling to their new home in a segregated train. When they arrived in Toledo, the Taylors lived with friends until they were able to buy a duplex. Once every year the family would return to the South to visit relatives, but many of their relatives eventually followed them up North, taking up temporary residence in the duplex until they could afford a place of their own.

Inspired By Family Stories

Storytelling was a big part of Taylor's family and her father was a master storyteller. "By the fireside in our Ohio home and in Mississippi … where my father's family had lived since the days of slavery, I had heard about our past," she recalled in a Dial Books biography. "It was not an organized history beginning in a certain year, but one told through stories—stories about great-grandparents and aunts and uncles and others that stretched back through the years of slavery and beyond." Taylor went on to describe the profound effect storytelling had on her, "Those colorful vignettes stirred the romantic in me. I was fascinated by the stories, not only because of what they said or because they were about my family, but because of the manner in which my father told them. I began to imagine myself as a storyteller." However, Taylor was a shy child, and instead of verbalizing her stories she turned to writing.

At age ten Taylor and her family moved to a newly integrated neighborhood, where she was the only black in her class at school. She was struck by how differently the history of blacks was taught at school versus what she had learned from her family's stories. Textbooks downgraded the contributions of blacks and the injustices they suffered, while she had grown up hearing proud and dignified stories from her family. At times she attempted to share her family's stories in school, but was met with disbelief. Taylor decided to become a writer of truer stories about black families.

Traveled to Africa

Taylor distinguished herself in Scott High School as one of a few African American students to be elected to the National Honor Society, despite the fact almost half of the students at the school were black. She studied hard, was a class officer and editor of the school newspaper. Working to improve her writing, she discovered she was most comfortable writing first-person narratives.

After graduating from high school in 1961, Taylor enrolled at the University of Toledo where she majored in English and minored in history. By age 19 she had written her first novel, Dark People, Dark World, the story of a blind white man in Chicago's black ghetto, told in first-person. Although Taylor's novel attracted some interest from a publisher, she disagreed with the editor's call for revisions, so it was never published.

After graduating from college, Taylor entered the Peace Corps for two years. She began by teaching English on a Navajo reservation in Arizona, then traveled to Africa and taught in Yirgalem, Ethiopia. After returning to the United States in 1967, she worked as a recruiter for the Peace Corps and then trained others to become Peace Corps workers.

Taylor eventually resumed her education at the University of Colorado, where she earned a master of arts degree in journalism in 1968. While she was in graduate school she became active in the Black Student Alliance and worked towards the creation of a black studies program. After she graduated she developed a study skills program for the newly formed black studies program, working as its coordinator for the next two years.

Focused on Writing

In 1971 Taylor moved to Los Angeles and spent the next year writing and supporting herself with temporary work such as proofreading and editing. She married Errol Zea-Daly in 1972, but was divorced three years later. Taylor remained steadfast in her determination to become a writer. In 1973 she entered a contest sponsored by the Council on Interracial Books for Children. Her book, Song of the Trees, won first prize in the contest's African-American category. Dial Books published the novella in 1975 and it was listed by the New York Times as an outstanding book of the year.

Song of the Trees, set in Mississippi, introduces readers to the Logan family as they endure the hardships caused by the Great Depression as well as racism. Taylor's second book, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, continued the family's saga, as told by nine-year-old Cassie Logan. The book was awarded the Newbery Medal in 1977, which awards excellence in books written for children, and secured a permanent place for Taylor in juvenile literature. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry follows the independent-minded Cassie through a turbulent year in which she is personally confronted with racism and learns the value of being in a family that owns land. A contributor to Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, wrote that the novel "emphasizes family love, determination, pride, and dignified rebellion against racial injustice."

The New York Times considered Taylor's next novel, Let the Circle Be Unbroken, an outstanding book of the year in 1982. Comparing Cassie Logan with Mark Twain's fictional protagonist Huckleberry Finn, a New York Times reviewer also equated the staying power of Taylor's novels with that of Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie books. Let the Circle Be Unbroken was nominated for the 1982 National Book Award and received the Coretta Scott King Award in 1983.

Continued Saga of the Logans

The Logan family has served as the subject of most of Taylor's books, including The Friendship (1987), The Road to Memphis (1990), and The Well: David's Story (1995). The Friendship—which earned both a Boston Globe-Horn Book Award and a Coretta Scott King Award—is set in Mississippi in 1933. In the novel Cassie and her brothers witness a violent betrayal by a white storekeeper of an elderly black man who once saved the storekeeper's life, provoked by the old man's use of the storekeeper's first name in public.

A Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults essayist described The Road to Memphis as "a bleaker book than some of the earlier Logan stories." Set in 1941, the book tells the story of Cassie at age 17 as she attends school in Jackson, Mississippi, while her older brother Stacey works in a factory. The novel "lets readers see characters from Taylor's earlier books as they are on the verge of becoming adults," the essayist added, noting that Taylor's characters "go on a journey during which they must confront racial hatred directly." With the novella The Well: David's Story Taylor turns her focus on the boyhood of Cassie Logan's father David. During a time of drought, the Logan family generously provides water from its well to white families whose wells have run dry. Despite their generosity, family members are treated with disrespect. "Taylor, obviously in tune with these fully-developed characters, creates for them an intense and compelling situation and skillfully delivers powerful messages about racism and moral fortitude," wrote a reviewer in Publishers Weekly, adding that The Well should "have a special resonance for fans of the series."

Taylor has openly acknowledged that her novels are culled from stories told by relatives and family friends. In fact, The Road to Memphis opens with a dedication to Taylor's recently deceased father that reads: "to the memory of my beloved father, who lived many adventures of the boy, Stacey, and who was in essence the man, David." She stated in her Newbery Award acceptance speech, "If people are touched by the warmth of the Logans, it is because I had the warmth of my own youthful years from which to draw. If the Logans seem real, it is because I had my own family upon which to base characterizations."

Taylor's 1987 novel, titled The Gold Cadillac, is her most "modern" book. Set in the 1950s, the book is based on Taylor's own childhood experiences. The book follows a black family on a car trip to the South to visit relatives. Taylor vividly remembers the annual trips she took with her family from Ohio to Mississippi. She also recalls the tension she felt as she entered the South and faced segregation, including "Whites Only" bathrooms. In the writing of my books I have tried to present not only a history of my family, but the effects of racism, not only to the victims of racism, but also the racists themselves," Taylor stated in her acceptance speech for the ALAN Award given to The Gold Cadillac. "I have recounted events that were painful to write and painful to be read, but I had hoped they brought more understanding." Her book Mississippi Bridge presents another departure for Taylor in that it tells its story from the point of view of Jeremy Simms, a white character introduced in earlier Logan Family books.

Challenged for Controversial Vocabulary

Although Taylor's books have been almost universally praised for what a Beacham's essayist described as "their graceful, poetic style, their superb characterization, and their sensitive treatment of racial conflict in the American South," some have taken issue with her writings. During her acceptance speech for the 1997 ALAN Award she spoke of "those who seek to remove books such as mine from school reading lists … because the "n" word is used. There are some who say such events as described in my books and books by others did not happen … or who do not want their children to know the past and who would whitewash history, and these sentiments are not only from whites." Taylor continues to defend her choices in writing, noting: "I do not understand not wanting a child to learn about a history that is part of America.… My stories may not be 'politically correct,' so there will be those who will be offended, but as we all know, racism is offensive. It is not polite, and it is full of pain."

With this philosophy in mind, Taylor published a Logan family prequel, The Land, in 2001. The novel, which took 11 years to complete, begins in the Reconstruction-era South and tells the story of Paul-Edward Logan, a character based on Taylor's own great-grandfather. Paul-Edward is the son of a white plantation owner and an African-Indian mother. While the land had been an important theme in all of Taylor's Logan Family books, the reasons are made clear here. As a Publishers Weekly contributor explained, "Taylor does not shy away from the complexities of living in a society in which racial lines are clearly drawn and of growing up in a family in which the white patriarch shares his table with his three white sons as well as his mixed-race children and their mother." Taylor told Booklist interviewer Hazel Rochman: "I've always been fascinated by my great-grandfather and his story: that he came out of slavery, that he felt allegiance to both sides of this family, that he grew throughout this whole experience and was able to get his own land."

Taylor's experiences, her body of work and her influence on literature has earned her the honor of a "Mildred D. Taylor Day," declared by Governer Haley Barbour, on April 2, in the State of Mississippi. In 2003, she was named the 2003 NSK Laureate for children's literature with a prize of $25,000.

Taylor continued to write at her home in the Rocky Mountains and devote herself to her family. She planned to continue writing about the Logan family. "The last book will take the Logan children, all grown up, through the end of World War II, the years following, and then the beginning of the civil rights movement," she told Rochman, "For the first time, I'll have to weave a part of my own life into the story."

Books

Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Beacham Publishing, Volume 2, 1989, Volume 8, 1989.

Contemporary Black Biography, Volume 26, Gale, 2000.

Notable Black American Women, Gale, 1996.

Taylor, Mildred D., The Road to Memphis, Dial Books, 1990.

—, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, Dial Books, 1976.

Periodicals

ALAN Review, Spring 1998.

Booklist, September 15, 2001.

Publishers Weekly, April 13, 1990; January 2, 1995; August 13, 2001; October 22, 2001.

Sacramento Bee, September 16, 2001.

Other

"Barbour Declared Friday Mildred Taylor Day, "The Daily Mississippian,http://www.thedmonline.com/vnews/display.v/ART/2004/04/02/406d7becf374f (April 28, 2004).

"Biography of Ethiopia RPCV Mildred Taylor (1943–), "Peace Corps Web site,http://peacecorpsonline.org/ (December 18, 2003).

Dial Books for Young Readers publicity material (January 7, 2004).

"Mildred D. Taylor, the 2003 NSK Laureate," World Literature Today,http://www.ou.edu/worldlit/NSK/NSK2003Laureate.htm (June 2, 2004).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Taylor, Mildred D.." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 19 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Taylor, Mildred D.." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 19, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/taylor-mildred-d

"Taylor, Mildred D.." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved August 19, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/taylor-mildred-d

Taylor, Mildred D. 1943–

Mildred D. Taylor 1943

Writer

At a Glance

Challenged Racism

Sources

Mildred Delois Taylor is a critically acclaimed author of childrens novels. Most of her works, which are based on her own family history, revolve around the close-knit Logan family, an African American family that rises above the indignities of racism through courage and love. In 1977, Taylor won the Newbery Medal, the most prestigious award in childrens literature, for her historical novel Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. Since 1977, Taylors fiction continued to portray the effects of racism counterbalanced with courage and love. In doing so, her fiction defied the political correctness of the 1990s.

Taylor was born at home on September 13, 1943 in Jackson, Mississippi, where she joined her older sister Wilma. Their paternal great-grandfather, the son of a white Alabama plantation owner and a slave woman, had become a successful farmer in Mississippi. His large extended family thrived despite the racism they encountered. Yet Taylors parents, Wilbert and Deletha, wanted their daughters to grow up in a less racist society. Delois, as her family called Mildred, was only four months old when they, like thousands of other southern African American families, boarded a segregated train bound for the North. Upon arriving in Toledo, Ohio, the Taylors stayed with friends until they earned enough money to buy a large duplex on a busy commercial street. This house soon became home to aunts, uncles, and cousins, who eventually moved away from Mississippi in search of a better life.

Taylor enjoyed being surrounded by so many family members, who gave her attention when her parents were busy. Her neighborhood, with its café and movie theater, provided plenty of entertainment, and the Taylor family enjoyed several other forms of recreation, as well, such as storytelling. Taylor vividly stored in her memory the tales she heard at family gatherings. Many of these stories would later play an important role in her novels. In the authors note to Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, Taylor acknowledged her debt to this oral history and to her father in particular, By the fireside in our northern home or in the South where I was born, I learned a history not then written in books but one passed from generation to generation on the steps of moonlit porches and beside dying fires in one-room houses, a history of great-grandparents and of slavery and of the days following slavery; of those who lived still not free, yet who would not let their spirits be enslaved. From my father the storyteller I learned to respect the past, to respect my own heritage and myself.

In addition to the oral stories, books played an important role in Taylors life from an early age. An avid reader, she devoured book after book. I cant remember when I received the very first book of my own, she recalled in a speech at the American Booksellers Convention, which was published in Booklist. I remember how proud my parents were that I loved so much to read. Reading, at times, caused trouble for Taylor. I got into trouble at night when I would sit in the closet when I was supposed to have long been asleep. I got into trouble during the daytime, too, when I would be sitting somewhere hidden, when I was suppose to have been doing my chores.

At a Glance

Born Mildred Delois Taylor, September 13, 1943, in Jackson, MS; daughter of Wilbert Lee and Deletha Marie Taylor; married Errol Zeal-Daly, August, 1972 (divorced, 1975); children: P. Lauren. Education: University of Toledo, B.Ed., 1965; University of Colorado, M.A., 1969.

Career: Novelist; English and history teacher with the Peace Corps, Tuba City, AZ, 1965, and Yirgalem, Ethiopia, 1965-67, recruiter, 1967-68, instructor, 1968; University ofColorado, Boulder, study skills coordinator, 1969-71; proofreader and editor, Los Angeles, CA, 1971-73.

Awards: First prize (African-American category), Council on Interracial Books forChildren, 1973; Outstanding Book of the Year Citation, New York Times, 1975, andjane Addams Honor Citation, 1976, all for Song of the Trees; Notable Book Citation, American Library Association, 1976, National Book Award (finalist), Honor Book Citation, Boston Globe Horn Book, 1977, Jane Addams Honor Citation, 1977, Newbery Medal, 1977, and Buxtehuder Bulle Award, 1985, for Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry; Outstanding Book of the Year Citation, New York Times, 1981, Jane Addams HonorCitation,New York Times, 1982, American Book Award nomination, 1982, and CorettaScott King Award, 1982, for Let the Circle Be Unbroken; Coretta Scott King Award, andFiction Award,Boston Globe-Horn Book, 1988, for The Friendship; NotableBook Citation,New York Times, 1987, and Christopher Award, 1988, for The GoldCadillac; Coretta Scott King Award, 1990, for The Road to Memphis; ALAN Award-for Significant Contribution to Young Adult Literature, National Council of Teachers of English, 1997.

Addresses: Residence Boulder, CO. Office c/o DialBooks, 2 Park Ave., New York, NY 100176.

Nine years after arriving in Toledo, the Taylor family moved into a more residential neighborhood. Taylor was the only African American student in her grade school class. As a result, she worked even harder to excel academically because she did not want anyone to blame her failures on her race. Her father continually stressed to his daughter that she could do anything that she set out to do if she worked hard enough. At around the age of 10, Taylor decided that she wanted to be an author, and that she would visit other parts of the world. However, writing did not come easily for Taylor. For many years, she struggled to find her voice.

When Taylor enrolled as a freshman at Scott High School in 1957, the civil rights movement was becoming an important force for change in American society. Taylor was aware of the existence of racism, having seen its effects in the South during her familys vacation trips to visit relatives in Mississippi and hearing her family tell their stories. Racism reared its ugly head in her high school when the election of an African American student as the homecoming queen caused an uproar.

Although roughly half of the entire student population was made up of African American students, Taylor was the only African American in her college preparatory classes. She was a class officer, editor of the school newspaper, and the only African American student from her school to be elected to the National Honor Society. During these years, Taylor also focused on learning to write well. However, her models for literary quality were classics written by white male authors, and their style did not lend itself to the stories Taylor wanted to tell. With the encouragement of her father and one of her high school teachers, Taylor entered a citywide fiction contest. Although she did not win the contest, she discovered that she was most comfortable writing stories in the first-person narrative style.

After graduating from high school in 1961, Taylor enrolled at the University of Toledo. She pursued a teaching degree with a major in English and minor in history in order to placate her parents, who insisted that she earn a practical degree rather than one in creative writing. During her high school and college years, Taylor wrote and submitted many fictional pieces but received only rejection notices because she did not yet know how to polish her work. When she did get the attention of a publisher for her novel Dark People, Dark World, Taylor did not accept the editors demand for revision and the novel remained unpublished.

Despite her fathers opposition, Taylor planned to enter the Peace Corps after earning her degree. Eventually, Taylors father gave his approval. The two years that Taylor spent in Ethiopia were a happy time for her because she was easily accepted into Ethiopian society, the countryside was much like that of the American South, and she had escaped the pervasive racism of the United States. Although she was tempted to remain in Africa, Taylor returned to the United States when her two-year tour ended. For a time, she recruited and trained other Peace Corps workers. Taylor then pursued a master of arts degree in journalism at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where she was active in the Black Student Alliance. After earning her degree, she worked for nine months improving the Black Studies program at the university.

In 1971 Taylor relocated to Los Angeles, California, where she lived off of her savings for a year while she wrote. When her savings ran low, she worked temporary jobs. The following year, Taylor married Errol Zea-Daly, whom she would divorce three years later. She also declined an offer to report the news for CBS, somehow knowing that her future lay in writing books, not news reports. Taylor realized that she could not thrive in isolation, so she worked at various jobs to give herself a social outlet. In the fall of 1973, Taylor discovered a writing contest sponsored by the Council on Interracial Books for Children. As the deadline for submitting entries quickly approached, she revised a story she had previously written in the third person, recasting it in the first person. Her story of an African American father who defends his land from illegal logging by a white man won the contest. The story also launched Taylors writing career when it was published by Dial as Song of the Trees. With this tale, Taylor created the Logan family that would remain the basis of her body of work.

One year later Taylor finished the novel Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, in which she more fully developed the characters she had created in Song of the Trees. Taylor predicted to her father that Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry would win the Newbery Medal, an award presented by the American Library Association for the most outstanding book for children written during the previous year. Taylor was correct, although her father did not live to see her receive the award. He died several months before the American Library Associations Newbery Medal selection committee announced that Taylor was the winner of the 1977 award. In her acceptance speech, Taylor acknowledged her debt to her parents for their unfailing support, and to her larger family for the inspiration of their courageous lives and stories. The following year, ABC television aired a three-part miniseries adapted from Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. By winning the Newbery Medal, Taylors novel would remain in publication for decades and her later works would get immediate attention from editors. With this status, Taylor gained the financial means to devote herself entirely to writing.

During the 1980s and 1990s, Taylor published a steady stream of novels about the Logan family and members of the nearby community. The Logan series of novels includes the following titles: The Land, The Well, Song of the Trees, The Friendship, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, Let the Circle Be Unbroken, The Road to Memphis, and Logan. The release of Logan marked the end of the Logan family saga.

Challenged Racism

Taylor modeled many of the characters in her novels after her own relatives, often making them composites of several family members. She blended fact with fiction in the same way that Alex Haley created faction in his novel Roots. After her fathers death, Taylor relied more heavily on historical research because she had lost her greatest source of information about her family history. The importance of family ties and respect for the land are evident in most of Taylors works, as are the damaging aspects of racism. However, Taylor consistently balances her painful representation of racism with hope. In the writing of my books I have tried to present not only a history of my family, but the effects of racism, not only to the victims of racism but also to the racists themselves, Taylor explained in her acceptance speech for the 1997 ALAN Award. I have recounted events that were painful to write and painful to be read, but I had hoped they brought more understanding.

Many critics have praised Taylors books for their powerful realism and relevancy. They are not universally admired, however. In her ALAN speech, Taylor bemoaned the fact that some people have challenged her novels by maintaining that her portrayal of racism is too harsh for young readers. She even admitted that while writing The Land, she debated about using words that would have been used in the late nineteenth century because readers might object to them. But just as I have had to be honest with myself in the telling of all my stories, Taylor remarked, I realize I must be true to the feelings of the people about whom I write and true to the stories told. My stories might not be politically correct, so there will be those who will be offended, but as we all know, racism is offensive.

Sources

Books

Crowe, Chris, Presenting Mildred Taylor, Twayne (New York), 1999.

Taylor, Mildred, essay in Something About the Author Autobiography Series, volume 5, Gale (Detroit), pp. 267-86.

Periodicals

ALAN Review, Spring, 1998.

Booklist, December 1, 1990, p. 740.

Jeanne M. Lesinski

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Taylor, Mildred D. 1943–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 19 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Taylor, Mildred D. 1943–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 19, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/taylor-mildred-d-1943

"Taylor, Mildred D. 1943–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved August 19, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/taylor-mildred-d-1943