Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry
Roll of Thunder, Hear My CryINTRODUCTION
MILDRED D. TAYLOR
Mildred D. Taylor's novel Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry examines the hardships and struggles of the Logans, a black family living in rural Mississippi during the early 1930s. It is Taylor's second account of the Logans, whom she follows in six other books, including a prequel, a sequel, and several novellas, all written for a child and/or young adult audience. Based on Taylor's father's experiences growing up, the books reflect some of the South's most troubling history, when Jim Crow laws ruled and civil rights were not yet within reach. Taylor uses her family's past as a lens through which to explore the legacy of the American South, deftly making a case for its modern relevance in the process.
Taylor grew up listening to her father's reminisces about his family's struggle to keep its land despite the Great Depression and hostility from white neighbors. She thought of the tales often before she finally succeeded in crafting one into her own short story. The breakthrough was her creation of protagonist Cassie Logan, originally eight years old, who is loosely based on Taylor's aunt. She tried telling the stories from other characters' perspectives, but none felt as natural as Cassie's. Taylor's first story, about a white man cutting and selling trees from the Logans' land without their permission, won first prize in the African American category in a competition sponsored by the Council on Interracial Books for Children, and a publishing offer soon followed. Taylor elaborated on the story, turning it into a novella called Song of the Trees (1975).
A year later she published Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, which was an immediate success. The American Library Association (ALA) named it a Notable Book of 1976, and the following year it won the Newbery Medal and was a finalist for a National Book Award. Taylor was writing during a blossoming of African American culture. Fresh out of the civil rights movement, black men and women were making strides toward equality, especially in areas such as music, film, and literature. Maya Angelou had recently published her famed memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969). Alex Haley received the National Book Award for his epic family drama Roots (1976) the same year Taylor published Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. Just a couple of years before Taylor's award-winning book, Virginia Hamilton won the Newbery Medal and the National Book Award for her young adult novel M. C. Higgins, the Great, which also dealt with issues of race and property. It was a time, perhaps more so than any other before or since, when the issue of race was acknowledged and discussed in the public arena, and perspectives from African Americans were welcomed with new enthusiasm.
MILDRED D. TAYLOR
Mildred D. Taylor was born in Jackson, Mississippi, on September 13, 1943. Her family moved to Toledo, Ohio, soon afterward. Though her own childhood was spent in Ohio, Taylor experienced Mississippi through her father's stories and through annual summer trips to visit family; her father's stories especially left an impression. As a student, Taylor noticed that the blacks described in books often did not resemble the ones in her father's stories, and by high school she felt almost obligated to help alter the literary landscape. She excelled in English, where she was often the only black student in her college preparatory classes, but she did not begin writing fiction until years later.
She earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Toledo before joining the Peace Corps and moving to Ethiopia. When she returned, she went to graduate school to study journalism at the University of Colorado. She thought often of her father's stories and struggled to develop them into fictional narratives. After her first story, "Song of the Trees," won first prize in a contest, she found a publisher and quickly developed the story into a novella for young adults. Taylor has been devoted to writing fiction ever since.
In 2004, the University of Mississippi celebrated Mildred D. Taylor Day as part of the Oxford Conference for the Book. As of 2006, Taylor lives in Colorado.
Both the political climate and Taylor's own journey prepared her to write the Logan family chronicles. She had recently completed a master's degree in journalism from the University of Colorado, where she helped create a black studies program. Before graduate school, as a member of the Peace Corps, she spent two years teaching English and history to children in Ethiopia—an assignment she had requested. No doubt these experiences helped shape Taylor's sense of self and provided a context in which to develop her family's stories. The result is a breadth of memorable characters and settings that are both painful and inspiring. In Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry for example, the Logans repeatedly confront racism as they struggle to keep their land, but retain a strong sense of identity. Cassie especially becomes more conscious of prejudice, moving from indignation and anger to cautious resistance and grief. Her evolution speaks to the harsh reality of racism, as well as to the strength of those who endure it.
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is available in a twenty-fifth anniversary edition, published in 2000 by Phyllis Fogelman books, that includes an introduction by the author.
The Logan children—Cassie, the narrator, and her brothers Stacey, Christopher-John, and Little Man—walk to school. It is October and their first day back after cotton-picking season began in early spring. They are dressed in Sunday clothes, a tradition Mama enforces on the first day of school. Cassie describes the Mississippi scenery on the way to school: forest on one side and a cotton field on the other. She notes the barbed-wire fence that runs "the length of the deep field, stretching eastward for over a quarter of a mile" where the family's four hundred acres ends.
Beyond the forest is Harlan Granger's plantation, where many sharecroppers live. Cassie explains the story of how the Logans came to own their land. Many years ago it had belonged to the Grangers, but during Reconstruction, the period after the Civil War when the Confederate states were being reintegrated with the Union, the Grangers had had to sell much of their land to pay taxes. Grandpa Logan bought two hundred acres, and years later when he had paid off the debt, he bought two hundred more. Now, during the Great Depression, the price of cotton has dropped and the expense of the land has become almost too much for the family to bear. Papa, the children's father, is in Louisiana working on the railroad. He tells Cassie she will never have to live on someone else's land. Mama teaches seventh grade and runs the farm while Big Ma, Papa's mother, works in the fields and tends to the house.
T. J. Avery and his younger brother Claude, children of black sharecroppers, meet the Logans on their way to school. T. J., known for his bullying, rebellious ways, is a friend of Stacey. He shares information about a burning into the conversation, but the others have no idea what he is talking about. T. J. tells them that "some white men took a match" to Mr. Berry and his two nephews.
Stacey suddenly urges everyone off the road and onto the clay bank at the edge of the forest. Little Man does not follow because he does not want to get his clothes dirty. He is covered in a "scarlet haze" of red-clay dirt and dust when a school bus shoots past him. White school children laugh in the windows of the bus. Along the way, a "towheaded boy" named Jeremy Simms joins the group. The Logan children are baffled at his decision to walk with them. He has been doing it for years, though they know he has been whipped for it. When they reach the crossroads, they pass white children, including Jeremy's sister Lillian Jean, who does not acknowledge the black children. The Logan children stop to gaze at the white school, which has a sports field, two buses, and a big front lawn.
Down the road, the black school is "a dismal end to an hour's journey." The teacher announces that the students will get books this year and instructs them to "take extra-good care of them." Cassie immediately notices the books are in terrible shape and opens hers to find pictures and illustrations of "girls with blond braids and boys with blue eyes." After Little Man looks inside his book, he flings it to the floor and stomps on it. Cassie realizes why Little Man is upset when she sees the chart on the inside cover of the book: this is its twelfth "issuance" to a student, its condition is "very poor," and the race of student is listed as "nigra." Cassie tries to defend Little Man by showing the teacher the chart, specifically pointing out "what they called us," but the teacher is not sympathetic. In the end, both Cassie and Little Man refuse their books and get a whipping.
Papa comes home, bringing with him "the most formidable-looking being" the children have ever seen. The children are disappointed to hear that Papa can only stay one night before he has to get back to Louisiana, but he explains that he "come home special … [to] bring Mr. Morrison." Papa says that Mr. Morrison lost his job on the railroad and that he has offered him work as a "hired hand." Morrison tells Mama that he got fired from his job for fighting with some men, but they did not get fired because they were white. She says they are glad to have him "especially now," leaving the children wondering what she means. Later, while working in the field, they speculate that Papa brought Morrison home because of the burnings T. J. told them about.
The big news at church the next morning is that one of Mr. Berry's nephews has died. The children finally hear the story of the burning when neighbors come to visit. Mr. Berry's two nephews had stopped to get gas when drunken white men appeared, accusing one of the Berry men of flirting with a white woman. The Berry brothers left without getting gas, but the white men later caught up with them. The brothers, afraid they would run out of gas, stopped at their uncle's house. The white men dragged the brothers out of the house "and when old man Berry tried to stop it, they lit him afire with them boys." A Berry relative told the sheriff what happened, but he "called her a liar and sent her on home." Papa suddenly tells the people at church that his family does not shop at the Wallace store. An uncomfortable silence follows. Papa tells the children to stay away from the Wallace store as well, where youngsters are going after school to buy liquor and cigarettes and get into trouble. The children promise to stay away.
When the rains come, the walk to school is especially dreadful as the school bus "zoom[s] from behind" and splashes the children with "the murky waters of the road." One morning, the bus swerves close to the children. They attempt to jump the gully but it is too full of water, and they fall short and land "in the slime." The white children laugh at them and call "nigger" and "mud eater" out the windows. Stacey promises his siblings that the bus will not get them again, "least not for a long while."
At lunch time, Stacey takes some shovels and buckets from the school's tool shed and the group walks to the place where the bus forced them off the road. Stacey decides not to tell T. J. about this because he talks too much. At the gully, Stacey tells them to dig. Soon there is a large ditch from one side of the road to the other, and they use the buckets to fill it with water. That afternoon it pours rain. On their way home from school, they notice the ditch has transformed into a "twelve-foot lake." They hide in the forest and watch as the bus speeds toward their trap. They hear the white children on the bus laughing and then a "tremendous crack" as the bust gets stuck in the rut "like a lopsided billy goat on its knees." The bus driver tells the children on board they will have to walk to school for at least the next two weeks.
Granger's car is leaving the driveway as they get home. Big Ma says he was pestering her about the land. Cassie follows her into the forest and they sit in a clearing. Big Ma talks of her late husband, Grandpa Logan, and how he acquired the land. When he bought his first two hundred acres from the Grangers, Mr. Jamison, "a good neighbor," also bought a portion of the Granger land. Later, when Harlan Granger became head of the Granger plantation, "he wanted to buy back every inch of land that used to belong to the Grangers." Grandpa Logan and Mr. Jamison refused to sell. When Mr. Jamison died, his son Wade had no interest in farming. Wade Jamison sold most of his land to Harlan Granger, except for two hundred acres that he sold to Grandpa Logan, a move that Harlan Granger resented.
Mama takes the children to see Mr. Berry, one of the burn victims. Mama advises the children to be themselves, but they are dumbfounded by what they see: "The face [has] no nose, and the head no hair; the skin [is] scarred, burned, and the lips [are] wizened black, like charcoal." On the way home, Mama tells them that "the Wallaces did that." They visit share-cropping families, and Mama speaks "of the bad influence of the Wallaces" and of "finding another store to patronize." Most people only nod. Mr. Turner agrees but says he has credit at the Wallace store because Mr. Montier, his plantation owner, signs for him. Mama says her family has found stores in Vicksburg that treat them well and suggests that someone might be "willing to make the trip" for others. Mr. Turner says he has no cash and does not think anyone in Vicksburg will give him credit. Mama does not relent, asking "what if someone backed your signature? Would you shop up in Vicksburg then?" Mr. Turner says he will "consider it deeply."
Big Ma takes Stacey and Cassie with her to Strawberry, the nearest town, to sell goods at the market. T. J. comes along, too. At the farmer's market, Cassie immediately notices that the black families are situated far from the entrance where nobody can see them. She is irritated by this but Big Ma tells her to be quiet.
In town, Big Ma goes to see Wade Jamison, now a lawyer. She tells the children to wait in the wagon, but T. J. urges them to go ahead to the store. T. J. places his order but a white customer cuts in with a long list, and "the storekeeper, without a word of apology," begins to fill hers. He finishes her order and goes back to T. J.'s, but he is interrupted again by white customers and walks away. When Cassie sees him wrapping up a pork chop for a white girl, she walks over and reminds the storekeeper that they are waiting and that they were there before the girl. He tells her to get her "little black self back over there and wait some more." The situation escalates until he calls out, "Whose little nigger is this!" and she screams, "I ain't nobody's little nigger!" Finally, Stacey pulls Cassie out of the store.
On the way to find Big Ma, Cassie bumps into Lillian Jean. She apologizes, but Lillian Jean insists Cassie "get down in the road" and stop using the sidewalk where the "decent white folks" are. When Cassie will not move, Mr. Simms twists her arm from behind and shoves her into the road. Then he tells her to apologize to "Miz Lillian Jean this minute." Big Ma arrives and meekly defends Cassie before she also instructs Cassie to apologize. Cassie considers this day the cruelest in her life.
Cassie is angry with Big Ma, but Stacey suggests there are things Cassie does not understand. At home, there is a silver car in the barn. The children worry it is Granger's, but it turns out to belong to Uncle Hammer. When Uncle Hammer asks Cassie about her first trip to Strawberry, she bursts out with the story of Lillian Jean. Uncle Hammer is angered when he hears Mr. Simms pushed her and heads toward the door. Big Ma begs him to let it go. Mama tells Stacey to go get Morrison while she tries to persuade Uncle Hammer that Cassie is all right, and he should not make any trouble. He responds with urgency: "If I'd've knocked his girl down, you know what'd've happened to me? … Right now I'd be hanging from that oak over yonder."
Before Cassie goes to sleep, Mama talks to her about the events in Strawberry. Mama tells her that Mr. Simms thinks Lillian Jean is better than Cassie because Lillian Jean is white, that "he's one of those people who has to believe that white people are better than black people to make himself feel big."
After church the next day, Uncle Hammer takes the family for a drive in his car. At Soldiers Bridge, where only one car can pass at a time, Uncle Hammer sees the Wallace truck approaching. Instead of allowing it to pass first, he rushes onto the bridge, knowing the Wallaces will think it is Granger's car. As the car comes off the bridge, the Wallaces "touch their hats respectfully, then immediately freeze." Uncle Hammer calmly touches his hat too before speeding away. Everyone laughs but Mama, who says one day they will have to pay for it.
Papa comes home for Christmas, and the family sits around and tells stories. As it gets late, Morrison shares a story about when he lived with his family in a shantytown outside of Shreveport, Louisiana. Two teenage boys came to their door one night "scairt, clean out of their heads with fright," after a white woman accused them of molesting her. As the boys had finished their story, "devilish night men swept down," killing and burning the family out of its home. Morrison's parents and sisters died that night.
After Christmas dinner, the children are surprised to find Jeremy standing at their door. He offers a burlap bag full of nuts to Mama and gives Stacey a wooden flute that he has made. Papa asks Jeremy if his daddy knows he is there, and Jeremy says that he does not. Papa suggests he go home before his daddy comes looking for him. After Jeremy leaves, Papa and Stacey talk. Papa discourages Stacey from being friends with Jeremy because "friendship between black and white don't mean that much 'cause it usually ain't on a equal basis." When Stacey defends Jeremy, Papa explains that someday blacks and whites might be able to be friends, "but right now the country ain't built that way."
The next day, Jamison brings papers for Big Ma to sign. Cassie figures out that she is signing over the land to Uncle Hammer and Papa. Before Jamison leaves, he says he has heard that people are "looking to shop in Vicksburg" and that thirty families are trying to get credit. He offers to back the credit himself. Jamison admits that he is a "Southerner, born and bred," but that that does not mean he approves of everything that goes on in the South. They discuss the possible consequences of the arrangement.
Granger stops by the Logan house a few days later. He suggests they are "stirring up something" and threatens that their "mortgage could come due anytime." Papa tells him not to plan on getting the land.
Cassie sets out to ingratiate herself to Lillian Jean by walking with her to school and carrying her books. Papa talks to Cassie about the incident in Strawberry and says that "Lillian Jean probably won't be the last white person" to disrespect her. He encourages her to "think real hard on whether or not Lillian Jean's worth taking a stand about."
For the next month, Cassie carries her books in the morning, and Lillian Jean tells Cassie her secrets. After school one day, Cassie claims to have a surprise for Lillian Jean in the forest. Cassie smashes Lillian Jean's books and taunts Lillian Jean into hitting her. When she does, Cassie tackles her, knocking them both down. Cassie beats her up, careful not to touch Lillian Jean's face and demands an apology. Lillian Jean apologizes profusely, though after she is released, threatens to tell her father. Smirking, Cassie tells Lillian Jean that if she says "one word of this to anybody … everybody [at the white school] is gonna know who you crazy 'bout and all your other business."
Granger, Kaleb Wallace, and another man show up at the school to observe Mama teaching. They discover she is teaching material not found in the books, and Granger suggests if she is so smart, she can write her own book and "forget about teaching." The next day, a student tells Stacey that T. J., who had recently failed a test, complained about Mrs. Logan at the Wallace store. The kid says T. J. also told the Wallace men that the Wallace store boycott was her idea. T. J. denies that he said anything, but the Logan children decide not to be T. J.'s friend any longer.
Just before school ends, the children hear from Jeremy that T. J. is "running 'round" with Jeremy's older brothers R. W. and Melvin. Jeremy says his brothers do not treat T. J. well.
Mr. Lanier and Mr. Avery come by to withdraw their shopping lists for the upcoming trip to Vicksburg because Granger and Montier have demanded an increased share of the families' crops. On top of that, the Wallaces have threatened to send the sheriff after them unless they pay their debts at the store. Papa, Morrison, and Stacey make a trip to Vicksburg for the seven families that continue to boycott the Wallace store. They do not arrive home when the family expects them, and everyone worries. When they finally do return, Papa is injured. The back wheels came off the wagon on the way home from Vicksburg. When they stopped to fix the wagon, someone in a passing truck driving with the lights off shot Papa. At the same time, the mule reared and the wagon rolled over Papa's leg and broke it. Morrison fought the men, apparently hurting them badly. The bullet only skimmed the side of Papa's head. Stacey thinks it was the Wallaces.
The children go to a neighbor's house with Morrison. On the way back, Kaleb Wallace blocks the road with his truck, gets out, and yells at Morrison. Morrison calmly asks if he is going to move his truck. Finally, "his muscles flexing tightly against his thin shirt," Morrison moves the truck himself. When they are halfway down the road, they hear Kaleb Wallace scream, "One of these nights … I'm gonna come get you for what you done!" Shortly thereafter, Papa receives a letter from the bank demanding the mortgage be paid in full immediately. Papa, who has been unable to work since breaking his leg, calls Uncle Hammer, who says he will get the money. Uncle Hammer shows up sometime later with the money, but no longer driving the silver car.
T. J. shows up at the local revival with the Simms brothers. He loudly tells the group about his "mighty fine friends" who give him whatever he wants, "Including the pearl-handled pistol in Barnett's Mercantile." Stacey, disgusted, ignores him. The Simms brothers tell T. J. that since they went with him to the revival, he is going with them to Strawberry.
This chapter begins with an epigraph patterned after a slave song. Beginning with the line, "Roll of thunder / hear my cry," because "Ole man comin' / down the line," it foreshadows the events to come. Much later on the night of the revival, Cassie finds T. J. on the porch knocking on the door of the boys' room. He tells her and Stacey that he is in trouble and shows them the "deep blue-black swelling of his stomach and chest" where R. W. and Melvin beat him. He tells them the store in Strawberry was closed, but the Simms brothers decided to break in to get the pistol. When they were caught by Mr. Barnett, R. W. hit him hard on the back of the head with an axe. Mrs. Barnett, hysterical, came into the room, mistaking R. W. and Melvin for black men because they had stockings on their heads. R. W. slapped her and she fell back, hitting her head on a stove. The brothers beat T. J. when he said he would tell people what happened.
T. J. asks Stacey to help him get home before his father finds out he is gone, and the other children insist on going with them. As the Logan children are leaving T. J.'s house after walking him home, six vehicles pull into the yard and Kaleb Wallace gets out, yelling for "that thieving, murdering nigger." The group of men, which includes R. W. and Melvin, drag the Avery family out of the house while the Logan children watch from the forest. Suddenly, one of the men holds up the pistol from the store. He tells of Mrs. Barnett's claim that three black boys robbed her store and attacked both her and her husband. The men beat T. J. when he tries to defend himself. Then Jamison arrives with the sheriff, who says, "Mr. Granger sent word by me that he ain't gonna stand for no hanging on his place." When the men suggest they take T. J. down the road, Jamison stands in front of T. J. Stacey tells Cassie and the others to go get Papa and Morrison.
Cassie tells the adults of the events at T. J.'s house, and Papa gets his shotgun. Mama, afraid he will be killed, tells him to find a way to get Granger to stop the men. Big Ma prays and the family sits quietly. Soon, Mama smells smoke and sees fire on the land near the Granger forest. In a panic, she and Big Ma fill a tub with water and head toward the blaze. Jeremy shows up later and tells Cassie that his father, older brothers, and many of the men from town are fighting the fire. He also says their father is working on it, and they are relieved to hear Papa is okay. The cause of the fire is assumed to be lightning.
Jamison comes by later and tells them that Mr. Barnett died in the early morning. T. J. is being held by the sheriff in Strawberry. Jamison advises Papa to "stay clear of this whole thing now … and don't give anybody cause to think about you at all," implying he assumes Papa started the fire. The children want to know what will happen to T. J., and Papa says he could "go on the chain gang." Stacey asks if T. J. might die. Papa says he has never lied to them, but he wishes he could now. Stacey, crying, runs toward the forest. Cassie goes to bed and cries also "for those things which had happened in the night and would not pass."
Racism tinges almost every experience of the Logans and their sharecropping neighbors in Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. The children look over their shoulders while they walk to school for fear the white children's school bus will cover them with dust, or worse, run them off the road. Blacks are variously ignored and provoked by whites, but never forgotten. In turn, blacks never forget the threat that whites pose; more often than not, that threat is followed by action.
On the trip to Strawberry with the Logans, T. J., typically irreverent and unpredictable, is quiet and easygoing in the store, even when the storekeeper drops his order to help a white customer. It is Cassie, not yet attuned to the subtleties of racism, who confronts the storekeeper about the injustice. T. J. knows there is worse treatment than having his order delayed; indeed, Cassie is insulted and ordered out of the store after she complains. The black characters in the novel react to the ill treatment according to their personal experience. Uncle Hammer, used to a more progressive way of life in Chicago, is quick to defend the family against the rural Southern whites. Cassie, with her fiery outrage, patterns herself after the adults in her family. As landowners, the Logans are better able than most to actively challenge the status quo. Papa talks explicitly about the threat of racism when he warns Stacey not to befriend Jeremy, a seemingly harmless boy; the color of Jeremy's skin alone means he might "turn on [Stacey] in a minute." In fact, it is Jeremy's older brothers R. W. and Melvin, T. J.'s new friends, who fulfill Papa's prediction.
Racism is also expressed through economics. Many sharecropping families are kept from participating in the Wallace store boycott even after Jamison agrees to back their credit at a store in Vicksburg. They are caught in a cycle of debt: their plantation owners charge them "risk" interest in exchange for backing their credit at the Wallace store, and the Wallace store charges them interest on all of their purchases made on the credit. When some sharecroppers attempt the boycott anyway, the plantation owners simply demand a larger share of the crops—income the families cannot afford to lose. In this way, the black families are kept largely dependent on their plantation owners and the Wallaces, and unable to assert their freedom of choice.
Property and Empowerment
When Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry begins, Cassie questions why Papa would travel as far as Louisiana for work just to pay for their land. She does not yet understand why the land is so important that her father would leave the family for months at a time to preserve it. Papa explains that there is a difference between living on one's own land and living on somebody else's, but eight-year-old Cassie only recognizes the inconveniences.
The Logans are the only black landowners in the book. They are also a brave, risk-taking family, leaders of the black community with enough influence to start a boycott of the Wallace store. The land represents both a burden and a blessing for them. It requires the family's constant attention, often threatening to bankrupt them even as it offers them stability and important leverage within both the black and white communities. From connecting them with Jamison, an educated white man who becomes an ally, to shielding them from dependence on underhanded plantation owners, the land is a tangible source of empowerment for the Logans. More importantly, it is what the land represents—possession and ownership—that provides the family with the strength and will to fight racism. With ownership comes a level of freedom. Papa chooses to burn part of his land in a ploy to get Granger's attention and distract the Wallace men from T. J. He is free to sacrifice a portion of his crop without danger of being implicated, or even suspected, for wrongdoing. This act, and in turn the land itself, ultimately saves T. J.'s life.
Denial and Acceptance
Throughout the book, Cassie struggles with the realities of racism. As an eight-year-old, she is only beginning to realize the extent to which the color of her skin defines her experiences. She encounters racial disparity again and again, beginning in chapter 1 when she discovers the chart on the inside cover of the worn-out schoolbook. Cassie cannot believe the county has listed the black schoolchildren's race as "nigra." When she desperately shows the chart to her teacher, she is confused by her teacher's casual reaction. This scene offers examples of both extreme denial and extreme acceptance. Cassie's immature understanding of race relations causes her to reject the book, while her teacher, Miss Crocker, after a lifetime of experiencing such offenses, passively accepts it. When Miss Crocker speaks with Mama about Cassie and Little Man's behavior after school, Cassie expects Mama to react with as much indignation as she did. Instead, Mama calmly begins covering the charts on all of the books in her classroom. In this way, Mama serves as Taylor's ideal, someone who accepts that racism exists but speaks openly about its harm and actively tries to undermine it. As Kelly McDowell writes of Mama in "Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry: A Culturally Specific, Subversive Concept of Child Agency":
In an almost seditious act, [Mama] exerts an agency to resist the racist practice. By doing so, she displays to her students, as well as to her own children, that agency is possible and, in fact, crucial and that there are always ways to resist domination.
At the height of Cassie's awakening is her experience in Strawberry with Lillian Jean and Mr. Simms. In the end, she is more hurt and angered by Big Ma's submissive reaction than the physical assault and the insults of Mrs. Simms. Part of the denial of racism is the denial of its power. Cassie is stunned and hurt to see her grandmother subservient to Mr. Simms. Later, Mama explains that Big Ma was protecting Cassie from further violence by Mr. Simms, and Cassie begins to glimpse the complex game of give-and-take involved in relationships with whites. Mama tells Cassie outright that she has to accept the fact that the world is not ideal, and that "white is something just like black is something." McDowell notes that she also "hints of a tactic for resistance and, thus, encourages her daughter's own subversive agency."
Cassie displays a deeper understanding of racial dynamics later when she avenges Lillian Jean's mistreatment of her in such a way that Lillian Jean is powerless to do anything about it. At the book's end, Cassie discovers that T. J. may be put to death for a crime he did not commit. She desperately asks Papa, "d-does it have to be?" but she already knows the answer. In bed, she finally cries, mourning not just for T. J. but for the way things are—a sign she is beginning to come to terms with the reality of racism.
After the Civil War, slavery often gave way to a tenuous form of freedom known as sharecrop-ping, or tenant farming. The slave system had created a co-dependency between white plantation owners and black labor. After the abolition of slavery, property owners could not maintain their land without slaves; likewise, slaves had nowhere to live and nothing to eat without the property owner. Though many former slaves migrated to the North, many stayed in the South and fell into an arrangement between white landowners and former black slaves in which former slaves farmed the land in exchange for a portion (half or less) of the crops. Landowners were especially happy with the arrangement, since the war had left their Confederate money worthless and they could not afford to pay workers. At first, newly freed slaves looking for autonomy saw sharecropping as an improvement. However, it soon became clear that sharecropping was simply another form of servitude.
To begin with, sharecroppers had to buy their own seeds, fertilizer, and equipment, as well as food to live on until harvest time. As in Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, landowners would ensure sharecroppers had credit at the general store, but then both the landowner and the store owner would charge sharecroppers interest on that credit. Before the seeds were even in the ground, sharecroppers were in debt. After selling their share of the crops (often at prices set by the landowner), sharecroppers had to put most of the money toward their increasing debt; soon they would have no choice but to rely on credit again. On top of this, the work was constant and grueling, and sharecroppers often developed permanently stooped backs from bending over to work in the fields.
Continuing into the twentieth century, sharecropping was the work of the poorest of the poor, including whites. The arrangement became even less rewarding during the Great Depression as crop prices plummeted. Not long after, sharecroppers were replaced by mechanized farm tools.
Post-Reconstruction Racial Violence
During the period of Reconstruction (1865–1877) after the Civil War, many people in the South reacted to their defeat in the war with violence toward recently freed slaves, as well as white abolitionists. But it was not until Reconstruction officially ended in 1877 that the pattern of violence almost exclusively targeted black people, often in the form of public hangings by vigilantes, or lynchings.
As soon as federal troops left the South, white supremacists began deliberately defying the laws of Reconstruction, intending to impede black citizens' progress at every turn. Jim Crow laws, which spread throughout the South beginning around 1890, served to reinforce the prevailing racist attitudes by creating "separate but equal" facilities for "colored" people. For many whites, Jim Crow laws simply became an excuse to harass and threaten black people with more violence. If blacks were seen as stepping outside of their narrowly defined place in society, they were often bullied and sometimes even murdered.
In An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (1944), Gunnar Myrdal writes that lynchers were typically rural, lower-class white men who, among other things, had a fear of being displaced by blacks. Large groups, known as lynch mobs, would hunt down a victim, creating a spectacle of brutality before the climactic hanging. Sometimes victims were tortured first. Rarely were the lynchers punished, and in fact, local sheriffs and government officials commonly took part in the scene. In some cases, lynch mobs even retrieved the victim from a local jail. Blacks were terrorized for everything from impertinence to suspicion of raping a white woman. According to journalist Ida B. Wells-Barnett, who documented her findings in The Red Record (1895), more lynching victims were accused of murder or attempted murder—like T. J. in, Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry—than any other crime. Racial violence did not always come in the form of lynching. Beatings and burnings were also common methods of abuse, as was the destruction of property.
In the mid-1920s, the number of lynchings began to decrease. Many factors played a role in this, especially the work of civil rights organization National Association for the Advancement of colored People (NAACP) to bring awareness of the problem into the mainstream. Though an anti-lynching bill was passed in the House of Representatives in 1922, it was stifled in the Senate. Still, the bill prompted lengthy discussions of lynching, which may have aided in reducing its prevalence. Lynchings continued to decline throughout the twentieth century, though as Phillip Dray points out in At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America (2002), it was not until 1952 that a year went by without a single reported incident.
When Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry was first published by Dial Books in 1976, it steadily attracted attention from critics, especially those interested in children's and young adult fiction, like The Horn Book and the American Library Association's Booklist. The novel received a starred review in Booklist, which, as quoted in the Puffin paperback edition of Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, notes the book "grows with convincing detail of character and situation." The Horn Book, also quoted in the Puffin paperback edition of the book, recognizes the story's "verisimilitude" and "carefully drawn" characters.
Writing in the New York Times in "For Young Readers," Jean Fritz calls the book powerful and acknowledges that "Mildred Taylor's truth is on a … terrifying level." However, Leah Deland Stenson in the School Library Journal considers the book's focus on "indignities and injustices" too heavy for readers to "discover who the Logans are or how they've changed by virtue of their struggles." The review goes on to concede, though, that "readers will undoubtedly be propelled by the forceful momentum of mounting conflicts."
The year after it was published, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry won the Newbery Medal, the most prestigious children's book award in the country. The award garnered the book even more attention and practically guaranteed its place on school reading lists. Typically assigned in seventh or eighth grade, the book has regularly been challenged by both black and white parents and school administrators, who most often find offense with its use of the word "nigger." In 2002, it made the American Library Association's "Ten Most Frequently Challenged Books" list. According to Leslie Postal's "Take Book Out of Schools in Seminole, Parents Ask," in 2004 a Florida family challenged the book for its "harsh depictions of racism and its use of racial slurs." In spite of the challenges, though, the book is rarely banned. In a 2001 interview with Hazel Rochman of Booklist, Taylor says she understands these reactions to an extent, but she believes children need to know their heritage: "I think each of us needs to know where America was in the past, where we came from."
Adapted to film shortly after it was published, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (1976) aired as a three-part television miniseries. The movie stars Claudia McNeil as Mama and Morgan Freeman as Uncle Hammer and was nominated for two Emmys. Released on VHS in 1999 from Live/Artisan, it is currently unavailable.
An abridged audio version of Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is available on CD from Listening Library. It is narrated by Lynne Thigpen.
In 2003, Taylor won the first NSK Neustadt Prize for Children's Literature, sponsored by World Literature Today and the University of Oklahoma. Reflecting on this in "Mildred D. Taylor and the Art of Making a Difference," Robert Con Davis-Undiano writes that Taylor's "work has marked a huge cultural shift in the lives of many American families who have suffered the indignities of poverty and racial discrimination." Davis-Undiano suggests Taylor's significance lies in the fact that she is "socially engaged," and chooses "to serve her community steadfastly through the fiercest adherence imaginable to the truth of the African American experience."
In the following excerpt, Bosmajian considers how Taylor's protagonist grows to understand the precarious relationship between law and justice.
Mildred Taylor's rich chronicle about an African American family in rural Mississippi during the years 1933–41 is narrated by the main character, Cassie Logan. The story she tells is not only about the adventures of her childhood and adolescence, not only about the deep bonds she has with her family, but also about the injustices a white, racist, and lawless society inflicts on the Logans and their neighbors. Although they are citizens in a nation that is framed by one of the most important legal documents in Western civilization, the Constitution of the United States, black Americans find themselves in Taylor's chronicle constituted in an unjust system of local laws and customs. It is not surprising, therefore, that as a child the intelligent and inquisitive Cassie is already quite aware of the binary injustice/justice. The first term of the binary is privileged in her life experience; it is the second, justice, that she yearns for.
It is a theme that is unusual in children's literature. Most often the law, especially in fairy tales, is expressed through irrational or tyrannical rules imposed upon the hero by persons in authority. The hero's trial, then, consists often of impossible hardships and tasks to fulfill these rules. The mysteries of adult law and legal systems may also befuddle the child hero who, like Alice in Wonderland, finds herself or himself in an absurd world. We may well conclude that children's literature tends to depict law in a preconscious, even dreamlike sense. Taylor's chronicle, however, shows us characters who are conscious of the value of American law as a heritage of an age of reason. Although the titles Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry and Let the Circle Be Unbroken are prayerful imperatives that reflect the religious heritage of African Americans—the first asking for vertical divine intervention, the second for the continued connectedness on the horizontal level of human experience—the novels do not invoke or appeal to divine law, but place the responsibility for justice on laws made by humans.
As far as the values of law and justice are concerned, fictions such as the Oresteia or Taylor's trilogy are pedagogical in their rhetorical ethos. The Greek poet of antiquity instructs the polis through the mythic mode, where the gods are the authoritative teachers. Mildred Taylor, a writer in the psychologically and socially realistic mode, focuses on justice and law issues by recording the ordinary routines and events of human life, as with Cassie Logan, who grows from a pranksterish tomboy to an aspiring student of the law. In the Mississippi of her childhood and adolescence, custom and the unjust statutes of segregation have institutionalized racism, and those in power can vent their rage with impunity whenever they feel that "colored folk" are "forgetting their place." The victims of this willful power must constantly be vigilant and self-controlled, even if they are infuriated by the injustices inflicted upon them. To protect herself and her family, young Cassie has to learn that she cannot vent her anger. As she matures, she begins to place her hope for empowerment in the knowledge and interpretation of the law, particularly the law of the U.S. Constitution, which potentially can supersede the unjust law and custom of Mississippi.
Mildred Taylor shows us Cassie's development not only in the context of growing up in a warm and nurturing family but also in the context of the middle-class values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of property (happiness). It is the Logan's landownership, threatened though it is by the difficulty of meeting tax payments, that is essential to their dignity, their life, and the liberty they claim. Her family's self-respect is based largely on the fact that they farm their own land, even though Mrs. Logan also teaches and Mr. Logan works on the railroad. This status helps Cassie avoid becoming the child Martin Luther King describes in his "Letter from Birmingham Jail": "The depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky, and we see her begin to distort her little personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness toward white people." Cassie gets angry at anyone who wants to designate her as inferior; she would agree with King's argument that "any law that uplifts the human personality is just. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality." Her childhood experiences and observations give her ample evidence to observe that effect.
Socially and politically, Mildred Taylor's chronicle is squarely within the context of the values of constitutionally guaranteed rights, no matter how these rights are violated in temporal local statutes. Such values give her story an affirmative narrative pattern that has the reader consistently root for Cassie Logan's struggle toward right and lawful actualization of herself and her community. Nevertheless, the narrative is filled with ambivalent countermemories and subtexts, for the building of the temple of justice is indefinitely deferred in the three novels and the furies have no intentions of becoming the "kindly ones." Taylor's storytelling skill manages to include all these ambivalences yet lets her young hero continue her struggle. In examining Cassie's growth and education in awareness of justice and law, I shall limit the discussion to several key incidents.
The first example is the prank as a relatively harmless tactic of revenge against persistent abuse. Roll of Thunder begins with the Logan children's trek to school along the narrow road that "wound like a long red serpent dividing the high forest bank of quiet old trees on the left from the cotton field … on the right." The school bus would come "roaring down the road spewing red dust over the children" while "laughing white faces pressed against the bus windows." On a rainy day, "the bus driver would entertain his passengers by sending us slipping along the road to the almost inaccessible forest banks … [and] we consequently found ourselves comic objects to cruel eyes that gave no thought to our misery."
Cassie's younger brother, Clayton Chester, or "Little Man," is enraged by this humiliation and eager for revenge. The children decide to dig a ditch across the road that, filled with water, traps the school bus whose passengers now get soaked in return: "Oh, how sweet was well maneuvered revenge!" exclaims the narrator in retrospect. Their prank is a playful retaliation, a momentary empowerment against daily mistreatment, but it could easily become a more serious matter, with disastrous consequences.
Revenge, argues Judge Posner, is the irresistible impulse to avenge wrongful injuries, but it is also the underpinning of the corrective justice of criminal punishment and the breakdown of law and order when legal channels have become blocked. Revenge, however, precludes the possibility of eventual cooperation. Taylor's characters feel repeatedly the upsurge of anger that could lead them to revenge, but only in The Road to Memphis does that anger lead to violence; usually Taylor depicts the black community as venting its anger only in a prank or an attitude. An organized attempt at community action, such as the boycott of the Strawberry store organized by the Logans and supported by Jamison, is bound to fail as whites react by terrorizing blacks. Blacks experience the constant threat of violence, for anxiety makes the oppressor permanently vigilant against the slightest signs of insubordination, signs that nearly always trigger an excessive response. Shortly after the bus prank, therefore, when "night riders" terrorize the neighborhood, the Logan children connect it with their prank and Cassie is overwhelmed by the terror she will feel often during her childhood and adolescence.
How can a young person in such an environment still learn to value the idea of law? The values of personhood and community are instilled through the deep bonding among the members of the Logan family and their ability to "talk things out." Mary Logan's personal courage against injustice and David Logan's kind and disciplined nature provide the children with strong values. Moreover, David teaches his children separateness from whites as a means of survival. The family survives by finding strength in one another, for all attempts to reach out and change the injustices in the community fail, as the attempted boycott in Roll of Thunder or the thwarted labor union in Let the Circle Be Unbroken demonstrate. Publicly, the importance of law is projected for Cassie through Wade Jamison.
In spite of his ineffectualness, Jamison is a mentor to Cassie. It is he who gives her her favorite book, The Law: Case Histories of a Free Society. Not only is Cassie intrigued by the lines of argument, whose conclusions she likes to predict, but the case histories actualize the concepts of law through interpretation. Beginning with Let the Circle Be Unbroken, Cassie begins to be attracted to legal texts. Although the justice implicit in the texts prevails nowhere in the novels, Cassie increasingly sees in the texts the possibility for a just society.
In Let the Circle Be Unbroken, Cassie begins to be interested in the nature and argument of legal texts. The inciting moment occurs when the aged Mrs. Lee Annie decides to exercise her right to vote. In order to pass the literacy test, Mrs. Lee Annie needs to study her copy of the 1890 Mississippi Constitution, given to her by a judge. She wants Cassie to tutor her, but Cassie finds the print too small and the words too hard to understand, though Mrs. Lee Annie's decision interests her. As Mama tutors Mrs. Lee Annie, Cassie experiences a breakthrough in the thorny language of the text: "I suddenly found the dry words of the constitution beginning to take meaning. Mama explained that a number of the laws were quite good and in theory quite fair. The problem, however, was in the application, and if the judges and the courts really saw everyone as equal instead of as black or white, life would have been a lot pleasanter."
Although Taylor does not appeal to the "higher law" of God that motivated Martin Luther King Jr. so profoundly in his struggle for change through civil disobedience, she does accept the assumptions and enlightenment traditions that enabled King and the Civil Rights Movement to achieve major legal transformations. Without the framework of the Constitution as guarantor of the transcendent rights of individual equality, that struggle could not have led to the civil rights legislation of the 1960s. Taylor's faith can, of course, be problematized when we ask ourselves how the content and structures established by the Constitution institutionalize the privileges and differences a free and equal society seeks to avoid. The subtextual problematic of the Civil Rights Movement and of Taylor's novel, particularly in relation to Wade Jamison and Cassie, is the assumption that law is a sufficient means in the transformation of a racist society rather than a necessary first step. In the end Cassie begins to get in touch with this core problem as she senses that great historical struggles may not really eradicate the roots of prejudice. Young Cassie is on her way to becoming a rational and just individual who is aware that the temple of justice is always constructed on the Areopagus, the Hill of Ares, where the Furies are at best only tentatively persuaded to become the Eumenides, the kindly ones.
Source: Hamida Bosmajian, "Mildred Taylor's Story of Cassie Logan: A Search for Law and Justice in a Racist Society," in Children's Literature, Yale University Press, 1996, pp. 141-147, 151, 152, 159.
Davis-Undiano, Robert Con, "Mildred D. Taylor and the Art of Making a Difference," in World Literature Today, May-August 2004, pp. 11-13.
Dray, Phillip, At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America, Modern Library, 2002, p. iii.
Fritz, Jean, "For Young Readers," in New York Times, November 21, 1976, p. 262.
McDowell, Kelly, "Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry: A Culturally Specific, Subversive Concept of Child Agency," in Children's Literature in Education, Vol. 33, No. 3, September 2002, pp. 213-25.
Myrdal, Gunnar, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy, Transaction Publishers, 1995, originally published by Harper and Brothers, 1944.
Review of Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, by Booklist, excerpted in Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, by Mildred D. Taylor, Puffin Books, 1991.
Review of Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, by The Horn Book, excerpted in Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, by Mildred D. Taylor, Puffin Books, 1991.
Rochman, Hazel, "The Booklist Interview: Mildred Taylor," in Booklist, September 15, 2001, p. 221.
Stenson, Leah Deland, Review of Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, in School Library Journal, September 1976, p. 140.
Taylor, Mildred D., Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, Puffin Books, 1991, originally published by Dial Books, 1976.
Wells-Barnett, Ida B., The Red Record, IndyPublish.com, 2005, originally published in 1895.