Born in Jackson, Mississippi in 9143, Mildred Taylor was no stranger to racism. Discrimination pervaded everyday life in the segregated south. Almost as soon as Mildred was born, her parents Wilbert Lee and Deletha Marie Taylor moved to Ohio: part of the great migration of Africa-Americans.
Yet in spite of moving, the family returned to visit friends and family. Staying in contact with her roots led Mildred Taylor to a career in storytelling. "The telling of family stories was a regular feature of Taylor family gatherings. Family storytellers told about the struggles relatives and friends faced in a racist culture, stories that revealed triumph, pride, and tragedy," (Crowe). While visiting her family, Taylor learned about her ancestral roots and how slavery played a major part in forming the personal and collective identities of African-Americans like herself.
Back in Toledo, Taylor attended the integrated Scott High School and graduated in 1961. She went on to attend the University of Toledo and graduated college in 1965, after which Taylor joined the Peace Corps and served for two years in Ethiopia. After Taylor returned to the United States, she obtained her Master's degree from the University of Colorado and began a writing career in earnest. Taylor notes, ironically, that she "had never particularly liked to write," and claimed, "nor was I exceptionally good at it." However, Taylor nurtured dreams of conveying the stories of her childhood, bringing those tales to life and thereby immortalizing the experiences of her forebears. "I do not know how old I was when the daydreams became more than that, and I decided to write them down, but by the time I entered high school, I was confident that I would one day be a writer," (Taylor)
Taylor's career took off with flying colors. Her first book earned Taylor the Council on Interracial Books for Children Award in 1974. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry was Taylor's second novel, for which she received the 1977 Newbery Award from the American Library Association (Crowe). Most of Taylor's writings are "based on stories from her own family, stories she learned at family gatherings throughout her life," and the "characters are based on family members or acquaintances she has known or learned about," (Crowe).
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is narrated by nine-year-old Cassie Logan. Set in Mississippi during the Great Depression, the novel details several themes including poverty, racism, and the link between the two. Cassie also talks about her relationships with her three brothers, Stacey, Christopher-John, and Little Man. Characterization is one of the strongest aspects of Taylor's Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. A middle child, Cassie's narrative is as much about growing up in a household of boys as it is about being black in the American South during one of the toughest periods in African-American history. Slavery has officially ended a generation ago, but racism persists to the point at which actual rights and the daily lives of black Americans have not yet reflected the rule of law. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry would become the start of a saga about the Logan family, establishing Taylor as a preeminent African-American author.
Stacey is the eldest of the Logan children at twelve years old; Cassie is nine, Christopher-John in seven, and the "meticulously neat" Little Man is aged six (2 Taylor, p. 3-4). The Logan family owns land: which is in itself a remarkable feat. The four hundred acres they own is not paid off in full, of course, and Papa Logan works off his debt by working on the railroads. The previous owner of the land is an embittered angry white man Mr. Granger.
The politics of race emerge early in Cassie's narrative. At school, Cassie notices how the textbooks they read institutionalize racism, discrimination, and the perpetuation of African-American poverty. Using detailed accounts, Taylor shows how racism impacts the daily lives of African-Americans like the Logan family. For example, the story opens with the four Logan children walking to school. Little Man walks slow in an attempt to stay neat and clean, but a school bus filled with white students drives by and sprays Little Man with dirt. The incident is symbolic of the ways white privilege tramples on the rights of African-Americans. White children take a bus to school, while Black children trek through the dirt. White Americans mockingly sully and stain the dreams of their Black counterparts.
In a similar incident, the white school bus drenches the Logan children on their way to school. This time, Stacey takes the lead and tricks the driver into heading into a ditch. After that, the white school bus is out of commission. Stacey symbolically equalizes the races by ensuring that the white children as well as the black children are without a school bus.
Cassie is remarkably aware of the role discrimination plays in her life. At nine-years old she becomes precocious, asking her teacher why the school textbook clearly states that white children are to receive the books in pristine new conditions, whereas the torn and tattered texts are given to the "nigra" kids. Instead of offering the truth as an explanation, the teacher whips Cassie and Little Man, who had refused to accept second-hand goods. When the kids show the offending book to Mrs. Logan, their mother covers up the racist chart. The incident points to the ways parents try to shield their children from uncomfortable truths about living in a racist society. Yet Mrs. Logan is far from being in denial about the South's social ills. Mama Logan helps organize a boycott of the Wallace Store, which is known for being associated with the lynch mob called the "night men."
Several sinister examples of racism permeate Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. Early in the novel, one of the townsmen Sam Tatum is tarred and feathered. His crime: protesting being cheated by a white man, Jim Lee Barnett. Just as Little Man and Cassie were simply pointing out the truth about discrimination, Sam Tatum did the same and was punished for it.
Cassie recalls several other incidents, viewed through her young eyes, in which overt violence and torture are used against African-Americans. The burning alive of John Henry Berry becomes a pivotal part of the narrative, because it leads to the boycotting of the Wallace store. There are burnings, lynchings, and killings. There is little to nothing families like the Logans can do about it except to bond together. Storytelling, including the retelling of real-life incidents of murder and hatred, becomes one of the methods by which the African-American community survives.
Bonding and solidifying family ties is one of the core ways the Logan family copes. They also try to join forces with their black friends and neighbors against the tyranny of the local whites. Boycotting the Wallace store becomes a form of peaceful protest as well as a creative means of subverting white supremacy.
Cassie and her brothers form their identity as much in response to racism as to the relationships they have with their family. When Cassie, Stacey, and Stacey's friend TJ visit the nearby town of Strawberry, they see how racism affects daily interactions with whites. A store proprietor ignores his black customers every time a white patron enters the store. Finally when Cassie tries to get his attention in protest, the shopkeeper yells at her. That same day, Cassie is forced to apologize to a white girl who she accidentally bumped into; until that moment Cassie had not yet experienced racism that was directly aimed at her. White power determines the social structure of the south. Later, Cassie tries to resurrect her dignity by falsely befriending the girl.
Being subversive is the only real means by which African-Americans can combat humiliation. The boycottof the Wallace store,…