Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, by Mildred D Taylor. Dial Books, 1976

external image cover.jpg

"Roll of thunder, hear my cry,
Over the water, bye and bye,
Ole man comin' down the line,
Whip in hand to beat me down,
But I ain't gonna let him turn me 'round..."

Plot Overview:
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, by Mildred D. Taylor, is a book that explores Southern racial segregation and discrimination as seen through the eyes of nine-year-old Cassie Logan. The book opens with Cassie and her three brothers, Stacey, Christopher-John, and Little Man walking to school with their friends T.J. and Claude Avery. Every day the children must walk for over an hour to reach their segregated all-black school because the district will not provide a bus for them, but they must hide everyday from the white children's bus because the bus driver "liked to entertain his passengers by sending [them] slipping along the road to the almost inaccessable forest banks" (43). To get their revenge, the Logan children dig a huge ditch in the middle of the road that the bus slides into, causing it to break down and forcing its white passengers to walk to school for several weeks.

The plot moves forward and the racial prejudices and violence continue to grow, much to the consternation and confusion of Cassie. Most of the violence we see is committed by the Wallaces, a white family that owns the local convenience store. When the Logans decide to rally together the black community in a boycott against the store, racial tensions reach their boiling point, and the Wallaces, along with their supporter Mr. Granger, try everything they can to frighten the local black families. The Logans, who own their own land, which was rare at this time, are hit especially hard because the Grangers and the Wallaces focus a lot of their aggression towards them. As threats and hardships befall them and friendships are both tested and broken, the only thing the Logans know they can count on is family. The novel follows the family through their struggle to keep their land and fight racial hatred, while still trying to maintain a sense of dignity, fairness, and equality for all.

From the moving beginning scenes to the bittersweet end, this book is a page turner that readers will find hard to put down.

“Baby, we have no choice of what color we’re born or who our parents are or whether we’re rich or poor. What we do have is some choice over what we make of our lives once we’re here” (129). These words of wisdom from mama to Cassie seem to jump off the page and cause the reader to stop a minute to ponder. We can all think of examples of people throughout history who have risen above circumstances of abuse, poverty, prejudice, and a seemingly insignificant childhood; on the other hand, we also are very familiar with T.J’s in life who, with no real direction, quickly get caught up with the wrong crowd, try to gain approval in the wrong way, and end up paying for their poor decisions for the rest of their lives. One wonders what causes some to rise above situations in life and succeed, while others seem to drown in a sea of regret. Rejection, prejudice, and unfairness have always been present in societies and, while many of us haven’t had to deal with racial prejudice, we can identify in some way with Taylor’s themes of rising above seemingly unfair circumstances, allowing struggles to make us stronger, and taking pride in our strengths while not dwelling on our weaknesses. These very prevalent themes throughout Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry will allow students, black or white, rich or poor, popular or unpopular to identify with a character, get caught up in the book and , hopefully, draw important parallels and life lessons while reading, discussing and writing in the classroom.

One of the main symbols in the story is the Logan land. Although land ownership may not seem significant today, in a time where African Americans had nothing to call their own, land was worth fighting for. Nine-year old Cassie spends much of the novel ignorant to the importance of the land until the slew of racial events in the end opens her eyes. Owning their own land means having collateral, credit and, ultimately, security. With this land, the Logan's have the ability to hurt the Wallace's by offering their land as credit to the grocery store in Vicksburg which allows the African Americans an alternative place to grocery shop. In the end, in an effort to save T.J., Cassie's Papa is forced to sacrifice the very land they are fighting so hard to keep. At the end of the novel, as the negativity starts to calm down and the community as a whole (blacks and whites alike) come together to combat the fire, Cassie states, "Papa had found a way, as mama had asked, to make Mr. Granger stop the hanging: He [Papa] had started the fire" (273). In this sense, the Logan land was the difference between life and death as it's destruction saves T.J. from been hung.
external image 23128466.jpg
Another symbol in the story is the pearl-handled gun that T.J. is so fascinated with. In a sense, the gun represents T.J's American Dream. T.J. values power and importance which he thinks having this gun can provide. T.J states, "I'd sell my life for that gun. One of these days I'm gonna have it, too" (108). Both assertions that he makes are accurate. This scene foreshadows the end of the story, for T.J. sells his life for the gun. This false hope of obtaining the American Dream is supported by the Marxist theory. Because T.J is so obsessed with the gun, he is blinded by the false pretenses with which his so-called friends lead him in obtaining it. In this same way, many people give all of themselves for a dream that is unattainable.

external image 2003.jpgAbout the Author:
Mildred Delois Taylor was born in Jackson, Mississippi on September 13, 1943. When she was only three months old, her parents moved her to Toledo, Ohio -- a newly integrated town where she could receive an education equal to a white student's (something she could not get in segregated Mississippi). In 1965, Taylor began college at the University of Toledo; and after graduating, she went into the Peace Corps for two years and was stationed in Ethiopia. Upon returning, Taylor started work on her master's degree at the University of Colorado School of Journalism, and thereafter began her writing career.

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry was Taylor's second novel, written in 1976. Since she began writing, she has created nine novels -- all of them dealing with the Logan family. What is perhaps most interesting about the Logan saga is that it is based off of Taylor's own family history. In the Author's Note of Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, she tells us,

"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, you who would not let their spirits be enslaved."

The stories she tells us, although fiction, come to us from the true stories of hardship, racism, and eventual triumph of her own family. While the characters and events that take place within the novel are fancified and elaborated, the place from which they start is a very real one for our author and her family.

Racial Segregation: Now and Then
Countless stories about the hardships racial segregation have surfaced throughout the past five decades. Throughout the 1940’s and 1external image waitingroomga2.jpg950’s racial segregation was not uncommon in public schools. Schools were said to be “equal” however, the African American schools were severely lacking in supplies and educational quality. The most famous (and influential) case which fought against racial segregation was that of Linda Brown. Brown’s family attempted to enroll her in a white school. After the Principal's refusal to admit her into the school, Brown’s family started a legal case, which was successful, making segregation in schools illegal.
external image colored_water_fountain.jpgAlthough this occurrence marks a huge step up from racial segregation, the hardships certainly did not end there. African Americans continued to be treated unfairly in many aspects of their lives including the job market and residences. An article published in the Los Angeles Business Journal (2000) by Earl Hutchinson delves into the racial segregation still affecting the L.A. area (which claims to be extremely ethically diverse and accepting). According to the article, studies show that Latinos and Blacks are more likely to be found living in “racially isolated neighborhoods plagued by gaping shortfalls in police and fire services, with their children attending pitifully under-funded schools.” ( Hutchinson) The article also goes on to explain that the situation is not improving. Although society as come a long way from the blunt hardships of racial segregation in the past, we still have a long way to go before things can safely be considered “perfect”.

“Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children…a sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn.” - NAACP

Other Novels by Mildred D. Taylor:

- Song of the Trees (1975)
- Let the Circle Be Unbroken (1981)
- The Gold Cadillac (1987)
- The Friendship (1987)
- Mississippi Bridge (1990)
- The Road to Memphis (1990)
- The Well (1995)
- The Land (2001)

Other Resources for Students and Teachers:

Library of Congress - Born into Slavery
Mildred D. Taylor’s ALAN Award acceptance speech
The National Civil Rights Museum
Example Teacher Guide, “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry” Unit
Example Internet Hunt, “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry”l
Teacher Vision enrichment guides, “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry”l
About Mildred D. Taylor. Includes study guides for her books, and links to other resources about her and her books.
The Mississippi Writer's Page

Example of a Student Project: