Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor

rollofthunder

Today, however, younger generations have no experience of that time when signs over rest-room doors, sings over water fountains, in restaurant windows and hotels said: WHITE ONLY, COLORED NOT ALLOWED. Today’s generation of children, as well as many of their parents and teachers, have not had to endure such indignities or even worse aspects of racism that once pervaded America, and I am grateful for that. But, unfortunately, as we all know, racism still exists.

-Mildred Taylor, Foreword to the 25th Anniversary edition of Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry

Until quite recently, I had not read Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, despite several people suggesting it to me. And then I was tired of middle grade fantasy that takes the same old tired tropes and recycles them without using them to do something new, and so I sat down and started to read Cassie Logan’s story.

I wish I had read it years ago; I am so glad I have read it now.

Days later, I still can’t stop thinking about how relevant–how tragically relevant–this book is today. The systems that held the Logan family and even the well-meaning whites helpless still exist, in our under-funded urban schools, our prison systems, our justice system that does not convict those who murder black men. I cannot stop thinking about T.J., about Trayvon Martin, about Jordan Davis, all the young black boys who are killed for the crime of not being perfect, who are killed for the crime of existing.

In one sense, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is the story of young black siblings growing up and becoming aware of the world they live in, that you can’t walk on the sidewalk, go to this town, talk to those people. Because you’re black. It is the story of their struggle to understand this system and what it means. Stacey cannot be friends with Jeremy, though they both might want to, and part of his maturing is realizing that this is true and accepting it.

If you want to see the pain of racism, its effects on everyone it touches, you should read this book.

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

But of course, this is only part of the story. And I was equally struck by another aspect, by the strength of the Logan family and the way they are portrayed. They, especially David, the children’s father, show the spirit that echoes through the titular song. There is understanding of the way the world is, and yet a refusal to accept it and give up. David Logan picks his battles, but he does fight. And again and again, despite their relative helplessness (30 years before “I Have a Dream”, deep in Mississippi, with no support) the Logan family chooses to do what’s right. Even Mary, perhaps more cautious than the others, pastes over the school books that show how little the white authorities care for black children. She does not win; they cannot win; they do it anyway.

And at the same time, despite the moral courage of all these characters, there is also understanding of the fact that they are relatively privileged. They are not sharecroppers, they have the land. This is explicitly spelled out by David to Stacey: “You were born blessed, boy, with land of your own. If you hadn’t been, you’d cry out for it while you try to survive…like Mr. Lanier and Mr. Avery. Maybe even do what they doing now. It’s hard on a man to give up, but sometimes it seems there just ain’t nothing else he can do.”

I was also struck by the sense of history, of family history, that’s present throughout. The stories of Paul-Edward, the children’s grandfather, and of his parents are told routinely. Cassie and the other Logan siblings have this history rooted in them, the history of slavery, freedom, hope, and the land. This is powerful, partly because it helps the reader really understand the motivations of David and Uncle Hammer, but also because it makes clear that the Logans remember the past, keep it alive, that their family history is important and real and vivid. Their lives are important and real and vivid. They matter.

And at the same time as all of this, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is the story of a young girl as she grows up. Cassie bickers with her siblings, she is afraid, she is lonely. She delights in the physical world around her; she sorrows over the world she lives in. She is flawed and human and wonderful. Her voice shines out through the pages of the book as clearly as though she were speaking, and her narration at the end is beautiful and terrible and absolutely pitch-perfect. More than any of the other Logans, even Stacey, she walked straight into my heart.

My father and the other storytellers told my family’s history truly, and it is this history that I have related in my books. When there was humor, my family passed it on. When there was tragedy, they passed it on. When the words hurt, they passed them on. My stories will not be ‘politically correct,’ so there will be those who will be offended by them, but as we all know, racism is offensive.
It is not polite, and it is full of pain.

-Mildred Taylor, Foreword to the 25th Anniversary edition of Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry

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2 Comments

Filed under bookish posts, reviews

2 responses to “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor

  1. Pingback: March 2014 reading list | By Singing Light

  2. Pingback: 2014: Favorite middle grade books | By Singing Light

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