Monday, January 20, 2020

Reading Through History: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor (1976)

Cassie Logan is a young black girl living with her family in 1930s Mississippi, during the Great Depression. It is a great point of pride with the Logans that they own their own land, as this is representative of freedom and independence unknown to their slave ancestors or to their sharecropping neighbors. Over the course of a year, Cassie's young eyes witness many troubling instances of racism, from the night rides and burnings affecting local black families, to her own experience with a girl her own age who asserts her sense of superiority just because she can. As Cassie works to make sense of these events, she sees the adults in her family remain true to themselves and their ideals in the face of any adversity that comes their way.

This 1977 Newbery medal winner is written in a straightforward - not flowery - style, but the way Taylor describes the characters and events of her story is memorable. Each moment of the story helps the reader to understand the complicated relationships between whites and blacks that defined this time period in the South. Not only does the author include very salient moments of blatant and intentional racism, but she also highlights the difficulties white characters have when they try to stick their necks out and show kindness toward black families. Even the best-intentioned white characters can't make the difference they might desire without putting their own lives and families in danger, so high do tensions run between the races. I appreciate that the author includes all the complexities of the issue of racism and resists simply vilifying all white characters as equally evil.

I wrote down one quotation from this book, which is a brief exchange between Cassie and her mother. Cassie is upset that a white girl's father believes his daughter to be superior to Cassie simply because of the color of her skin, and Cassie says, "“Ah, shoot! White ain't nothin'!” But her mother gently corrects her, saying: "It is something, Cassie. White is something just like black is something. Everybody born on this earth is something and nobody, no matter what color, is better than anybody else." I was struck by the fact that Mrs. Logan doesn't allow her daughter to dehumanize white people in the same way that the white family in question routinely dehumanizes her family, and it gave me a real sense of her strength, courage, and overall moral character. 

I don't think I connected with these characters quite as strongly as I have with those in books by Christopher Paul Curtis, who is my favorite middle grade author of fiction about black history, but I still thought this book was a solid introduction to the history of racism in the U.S. I'm curious now about the sequels, especially the recently published All the Days Past, All the Days to Come, which explores the Logan children's experiences as they mature into adulthood from 1944 to 1963. 

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