What is the most important part in Chapter 5 of Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry?

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The most important event from this chapter is Cassie’s altercation with Lillian Jean, the white girl who behaves in a racist manner toward her. 

Even as an African-American child, Cassie doesn’t have many experiences with the harsh realities of racism.  The incidents with the hand-me-down schoolbooks and the white bus’s harassment of them are minor compared to what she goes through with Lillian Jean. 

Big Ma had always refused to let Cassie and the other younger children accompany her on shopping trips, so when she allowed Cassie to come it was a big deal.  T.J.s father had asked Big Ma to bring him into town with her, so she brought Cassie and Stacey along so T.J. would talk to them instead of her. 

Racism rears its ugly head during the entire trip.  Cassie is completely confused when her grandmother chooses her spot for selling her eggs and milk.  It is very far from the entrance and nowhere near where the other wagons are setting up.  Her grandmother tells her that the other wagons are “white folks’ wagons.” 

T.J. wants to go into the mercantile, to look at a pearl-handled gun.  Stacey asks him why he wants a gun, and he says he needs it for protection.  T.J. starts to shop but then Mr. Barnett stops waiting on him and begins waiting on another customer.  Cassie doesn’t understand why.  

She thinks it might be because the customer is an adult and T.J. is a kid.  Then a white girl is served.  Cassie begins to get frustrated and speaks up, which causes a scene.  Mr. Barnett asks, “Whose little nigger is this!” and Cassie is humiliated, yelling back, “I ain’t nobody’s little nigger!” Mr. Barnett tells Stacey to get Cassie out of there. 

That was Cassie’s first real experience with racism.  She didn’t really understand that, as a black boy, T.J. would be served last.  She also didn’t realize that she shouldn't talk back to the white shopkeeper.  The scene she caused did not make sense to the people in the shop.  Things get worse, however.

Cassie runs into a white girl, Lillian Jean, who says that she bumped her.   

“Well, apologize,” she ordered.

“What?”

“You bumped into me. Now you apologize.”

I did not feel like messing with Lillian Jean. I had other things on my mind. “Okay,” I said, starting past, “I’m sorry.” (Ch. 5)

Cassie has had a long day, and she has already had one embarrassing, confusing, and humiliating encounter, so she apologizes.  Lillian Jean makes it worse by demanding that Cassie get down into the dirt so she can pass.  She is lording her race over Cassie, trying to make her feel inferior.

Lillian Jean's brother Jeremy, who is not racist and is Stacey's friend, tries to get Lillian Jean to back down.  Their father has other ideas though.  He actually physically attacks Cassie, shoving her back.

I braced myself and swept my arm backward, out of Lillian Jean’s reach. But someone caught it from behind, painfully twisting it, and shoved me off the sidewalk into the road. I landed bottom first on the ground.
Mr. Simms glared down at me. “When my gal Lillian Jean says for you to get yo’self off the sidewalk, you get, you hear?”  (Ch. 5)

Cassie says she apologized already, and she finds herself with Big Ma, who tells her to apologize.  She does.  She still does not really understand, and believes it is the cruelest day of her life.  The realities of racism have come crashing down on her.

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Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry

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