Let the Circle Be Unbroken Themes
by Mildred D. Taylor

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Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

As a sequel to the Newbery Medal-winning Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (1976), Let the Circle Be Unbroken shows the work of a careful craftswoman mastering the art form of the African American story in fiction. With vividness, persuasion, and wit, Taylor demonstrates that pride, independence, and determination can sustain a family against segregation and economic disaster. Through Cassie, her lead character, Taylor wants younger Americans to understand the level of discrimination, disfranchisement, and hard times that two earlier generations fought under segregation.

High on Taylor’s list of concerns is what she sees as an unjust judicial system designed for whites only and supported by a vicious vigilantism against which African Americans are defenseless. The child T. J., for example, is found guilty of murder only because of the color of his skin; his friends, Stacey and Moe, are arrested and detained only because they are black; Dube Cross, an impoverished sharecropper, is singled out in a racially mixed union action for severe punishment because he is a “nigger.” Additionally, African Americans who attempt to register to vote can still be lynched or lose their property. R. W. and Melvin Simms are allowed to bear witness against a black friend for a crime that they themselves committed, Mrs. Barnett does not have to see the color of a criminal to know that he is black, and an attorney cannot prevail in a Mississippi court of law defending a black person against whites. All whites are not set against African Americans, however; Jamison gives the Logans sound advice, and white sharecroppers join with African Americans to fight the injustice of big planters.

The novel mirrors the miserable conditions under which post-Reconstruction sharecroppers lived in the South and the genesis of their displacement from rural areas to poor urban centers. During the Depression, neighborhoods were destroyed by powerful, greedy landowners who forced thousands of poor, landless sharecroppers to live at their mercy or flee the plantations. The scene with the Crosses and the Turners is very moving. The former is fatherless and reduced to mendicancy, but that is too degrading for proud Dube Cross, the teenage breadwinner, so he joins the union to fight for change. Moe Turner is optimistic that each year his family will escape the vicious cycle of poverty and indebtedness to the plantation, but they are wiped out by the Depression, so Moe runs away in search of work. Propertied African Americans also walk a treacherous road under segregation. Their dogged determination to be self-supporting contradicts their status as defined in a segregated economy: black, poor, landless, dependent, and ignorant. Only the black church provides a source of strength and hope, and family moral values and tradition keep African Americans from total deprivation.

At every turn of the novel, Taylor exposes her readers to the psychology and degradation of segregation, especially through the feelings of the children. The Suzella episode underscores the fact that a light complexion could earn a girl automatic acceptance among whites until a taint of blackness was found in her. Cassie and her brothers must be subservient to their white counterparts, and vigilantes lynch African Americans for marrying whites. Just as degrading is the fact that Papa and Mama are required to bow to whites and address them as “sir” and “madam,” even when those whites are young enough to be their grandchildren, while whites call them “boy” or “nigger” and treat them as subhuman.

This well-crafted demonstration of the impact of segregation and the Depression on a black family seems almost biographical. Taylor gives readers invaluable insights into the crisis of existence for African Americans under segregation. She does this with such savoir faire and controlled power that it takes a perceptive reader to suspect that Taylor’s own family, two post-Reconstruction generations, is...

(The entire section is 1,187 words.)