Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 916
Mildred Delois Taylor has distinguished and endeared herself to thousands of readers, young and old, through her unique depiction of the American black experience, both painful and joyful, both traumatic and heroic. She was born in the segregated South to parents who did not want to raise their children under racism. When Taylor was still an infant, the family moved from Jackson, Mississippi, to Toledo, Ohio, where her father found employment in a factory. In the course of the family’s frequent journeys south to visit relatives, Taylor became sensitive to the different manifestations of racial prejudice in the North and South. The family had to drive through the night when motels did not accept them, and they had to avoid the main roads for fear of being pulled over and harassed by police. (The story of such humiliation and fear would eventually be told in her novella The Gold Cadillac.) Taylor also learned a great deal about the South through the family stories that riveted her attention and that would provide both the inspiration and much of the content for her Logan stories.
Racism was not confined to the South, however. On a family trip to California when she was nine, Taylor discovered that for them second-class citizenship stretched from coast to coast: There were motels and restaurants all along the way that did not welcome blacks. She learned more about America when she and her family moved into a solid middle-class neighborhood and watched their white neighbors raise the For Sale signs in their front yards. The desire to tell the truth of her people’s experience grew inside the young student, especially when she noted again and again that her school texts consistently rendered a distorted version of black history in America. However, the stories she wrote during her high school and college years were not yet publishable, and her aspirations to become a writer were put on hold when, after graduating from the University of Toledo in 1965, Taylor joined the Peace Corps and taught English and history for two very happy years in Ethiopia. In September, 1968, she enrolled in the School of Journalism at the University of Colorado. There she also became a leader in the Black Student Alliance, which helped bring about black studies and black education programs on many campuses.
Eventually Taylor settled in Los Angeles, where she began to pursue the art of writing seriously. It was there too that she married a man from Central America in 1972. Although the marriage would fail, her writing did not. In October, 1973, she entered a writing contest sponsored by the Council on Interracial Books for Children. A few months later she learned that she had won; the signing of her first book contract followed, and in the spring of 1975 Song of the Trees introduced the Logan family to the reading public. This novella, based on family history, presents a unified black family whose dignity and pride as landowners make them stand tall against the white racists who tried to steal their trees. The work was cited as an Outstanding Book of the Year by The New York Times. Taylor’s dream had come true: She had become an author.
The Logan books that followed continued to reflect the writer’s immersion in the family story-well, filled during those many visits to the South when young Mildred had eagerly soaked up from her father and her uncles the oral history of black families and characters whose courage and self-respect defied the racism that tried to reduce them to insignificance. Those stories about parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, neighbors, and friends were sometimes humorous, often tragic, but they were important, for they taught her her own history and compelled her to write about it. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry featured young Cassie Logan as its spunky narrator, through whom the reader experiences black family life in rural Mississippi during the Depression. The Logans struggle to keep their land, their lives, and their dignity when bigotry and injustice threaten to take it all away. The book’s powerful narrative creates a deeply sympathetic portrayal through richly detailed characters and dramatic action, spiced with many moments of mischief and humor. The novel won the Newbery Medal and many other awards. It was all the encouragement Taylor needed.
The five Logan novels that followed succeed admirably in maintaining this high quality of rendering racial discrimination and humiliation through vibrant prose, compelling characters, and provocative themes. Again and again the malignant and frequently terrifying presence of white contempt and hate inflicts its evil on blacks, both children and adults. Taylor’s Civil War and Reconstruction era prequel to Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, 2001’s The Land, won Coretta Scott King Book Award, Scott O’Dell Historical Fiction Award, and PEN Center West Literary Award for children’s literature.
Taylor avoids indulging in the stereotyping that she had discovered in the textbooks of her youth: The whites in her fiction can be vicious, like Charlie Simms; they can also be noble, like Jeremy Simms. Although the blacks are often shaken and bent by the power and meanness of white neighbors, they are not broken. Through fierce pride, loving family bonds, and a strong spirit of community, the Logans and others cope and survive. Taylor’s novels engender anger in the reader but ultimately not so much bitterness as hope—hope in the power of family, moral goodness, dignity, and self-respect to defeat the evils of racism.
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