Mildred D. Taylor Biography

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Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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.

Biography

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Mildred D. Taylor was born September 13, 1943, in Jackson, Mississippi. Three months after her birth her family moved to Toledo, Ohio, because her father was involved in what she calls a "racial incident." Taylor grew up in Ohio, attending the University of Toledo, where she majored in English education. After graduating, she served in the Peace Corps for two years in Ethiopia, followed by eight months as a recruiter and three more months as an instructor in a Peace Corps training camp.

In 1968, Taylor enrolled in a graduate program in journalism at the University of Denver, where she became active in the Black Student Alliance. After receiving a master's degree in 1969, she developed and coordinated a study skills program for a black studies program she had helped institute at the University of Denver. In 1971, Taylor moved to Los Angeles, where she tried to become a writer and supported herself through temporary office work. She had long wanted to write to provide readers with the black heroes that had been missing from her childhood schoolbooks. During this time, Taylor married Errol Zea-Daly, whom she divorced in 1975.

While living in Los Angeles, Taylor learned of a contest for minority writers sponsored by the Council on Interracial Books for Children. She quickly revised a story she had written earlier and, in 1974, won in the African American category. This short book was published as Song of the Trees in 1975. Since then, Taylor, who now lives in Denver, has been writing full time. Six of her books (three novels and three novellas) concern the Logans, a Black family living in Mississippi in the late 1930s and early 1940s. According to Taylor, this series (Song of the Trees; Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry; Let the Circle Be Unbroken; The Friendship; The Road to Memphis; and Mississippi Bridge) is based on the stories that her father told her as a child, and most of the characters are modeled after friends and relatives. In fact, The Road to Memphis is dedicated to her father "who lived many adventures of the boy, Stacey, and who was in essence the man, David." Another book, The Gold Cadillac, is based on Taylor's own childhood experiences.

Since her first book was published, Taylor has won a number of awards, including the Newbery Prize and West Germany's Buxtehuder Bulle Award for Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for The Friendship, and the Christopher Award for The Gold Cadillac. She has also won the Coretta Scott King Award three times, most recently for The Road to Memphis. Her books have been almost universally praised for their graceful, poetic style, their superb characterization, and their sensitive treatment of racial conflict in the American South.

Biography

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Mildred D. Taylor was born in Jackson, Mississippi, on November 13, 1943. Motivated by a racial incident, her father moved the family to Toledo, Ohio, when Taylor was only three weeks old. This migration did not diminish the family's devotion and attachment to the South, and Taylor grew up with a tremendous fascination for the region, eagerly anticipating annual visits there. She received her education in the Toledo schools, where she was an honor student, editor of the school newspaper, and a class officer.

While completing her college work at the University of Toledo, Taylor aspired to be a writer and a Peace Corps volunteer. Throughout her college years, she prepared herself by diligently researching the places she longed to visit. She volunteered with the Peace Corps in Ethiopia for two years and returned home to recruit new volunteers before beginning her journalistic training at the University of Colorado. At Colorado, Taylor was active in student government and participated in curriculum changes that emphasized black studies.

Taylor's novel Song of the Trees, set in Mississippi, introduces the Logan family. Song of the Trees won the Council on Interracial Books Award in the African-American category and was listed by the New York Times as an outstanding book of 1975. The following year, Taylor wrote another novel about the Logans: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. This book, which emphasizes family love, determination, pride, and dignified rebellion against racial injustice, won the Newbery Medal in 1977.

Let the Circle Be Unbroken, which was nominated for the 1982 National Book Award, resumes the Logan family saga, dramatizing many of the themes and ideas dominant in Taylor's earlier works. The racial confrontations remain, but Taylor emphasizes the effects of family unity in the face of hostile social forces. Taylor continues to write full-time, and her own strong family bonds contribute significantly to her fiction.

Bibliography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Bosmajian, Hamida. “Mildred Taylor’s Story of Cassie Logan: A Search for Law and Justice in a Racist Society.” Children’s Literature 24 (1996): 141-160. A perceptive essay that explores the treatment of racism and justice in Taylor’s works, especially in relation to Cassie Logan. A solid examination of themes common to Taylor’s writings.

Crowe, Chris. Presenting Mildred D. Taylor. New York: Twayne, 1999. This introduction to Taylor and her work provides biographical information; cultural context, especially of the Civil Rights movement, for her novels; critical analysis; and a bibliography.

Harper, Mary Turner. “Merger and Metamorphosis in the Fiction of Mildred D. Taylor.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 13 (Summer, 1988): 75-80. Examines the first four books as culturally conscious fiction.

Osa, Osayimwense. “Africanism in African American Children’s Literature: Mildred Taylor’s Song of the Trees and The Friendship and Eleanora Tate’s The Secret of Gumbo Grave.” Obsidian 3 (Spring, 2001): 89-99. Discusses the way the two writers, in drawing upon their childhoods for their fiction, also demonstrate the continuities of African themes in African American literature.

Scales, Pat. “Mildred D. Taylor: Keeper of Stories.” Language Arts 80 (January, 2003): 240-244. A short profile of Taylor and her novels.

Smith, Karen. “A Chronicle of Family Honor: Balancing Rage and Triumph in the Novels of Mildred D. Taylor.” In African American Voices in Young Adult Literature: Tradition, Transition, Transformation, edited by Karen P. Smith. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1994. Smith explores the treatment of the African American family in Mississippi during the Depression.

Taxel, Joel. “Reclaiming the Voice of Resistance: The Fiction of Mildred Taylor.” In The Politics of the Textbook, edited by Michael W. Apple and Linda K. Christian-Smith. New York: Routledge, 1991. Demonstrates Taylor’s power and the forthrightness of her treatment of African American history and heritage, particularly in her first two novels.