At a Glance

Cassie Logan narrates this novel about growing up black in rural Mississippi. Cassie's grandfather was a former slave who was proud of the fact that he owned land. Now, the Logans live on the farm Cassie's grandfather bought with all the money he had.

  • Papa Logan returns from Louisiana with Mr. Morrison, a friend who has been fired from his job for fighting with white people. Mr. Morrison helps work the land, which has been threatened by the Logans' neighbors, the Grangers.

  • Though Cassie and the other children have many adventures, their lives are marred by the growing racial tensions in their community. "Night riders" have started burning the fields of African American landowners, and several people have been injured or killed.

  • The night riders finally come for the Logans, who set fire to their own crops to force their neighbors into helping them. At the end of the novel, the Logans have won the day, but are still beset on all sides by racism.


(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is a psychologically realistic, historically accurate picture of African American family life in rural Mississippi. It is also an excellent initiation novel about a young girl growing up to learn about the values and dangers of her Depression-era world.

The Logan family lives in Spokane County, Mississippi, on four hundred acres of land that Cassie Logan’s grandfather, a former slave, purchased years before. Harlan Granger, whose family originally owned the Logan property and who owns all the farms around it (now sharecropped by poorer black families), wants the Logan parcel back, and it is a struggle for the Logan family to hold onto their land. The novel is set in rural Mississippi in the early 1930’s, and conditions for African Americans could hardly be worse. Just how bad they are, Cassie Logan soon learns.

Cassie, who narrates the novel, is a smart, curious girl who loves her parents, especially her father, who is off working in Louisiana. When Papa Logan returns home in chapter 2, he is accompanied by Mr. Morrison, who has been fired from his railroad job for fighting with whites and whom Papa is bringing home to help protect the family against a recent wave of vigilante terrorism; distant neighbors have just been visited by the dreaded night riders, and one man has already died of burns.

Several plot lines grow out of this opening situation. Papa tells the children to stay away from the Wallaces’ crossroads store, knowing the Wallaces are involved in the recent terror, and he organizes a boycott. Mama is soon fired, allegedly for teaching black history but actually for being involved in the boycott. When Papa and Morrison go into Vicksburg for supplies, Papa is shot, and his leg is broken. Morrison saves Papa, but another income has been lost. As the momentum of the novel builds, these two stories coalesce: The fight to save the land from Harlan Granger and the fight against the racism and brutality of the Wallaces are intertwined, because the Wallace store is on Granger land.

After a series of adventures for both children and adults, the exciting climax comes when the night riders try to lynch T. J. Avery, a friend of the children who has been involved in a robbery. Stacey acts quickly, sending the other children to warn the Logans that the crowd will come to their house next. The resourceful David Logan sets fire to his own cotton field, which borders Harlan Granger’s land, and the mob rushes to put it out. Black and white, men and women, the community fights the fire through the night.

The crisis is not over. The land has been saved, the Logans have survived as a family and are probably even stronger, and two of the children—Cassie and Stacey—have learned more about the world of cruelty and injustice and how to maneuver in it safely. The novel does not end on any note of false optimism, however: the Logans are still poor, and racism and violence are still everywhere about them. “I cried for T. J.,” Cassie says at the end of the novel, “For T. J. and the land.” Her growth over the course of the novel indicates that the strong, independent Cassie will be able to operate in this racist society after the novel closes, but her tears at the end are also a sign of sadness for her loss of innocence.

In the course of the novel, Cassie comes to learn a great deal about the sacrifices her family is making to keep their land, about their struggle for equality, and about their pride in themselves and their heritage. As much as from anyone else, Cassie learns these lessons from her family; the Logans overwhelm readers with their warmth and mutual support. Big Ma tells Cassie about the importance of the Logan land and, by the lesson of her hard work in the Logan household, how much she is willing to do to hold on to it. Cassie’s mother is, like her daughter, a real rebel, but she is fired for holding on to her principles.


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Based to a large extent on Mildred D. Taylor’s experience as a child visiting relatives in Mississippi, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry depicts the many dimensions of the racism of the Deep South in the 1930’s. The Logan family is a strong, close-knit black family struggling to keep their four hundred acres of land during the hard times of the Depression. Against the forces of national economic catastrophe and intense social prejudice, they fight for the survival of their nuclear family, for freedom from racially motivated attacks, and for better educations and adequate livelihoods.

In the first of twelve chapters that encompass a year in the family’s life and in the community’s turmoil, Cassie Logan and her brothers, in their Sunday best, take the several-mile walk to The Great Faith Elementary and Secondary School, the large segregated school where black children begin their new school year in October after the cotton picking is finished. Cassie’s education in the harsh realities of the bigotry of her society begins. The open animosity of whites; the pervasive institutionalized racism in schools, commerce, and laws; and the nighttime violence of vicious vigilante gangs form the cultural context for her growth from innocence to experience. In the next few months of watching, listening, feeling, and thinking, she becomes aware for the first time of the importance that white people give to skin color, and she gradually recognizes how stifled the voices and lives of her family members truly are.

In the geography of racial hatred, rural Mississippi in the 1930’s is both homeland and heartland. Terror rules the day-to-day lives of black men and women, from the small-time intimidations of the white children’s schoolbus to the cold-blooded murders that go unacknowledged and unpunished. Cassie and her brothers seek what is “fair,” and the innocent child’s insistence on fairness grows into the adult’s desire for social justice. Stacey finds some secret fairness when they ambush the schoolbus, and Cassie finds satisfaction in her carefully orchestrated but hidden revenge on Lillian Jean Simms. Public justice, however, for the Berry family, the Barnetts, or T. J. Avery cannot be achieved. Cassie learns and keeps unspeakable secrets. Nine-year-old Cassie tells her story in first-person narration; it is the story of her education in the dangerous consequences of speech and her lessons in when to keep silent.

The warm bonds of love in the Logan family, their pains and their hopes, their individual and collective strength, and their intelligence and principled behavior are particularly dramatic in a novel in which white characters are few and villainous. One black character, T. J. Avery, seems a scoundrel, but next to the heinous crimes of the white people—the Wallaces and the Simmses—T. J.’s crimes seem petty and childlike.

The new year, 1934, brings an escalation of violence in the community as David Logan, Cassie’s father, is shot and his leg broken in a late-night Klan attack. The threat of danger to the Logan family has built continually, but through what seems to be a combination of cleverness and good luck they escape any more serious physical harm.

The climactic eleventh and twelfth chapters, in which T. J. is captured and beaten and is then saved from lynching by David Logan’s arson, open with a preface that sounds like a traditional spiritual. The first lines are an invocation, the enigmatic phrases of the novel’s title, “Roll of thunder/ hear my cry”; the last lines express determined defiance of the “Ole man” and his whip. This preface to the closing chapters connects the powers of physical nature with the eruption of personal pain into expression. The physical forces of fire and rain are connected in Cassie’s mind to the unbearable onslaught of yet more violence and wronging of her race as she watches and responds to the terror of that last night of her childhood.