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Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry

by Mildred D. Taylor

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Historical Context

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Published in 1976, Mildred Taylor’s novel Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry won multiple awards, including the 1977 Newbery Medal. Set in Mississippi in 1933, the story is told from the perspective of Cassie Logan, a nine-year-old girl living with her family on their own land at a time when land ownership for Black Americans was the exception rather than the rule. This is the era of Black codes, Jim Crow laws, and explicitly legal segregation. Taylor weaves historical research throughout the story to paint a vivid picture of this fraught period of American history.

Sharecropping and Land Ownership

After the Civil War, Southern states were given an enormous amount of freedom to rebuild their governments, and it wasn’t long before Black codes appeared. Their purpose was to maintain White supremacy in the South and prevent former slaves from exercising their new freedoms. These codes made it difficult for Black people to make decent wages or go into business for themselves. Sharecropping became one way that White Southerners extracted cheap labor from former slaves. Families could live on part of the land owned by a wealthy White person, raise its crops, and give a percentage of the crop to the landowner at the conclusion of the harvest. Both White and Black farmers sharecropped in the years after the Civil War. But as time went on, sharecropping created a vicious cycle of poverty that primarily impacted Black families. Black farming families were dependent on stores operated by White landowners, who often padded sharecroppers’ store accounts with things they didn’t purchase. In some cases, landowners charged greater percentages of crops and greater interest rates in exchange for store credit. The system was set up to keep Black sharecroppers in constant debt and powerless to obtain financial independence.

In Roll of Thunder, Cassie’s parents orchestrate a boycott of the local store, which is owned by a murderous White family. Before long, the sharecroppers of the community are threatened by the White landowners, and are forced to drop out of the boycott:

“Mr. Granger making it hard on us, David. Said we gonna have to give him sixty percent of the cotton, ‘stead of fifty. . . . But—but that ain’t all Mr. Granger said. Said, too, we don’t give up this shoppin’ in Vicksburg, we can jus’ get off his land. Says he tired of us stirrin’ up trouble ‘gainst decent white folks.”

Because they are landowners, the Logans have an independence that sharecropping families—like their friend T. J.’s—do not.

Separate but Equal

The Supreme Court ruled in the 1896 court case Plessy v. Ferguson that segregation in the United States was legal as long as facilities were equally distributed and maintained. However, facilities were typically inequitable. Florida passed a law in 1885 that segregated its schools by race. Texas segregated its water fountains, restrooms, and waiting rooms. Other states passed similar laws. Seventeen Southern states banned Black people from enrolling in land-grant colleges. Schools for Black students received far less public funding than their White counterparts, and they often had to use outdated equipment and textbooks.

Early in the novel, Cassie describes the school the White students attend, with its expansive lawn, sports field, bleachers, and buses. She then describes the school the Black students attend—“a dismal end to an hour’s journey.” On the first day of school, Cassie’s teacher excitedly announces that they will have textbooks this year. The books, however, are the throwaways from the White school, complete with each student’s name and race recorded in the front.

Terrorism, Night Riders, and Lynchings

In the post-Civil War South, Black codes were laws enacted to maintain social control over the former slaves of the South. One way White people in the South maintained their supremacy extralegally was through terrorist activities, which went largely unpunished by the justice system. If a Black person was accused of virtually anything by a White person, the White person’s word was accepted as the truth. False or exaggerated charges were not unusual. A prevalent and malicious stereotype in the South portrayed Black men as dangerous to women. A Black man accused of so much as flirting with a White woman could have been captured by a vigilante mob and then possibly lynched, tarred and feathered, or even set afire. These public executions were often treated like spectacles by crowds of White onlookers and served to remind Black communities of their powerlessness.

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry addresses these horrific activities from early in the story. The Logans’ gossipy friend T. J. tells them on the first day of school that “some white men took a match” to the Berry family, a Black gentleman and his nephew. The reason for the attack is not given until later; it turns out that someone accused one of the Berrys of making contact with a White woman. A few evenings later, Cassie and her brothers are doing homework when T. J.’s father comes by to announce that “They’s ridin’ tonight.” “They” are the mob of White men who roam the countryside, looking to punish Black people whom they believe have stepped out of their designated social roles in some way. Cassie doesn’t fully understand the implications due to her age, but she is aware that her mother, grandmother, and their houseguest, Mr. Morrison, stay up all night keeping watch.

Literary Qualities

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Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry features a straightforward and uncomplicated style. Taylor's controlled use of symbolism lends depth to the work's major themes. The old oak tree that borders the Logan land, for example, represents the Logans' strength and perseverance. The frequent allusions to slavery afford a backdrop for the Logans' struggle and provide revealing, instructive historical background. The characterizations are, for the most part, effective and believable, although Cassie sometimes seems unbelievably perceptive for her age. Despite limited physical descriptions, the interactions among characters reveal much about their personalities and motivations.

Taylor deftly manipulates diction, shifting appropriately between the relaxed idiom of the children and the rather stilted, impersonal language of teachers addressing their classes. The rhythmic dialect in the informal conversations lends itself well to reading aloud. The pace of the narrative is somewhat slow, rendering the book less exciting than many other novels for young adults, yet the progression of the plot is masterfully controlled and free from confusing subplots. The few flashbacks fit naturally into the context of those scenes in which they appear.

The point of view from which the story is told, that of an eight- or nine-year-old girl, permits a naivete that illuminates an illogical social system. It also offers a view of reality from a character who is still too young to be embittered by the injustices that are a part of her life. Cassie's inquisitiveness forces the adults to see the hypocrisy in accepted behaviors and value systems. An older narrator more thoroughly indoctrinated and inhibited by the social climate could not have raised the same provocative questions that serve to highlight the failures and inconsistencies of the immediate environment.

In this novel, oral history provides valuable information about the influence of past events on the characters. Cassie's grandmother recounts past events so often that Cassie can almost recite the stories simultaneously. Much of the story that Mr. Morrison tells about the death of his parents when he was only six years old may have been engraved in his memory in a similar manner. Strong verbs add vitality to the book's descriptive passages, allowing the reader to visualize the scenes and characters. Taylor's use of language and her manipulation of scenes establish a generally nonconfrontational tone. In many instances in the novel, the adversaries do not face one another, and consequently many negative reactions are portrayed indirectly. This authorial strategy reduces the emotional intensity and harshness that could well have resulted from a different presentation.

Social Sensitivity

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Throughout the work, Taylor addresses the dynamics of racial tension, and although the dramatization of this sensitive issue is carefully controlled, some students might benefit from background information concerning the era in which the novel is set. The attitudes and tolerance of the older Blacks toward social injustices could prove problematic. Some students may find it difficult to accept the older characters' assertions that some situations simply must be endured. Careful preparation should precede discussion of the scenes depicting burnings or referring to lynchings and hangings. Ultimately, the sense of community demonstrated by both Blacks and Whites toward the end of the novel offsets the acts of violence. The events of the novel need not be distorted or minimized since most younger readers are emotionally capable of confronting the difficult issues raised.

Violence is not a major theme of the work, but the nature of the conflict necessitates some solutions and strategies that contradict the values that families such as the Logans would usually uphold. On occasion, characters in the novel include guns in their preparation for a potential confrontation, but the conflicts are resolved without the use of firearms.

The racial conflict among the school children in the community is not particularly intense and in some instances differs little from normal tension among young people in any community. This dimension of the work should pose few, if any problems.

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Critical Essays