Themes and Meanings
There are a number of complex ideas at work in Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. The overriding theme is the initiation of the two eldest Logan children into the real world of Depression-era Mississippi, and they learn a number of lessons along their road to self-discovery. Two general subthemes are visible within the framework of initiation, two areas of adult life that Cassie and Stacey must learn about in order to survive. One is the negative pole: injustice and discrimination and the cruelty that follows from them. The other is almost the antidote to the first: the pride and self-respect that come from the Logan land and heritage.
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is historically accurate and psychologically realistic—and brutal. The uneasy relations between the races established in rural Mississippi since Reconstruction are coming apart under the multiple pressures of the Depression (which began in the South before the 1930’s), and the “night men” are riding again. While Mr. Jamison may be correct in saying that not all Southerners are bigots, characters such as the Wallaces and the Simmses predominate in this world of poor whites and African Americans, and the novel is filled with incidents of discrimination and brutality. It is an ugly, violent world in which the Logan children are growing, but their parents try to give them the skills and support to make their journey a little less hazardous.
The theme of discrimination is thus from the beginning set against its opposites: self-respect, black pride, and the struggle to overcome prejudice and injustice. The physical embodiment of this positive pole is the Logan land, which gives the Logans freedom and a sense of their own worth and helps them hold themselves up in a world of white power and discrimination. Cassie’s tears for “the land” at the end of the novel symbolize her recognition of the enormous price of this struggle.
The Logans are historically realistic and overwhelmingly positive in their love and their pride. These values are grounded in the land, Mildred D. Taylor is telling her readers: Give all the other families here—white and black—land of their own, and they would not witness bloodshed and humiliation. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is a novel woven out of black history, a story not only of economic survival but also of the survival of the human spirit in the face of incredible obstacles.
The language of the novel is as local and natural as the land. Big Ma is “the color of a pecan shell,” and Mama always “smelled of sunshine and soap.” When Papa explains to Christopher-John why Mama’s firing is so hard on her, he says that “she’s born to teaching like the sun is born to shine.” The first-person narration by Cassie is easy and consistent (if often adult in its vocabulary) and, like the conversations Cassie quotes, captures the black dialect of rural Depression Mississippi.
Another distinctive characteristic of this novel is the richness of its detail. Domestic life on this southern Depression-era farm is rendered sensuously: Readers witness Big Ma ironing (with a second iron always heating in the fireplace); see Cassie churning, picking cotton, and lying under her patchwork quilt; feel the red Mississippi mud oozing through the children’s toes on their way to school; and get hungry at the descriptions of food at the family get-togethers.
Finally, the novel is noteworthy for its unforced symbolism. Objects and incidents in the novel are important for their narrative value, and at the same time they often represent something larger. The Logan land, for instance, is a motivating force in the story, but it also symbolizes the Logan history in slavery and freedom. Weather, likewise, has a double meaning: The title’s “roll of thunder” (taken from a verse that Mr. Morrison sings at the opening of chapter 11) is not only a presage of rain but also the heavenly response to a cry of anguish. Finally, even human-made objects can have this symbolic import: Uncle Hammer’s silver Packard is an assertion of his own worth against the power of whites, while the gun that T. J. Avery hungers for is a sign of his need for that power but a clue to his ultimate weakness. The style and language of Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, in short, work against the didactic qualities of this fine novel and help to underscore subtly its significant themes.