Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor
Roll of thunder hear my cry
Over the water bye and bye
Ole man comin’ down the line
Whip in hand to beat me down
But I ain’t gonna let him
Turn me ’round.
In her Newbery Award acceptance speech, Taylor said that one of her goals as a writer was to “paint a truer picture of Black people. I wanted to show the endurance of the Black world, with strong fathers and concerned mothers; I wanted to show happy, loved children about whom other children, both black and white, could say, ‘Hey, I really like them! I feel what they feel.’ I wanted to show a Black family united in love and pride, of which the reader would like to be a part.” I think if you read Roll of Thunder, you will agree with me that Ms. Taylor achieved her goal.
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry deals with the cruel and unjust treatment of black people by the Southern white society they live in during the Depression era (1933). The story is told from the perspective of a black girl whose family must deal with the injustices and hatred they experience. One of my favorite things about Taylor’s stories about the Logan family is the characters. It may be true that many of the characters in the book clearly fall under the category of either “good” or “bad.” Most of the white people are depicted as hateful, and these characters never really change their ways. On the other hand, for the most part, the black people are portrayed as being honest, fair, and hardworking; most are religious and moral. However, a few characters are caught somewhere in the middle, seemingly pulled in both directions. Throughout the story several characters struggle with their identity, their role in society, and their sense of duty and loyalty.
In a society that resents the first generation of black people who are free from slavery, a few white people risk their own reputations and relationships, and even their safety by treating the black people as equals. For instance, the lawyer Mr. Jamison not only makes it clear that he disapproves of the way blacks are treated, but goes to the point of risking his career and possibly even his life when he backs up the credit of the black people who choose not to buy from Wallace. Another white man, Mr. Granger, at times shows some tolerance for the black people, but not because it is right to do so, but because it is in his own best interest.More interesting is Jeremy Simms. Although his family despises the blacks, this white boy has made up his mind not to adopt their attitude. He and the Logan children know that it is not acceptable for them to be friends. Mr. Logan warns Stacey,
“Maybe one day whites and blacks can be real friends, but right now the country ain’t built that way. Now you could be right ’bout Jeremy making a much finer friend that T.J. ever will be. The trouble is, down here in Mississippi, it costs too much to find out.”
Jeremy takes a risk when he associates with the Logans, and Mr. and Mrs. Logan are uncomfortable with their children spending time with him. And the Logan children find it hard to understand how a person can go against his own kin.
Likewise, several of the black characters are caught between doing what is right and what is in their best interest. For instance, while Hammer is willing to risk his own life in order to stand up for justice, Big Ma is willing to tolerate injustice in order to preserve her family’s life and land. While Mr. Morrison is willing to take some risk himself, he tries to convince the other men that, as he has learned, fighting will not solve the problem. It seems particularly difficult for Mr. Logan to restrain himself from reacting with violence. Mr. and Mrs. Logan do not accept things to be “just the way they are” as Big Ma has. They take a stand against injustice and take steps to change things, like when Mrs. Logan pastes over the inside cover of the readers, and when they promote the boycott against Wallace.
The most dynamic characters in the story are the children. They are in the process of learning from their parents and society what their place is. They are trying to figure out for themselves when it’s the proper time to speak out or to fight. Stacey has a better understanding of the dangers involved in standing up for oneself than the others. Cassie, however, is torn between wanting revenge against the whites and seeing them punished, and being afraid of what could happen to her father or uncle. When confronted with injustice, Cassie’s conscience persuades her to take action against it as she has seen her parents do. But will she be just as strong in her stand when she is older and has more at risk? The reader may also wonder if Jeremy will still have respect for the black people after he is a grown man.
The most pathetic character in the story is T.J. Although he himself is a victim of racial hatred and injustice, he buys into the idea that in order to be successful you have to be white. He is willing to lie, cheat, or steal in order to get what he wants. Since he cannot become white, he “crosses over” by allowing the white boys to use him against his own people. He ignorantly believes they accept him as an equal, when in reality he has sold himself into slavery to them in the hope of benefiting himself. He shows he has no respect for himself and that he has accepted that “white is better than black”. In the end, T.J. learns the hard way that it’s important to remain true to oneself.
I believe one idea the story demonstrates is that children learn either hatred or love from what they are taught and modeled by their parents. To put it another way: “you reap what you sow.” For the most part, children who are taught self-respect and love will grow up to respect and be tolerant of others. Mama tells Cassie,
“We have no choice of what color we’re born or who our parents are or whether we’re rich or poor. What we do have is some choice over what we make of our lives once we’re here.”
On the other hand, children who witness hate and prejudice, especially by their parents, may grow up to be racist without even knowing why. The children in this story are challenged to decide for themselves which way they will choose. The contemptible Wallaces and Simmses in Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry never show signs of reforming, and that shouldn’t be a big surprise. Hatred that is so deeply embedded takes a long time to weed out. Taylor uses the character of Jeremy as a foreshadowing of the hope that the next generation may bring change.
I would recommend Roll of Thunder for children ages 12 and older.
Consider these other books written by Mildred Taylor which follow the Logan family saga:
- Let the Circle Be Unbroken. Sequel to Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry.
- The Land (1870’s). Prequel to Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry.
- The Well: David’s Story. (Early 1900s)
- Mississippi Bridge (1931), featuring Jeremy Simms.
- The Road to Memphis (1941), featuring Cassie Logan.
For more about Mildred Taylor and her books, visit Penguin Random House.Which is your favorite book or character of Taylor’s?