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
(p. 242, Taylor)
Mildred D. Taylor wrote a series of books about the Logan family, one of which won her the 1977 Newbery medal. The stories are, in part, taken from stories she was told as a child about her own history. The characters in Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry are Mama and Papa Logan, Big Ma (Mother of Papa), Uncle Hammer Papa’s brother), Stacey, Cassie, Christopher-John and Little Man (Logan children) and T. J. (annoying friend).
In some ways this reads like a short story because you know you’re just getting a glimpse into one season of their lives with the anticipation of many more encounters. I loved the way that Taylor portrayed her characters and brought you into the story from the very first page. In the same way I felt strongly about the injustice in Maniac Magee it wasn’t long before I felt the same way about the Logan’s.
The perspective is from the four kids who are still growing up and don’t understand why they are viewed as ‘less’ than their white counterparts. This is startlingly clear when Cassie and her brother Stacey are at a white man’s store waiting to be helped while order after order is filled before them for anyone with white colored skin. After awhile Cassie approaches the store owner, and as respectfully as she can, reminds him that they had been waiting longer than the little white girl he is currently helping. After being ignored tempers flare.
“She your sister, boy?” Mr. Barnett spat across the counter.
Stacey bit his lower lip and gazed into Mr. Barnett’s eyes. “Yessir.”
“Then you get her out of here,” he said with hateful force. “And make sure she don’t come back till yo’ mammy teacher her what she is.”
“I already know what I am!” I retaliated (p. 112).
Do you feel it? That gutteral reaction against Mr. Barnett who refers to Cassie as a “what” and not an individual? The rest of the scene just gets worse as Cassie accidently bumps into a white girl on the sidewalk outside and the girl’s father slams Cassie down on the street demanding she apologize and address his daughter as “Miz.” Cassie doesn’t understand why Big Ma won’t stand up for her.
It all came down to survival. When friends and neighbors who shared their skin tone were being burned alive for things as small as bumping into someone or standing up for their rights it all came down to keeping your head down and just accepting the reality of how things were. Cassie and her Papa talk about this idea of weighing what battles you’ll fight and which you need to retreat from. Picking up at the tail end of that conversation…
” But there are other things, Cassie that if I’d let be, they’d eat away at me and destroy me in the end. And it’s the same with you, baby. There are things you can’t back down on, things you gotta take a stand on. But it’s up to you to decide what them things are. You have to demand respect in this world, ain’t nobody just gonna hand it to you. How you carry yourself, what you stand for — that’s how you gain respect. But little one, aint’ nobody’s respect worth more than your own. You understand that?” (p. 175-176).
T. J. is the Logan kids friend who is annoying from the beginning. He kind of reminded me of Kimmie Kibler in Full House. Anyway, T. J. always looked out for himself even when that meant cheating to pass a test or hanging out with older white boys who gave him whatever he wanted. What T. J. can’t see that everyone else can is that the white boys were just using T. J. and only suffered his company for what he’d provide for them. The three of them break into a store (the same one mentioned previously) and while the two white boys have stocking masks to cover their faces T. J. is not given that luxury and is ultimately blamed for the break in and murder of the shop keeper, even though it was the other boys’ fault. Even though T. J. is saved from a midnight lynching he is sent to jail where he’ll either face the death sentence or spend the rest of his life on the chain gang. There isn’t much hope for him at the end of the story because, as evidenced by previous examples of black vs. white, the black man’s word is never regarded as truth. Heartbreaking, right?
Once again it looks like we’ve got us a sad Newbery. But while Bridge to Terabithia just made me want to cry my eyes out, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry felt like a reality that everyone should know about. The fact that slavery and the injustice shown toward all those of a race other than white has happened and still does. Without people like Mildred Taylor who tell stories that are difficult to hear it’s all too possible that we’ll make the same mistakes in the future. I’m thankful to have read this story and lived in someone else’s shoes for a week, although I will say that I was ever so thankful to slip back into my own.
Till next time.