Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry | Study Guide

Mildred D. Taylor

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Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry | Chapter 11 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 11 starts with the text of the poem/song "Roll of Thunder." The poem follows with actual thunder and Mr. Morrison singing on the porch through the evening, waiting for the storm. Cassie can't sleep, so she remains awake, listening to Mr. Morrison walk around the property. Then she hears an odd tapping. It is T.J. He's come to ask Stacey for help. When Stacey rejects him, telling him to go to the Simms brothers for help, T.J. opens his shirt to expose his swollen body. He asks Stacey to help him get home. He says if he stays out one more night, his father will kick him out of the house. Stacey pressures him to tell what happened. At first T.J. resists, saying the Simmses will do worse if he speaks, but then tells the story.

T.J. and the Simms brothers left the revival to go get the pearl-handled revolver he wanted, but when they got to Strawberry, the store was closed. The Simmses decided to sneak in and steal it. They put stockings over their faces and pulled on gloves. They sent T.J. in through a window to unlock the door. R.W. broke open the gun case to get the pistol, despite T.J. saying he didn't want it anymore. Melvin took an ax to a wall cabinet and grabbed a metal box inside. Mr. Barnett, the store's owner, appeared and tried to take the box back. Mr. Barnett was winning when R.W. hit him in the head with the flat part of the ax, knocking him unconscious. His wife appeared and screamed, "You niggers done killed Jim Lee!" R.W. slapped her. She too fell and hit her head and didn't move anymore.

T.J. and the Simmses escaped. The Simmses wouldn't let T.J. leave. When T.J. threatened to tell everyone what they did, they beat him and dumped him in the back of the truck. Eventually, T.J. made his way to the Logans' house. He doesn't know if the Barnetts are dead. Stacey wants to tell T.J.'s father, but T.J. panics at the idea. The Logan children take T.J. home and help him sneak into his bedroom. However, as the Logan children start to leave, lights appear on the road. Cars and trucks surround the Avery house. Men jump out, and suddenly the Wallace brothers are demanding "that thieving, murdering nigger of y'all's." While Cassie and Stacey try to figure out what to do, they see the Simms brothers as part of the mob. Men start smashing windows and crawling into the house. They drag the Averys out, parents and children, ending with T.J. One of the men holds up the "pearl-handled pistol" taken from the store. When T.J. tries to protest, Kaleb Wallace tells him to "Stop lyin', boy." Kaleb relates a version of the robbery in which "three black boys" robbed the Barnetts. When T.J. protests again, Kaleb Wallace kicks him in the stomach. Neither of T.J.'s parents can stop the men. Two more cars appear on the road. One stops on the road, but the other speeds to the house. Mr. Jamison gets out and asks if they plan to "hold court out here tonight." The Wallaces want him to leave and suggest they could "take care of" a "nigger lover too tonight." This threat hangs in the air. The sheriff tells the men Mr. Granger won't stand for a hanging on his land and will hold all of them responsible. This silences the mob. Then Kaleb Wallace rallies them, suggesting they take T.J. somewhere else to hang him—and they hang Mr. Morrison and Mr. Logan along with him! Mr. Jamison steps forward to protect T.J. with his own body, and Stacey sends Cassie to get their father. She, Christopher-John, and Little Man run to get Papa as thunder and lightning crash overhead.

Analysis

Taylor mentions the sound of thunder more than once earlier in the novel. In fact, when Mr. Morrison is first introduced, Cassie thinks his voice sounds like the "roll of thunder." Though this is a powerful image in itself, this chapter brings the meaning of the title into sharp focus. The lyrics to "Roll of Thunder" just came to Mildred Taylor one day, and she hurried to write them down. However, the poem's structure and language resemble a traditional African American spiritual. First slaves, then free black workers, sang these songs for many, complex reasons. They sang to raise their spirits and to unite work crews into unified teams. They sang spirituals to communicate secretly, without their white masters or bosses knowing what was being communicated. Above all, African Americans contributed these songs to the larger culture, blending original takes on classic themes and ideas with a new musical tradition. This particular poem or song urges the black audience to upholding their spirits, despite the impending punishment from the white overseer. This unifies the entire novel thematically. It also foreshadows the impending near-lynching of T.J. by the angry white mob and serves as an encouraging message to the story's characters (and readers).

Several elements of this chapter are crucial to its meaning. Though he does not deserve the specific punishment he gets— and the rest of the Avery family certainly does not—T.J. is not innocent. He is, as this chapter drives home, a fool, a liar, and a criminal. However, his punishment is as harsh as it is because of the deception the Simms brothers practice. They mislead T.J. into thinking they are his friends. Then they wear masks during the robbery and lie about being involved, blaming everything on T.J. and leaving him vulnerable to white anger.

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