Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry | Study Guide

Mildred D. Taylor

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Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry | Chapter 3 | Summary

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Summary

By October the fall rains come. Mama gives the children "dried calfskins" to wear on their heads. They don't like the calfskins because of the smell and avoid wearing them as much as possible. To entertain the white children, the driver of the "Jefferson Davis bus" intentionally drives through puddles and splashes the African American children. Little Man, who is proud of his appearance, finds it especially frustrating. He asks his mother why the white school has two buses and the black school none. She explains the county gives the school very little money and the churches support the school.

The next day the bus driver forces them into water so deep it reaches Little Man's chest. Some of the white students call "Nigger!" and "Mud eater!" from the bus windows as it leaves a sobbing Little Man behind. Jeremy expresses sympathy, but his words don't carry much weight. That day Stacey plans revenge. He gathers the boys and some tools. During lunch, they go to where the bus forced them off the road. They dig the puddle much deeper, smoothing the edges so there is no sign of tampering. When the bus tries to drive through the puddle after school, it breaks an axle. The driver must abandon the bus. The white children must jump out of the bus into the deep muddy water and walk home. Later Mama tells Big Ma about the accident and admits she is glad it happened.

That evening the children are too giddy to study at the "study table," so Mama and Big Ma move them out near the fire. While they're there, Mr. Avery stops by looking for Mr. Morrison. He tells Mama the night riders are out. Mama sends the children to their beds. The children worry the riders are coming to punish them for what they did to the school bus. Stacey sends the younger children to bed. He and Cassie listen for a while, and then Stacey offers to help. Mama sends him back to bed. Reassured by Big Ma's presence, Cassie drifts off to sleep. When she wakes up, no one else is awake. Cassie hears something and goes outside to check on it. It is Jason, the family dog. Cassie's about to go inside when some cars stop near the house. She freezes, but the cars eventually drive away. Once they are gone, Mr. Morrison comes around the side of the house with a shotgun. Terrified, Cassie goes back inside and returns to bed. She thinks about the headlights for a long time.

Analysis

The early section of this chapter makes institutional racism vivid: the white school has two buses, but the black school has none. They largely accept the fact they must walk to school. This means the black children must spend more time traveling and are tired by the time they get to school. When they get back to the farm, they'll do more physical labor when they are already tired from the walk. It is as if these children were starting life with a handicap in a sporting event.

This institutional racism, in practice, shows it does not remain merely structural or social but becomes personal. Forcing a child into chest-deep mud while screaming racial insults at him seems impossibly cruel. The name of the white school bridges the gap between these two forms of racism and shows how deeply rooted they are in American history. Jefferson Davis was the president of the Confederate States of America, which rebelled against the United States and seceded from it, causing the Civil War. Though the South lost the war, the white children literally study in the shadow of one of its heroes.

And of course, the quiet, haunting appearance of the night riders shows the most violent and terrifying form of racism during this period: vigilante punishment. These white men take it upon themselves to punish African Americans who acted in ways they did not like. In this case that behavior includes simply acting as something close to an equal. The term "night rider" is a general one referring to a broad array of oppressive activities whites used to terrorize African Americans. The term might refer to Ku Klux Klan (KKK) members. The Klan was founded in 1866 and had branches in almost every Southern state by 1870. This secret organization became a way for white Southerners to resist the establishing of political and economic equality for blacks. Its members supported white supremacy through intimidation and violence. The Klan used such scare tactics as burning crosses and holding parades and marches. Sometimes, during the night hooded Klansmen would suddenly show up at the houses of black families. Thus, they were called night riders. The term also refers to spontaneous vigilantism or attempts to scare blacks by pretending to be supernatural creatures.

Each of the characters in this novel works well as realistic characters. But some characters or actions also suggest certain literary or historical types. The children's choice to get back at the bus driver by digging the mud puddle too deep for him to drive through is a trick. African American folk literature is full of trickster figures. Tricksters often use deception to win their way, rather than challenging authority directly when the authority is too powerful. That's the case here. The bus driver is adult, white, and an official member of the school system, while the children he splashes are young, black, and lack any official status.

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