Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry | Study Guide

Mildred D. Taylor

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Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry | Chapter 4 | Summary

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Summary

The next day, Cassie moves so slowly Big Ma wonders if she's sick. She and Mama quietly discuss whether the children saw the men in the night. The women decide they couldn't have, but Cassie disrupts their conversation by losing her balance. After making sure she's OK, her mother sends Cassie in with the boys, where she finds T.J. explaining how to get out of work. The conversation turns to the "night men," as T.J. calls them. Stacey tells him not to talk about them, but T.J. tells of how they tarred and feathered Sam Tatum because Tatum called Jim Barnett "a liar." Christopher-John is glad to learn it wasn't over what they did to the bus. The Logans talk for a bit, and then follow T.J. into their mother's room, where they find him holding W.E.B Du Bois's The Negro. When the Logans give T.J. the eye, he claims they should stick together because they are friends, then he leaves the room.

The next day T.J. brings a cheat sheet to school. When T.J. tries to avoid getting caught with them by slipping them to Stacey, Stacey gets caught with the notes instead. Mama must "whip Stacey" in front of everyone in the class. T.J. allows Stacey to take the punishment for him, never admitting he was the one who did something wrong. After school T.J. runs into the woods to escape the angry Stacey. Stacey follows, trailing T.J., and the other boys follow to see what's going to happen. Everyone ends up at the Wallace store. Kaleb Wallace sends them to the back of the store when they arrive, where African Americans of various ages are dancing. The two boys fight until Mr. Morrison lifts Stacey off T.J. Once they're in the wagon, Stacey asks if Mr. Morrison is going to tell their mother. He says no but says he'll let them tell her.

When they get home, Mr. Granger's car is pulling away. He'd been there pressuring Big Ma to sell the land. When Cassie asks if she's going to sell, instead of speaking Big Ma walks to the forest. It is to the place where some trees were cut and left to rot the previous year. Big Ma starts to reminisce about their grandfather (her departed husband). She shares the story of how they met, which leads to the story of how the family bought the land when the Grangers were broke during Reconstruction. A Northerner bought 2,000 acres the Grangers had to sell to pay their taxes. Paul Edward bought 200 acres from that man and 200 more later from Mr. Jamison. The Grangers have recovered the rest of the 2,000 acres.

When Mama gets home, Stacey confesses he fought T.J. Mama scolds them but does not whip them. That Saturday Mama wakes the children before dawn and puts them in the wagon to go to Smellings Creek to see the Berrys. Mr. Berry has been severely burned. After they visit and are on the road home again, Mama tells the children that "The Wallaces did that." They poured kerosene on several people and lit them on fire. That's why she doesn't want them spending time at the Wallace store.

Analysis

In Chapter 1, T.J. had suggested the Logan children would do well on their mother's tests because she would let them cheat. In this chapter T.J. cheats and Mrs. Logan's response shows just how badly T.J. misunderstands the character of the people around him. Not only does Mrs. Logan not let her son get away with cheating, she chooses to punish him on principle, whipping him in public.

The aftermath of the cheating incident spills over into other areas, both literally and symbolically. When T.J. runs from Stacey, hoping to avoid getting beaten up, the two of them end up at the Wallace store. This context fundamentally changes the perception of their actions. They are no longer two African American children having a conflict within their own community. They are now two blacks fighting in front of a white audience. This changes their conflict from something exciting but justified, with a moral component (since Stacey is seeking justice), into a public embarrassment. Their actions confirm white prejudice about black character. In this way the different context and perception symbolize racial prejudice.

Since Papa had forbidden the children to visit the Wallace store, Stacey's actions also violate family rules. When Mr. Morrison interrupts the fight, he is stepping in as a surrogate father, and he will continue to become more of a member of their family throughout the book. His choice to let Stacey determine what to tell his parents is a mark of Stacey's maturity.

Throughout this novel Mr. and Mrs. Logan struggle with how much to tell their children about the nature of the society in which they live. They are concerned about how to tell the children and how to best protect them. Mrs. Logan papers over the offending pages in the school books. She has decided, in that case, it is best to protect them from the racism all around them. But in this chapter Mama moves in the other direction: she goes out of her way to show her children exactly what the Wallaces did. Like many other actions in this novel, this one serves several purposes. Visiting the Berrys demonstrates Mama's strength of character, especially her compassion. It demonstrates how this community works to stay close despite being physically distant from one another. It shows the Berrys' character, as they take the pain they endure in stride. But most of all, Mama reveals to her children, and to the reader, the real face of racism in this period. This is not simply a preference for a certain lifestyle or holding to certain values over others. This is a mindset in which men go out of their way to burn other people alive.

In this chapter T.J. finds a copy of The Negro by W.E.B. Du Bois. Cassie does not dwell on it but, rather, takes the book's presence in her home for granted. However, the fact Mama has this book is a defining mark of her character and reveals much about the Logan family. Du Bois (1868–1963) was a major African American intellectual. He was the first black to earn a PhD from Harvard and was one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). This means though she is quiet about it, Mama is far more committed to scholarship than one might expect. The history she teaches, to which the Grangers object, is likely to be far more substantial than that in the textbooks. This is part of Taylor's larger project for her fiction: to tell a more complete, accurate, and heroic history of black America than what she experienced in school.
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