Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry | Study Guide

Mildred D. Taylor

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Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry | Context


Mildred Taylor's Family History

Some published versions of Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry appear with a brief preface by Mildred D. Taylor and an author's note. Taylor writes, "I am blessed to come from a family of storytellers ... My father was a master storyteller." Beyond being storytellers, Taylor's family had several characteristics that served her well in writing her books. It was a close, extended family, so she regularly heard stories not just from her parents but also her grandparents. Her family had a strong sense of its history with multiple roots.

Taylor visited the home her great-grandparents had built and heard stories about the land they had purchased. Their land was much like the Logan family land in Roll of Thunder. Taylor modeled the Logan family parents after one set of grandparents. Her grandmother taught in a rural school, and her grandfather worked on the railroads. Her family acknowledged a rich racial heritage. She grew up knowing she had both Native American and European ancestry. Though the family moved north in search of better economic opportunities, they retained roots in the South. This meant Taylor combined the intense familiarity of family ties and heritage with a stronger education and an outsider's perspective. Because her family told and retold so many stories stretching over generations, it is as if Taylor had witnessed several historical eras herself. This approach gives her work an organic vividness.

The Logan Family Series

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry stands alone as a novel. However, it is also part of a series of works about the Logan family, chronicling their experiences from the Reconstruction era (1865–77) following the Civil War (1861–65) through the 20th century. Reconstruction was the time after the Civil War when the seceded Confederate states were formally brought back into the United States.

The Land

Though it was not published until 2001, Taylor's novel The Land comes first in the time line of the series. This novel tells the story of Paul-Edward Logan, who founded the Logan clan as a free family and buys the land that is their foundation. Paul-Edward narrates the book, starting when he's nine. The Land is useful for its perspective on growing up biracial (Paul-Edward's father is a white landowner) during Reconstruction.

<em/>The Well</em>

Taylor's 1995 novella The Well is set in 1910. In it Taylor gives readers a chance to hear a story from Papa's perspective. Readers also get another view of Hammer's violent temper, which surfaces in Roll of Thunder. One summer is so dry almost all the wells in the area dry up. Only the Logans' well still has water. They share it with their neighbors, but Hammer gets in a fight with Charlie Simms. As punishment for knocking Charlie Simms down, Hammer and David must work the whole summer on the Simms farm. Beyond the personal interest this conflict would hold for readers of the chronicle, it also shows the harsh, race-based face of justice in the Jim Crow era. During this period, laws (called Jim Crow laws) to support racial segregation were enacted and enforced in Southern states. The Jim Crow era lasted from about the end of Reconstruction to the civil rights movement starting in the 1950s.

Song of the Trees

The 1975 novella Song of the Trees was the first work Taylor wrote in this saga. The book is set during the Great Depression (1929–39). This was a period of low economic activity in which as many as 15 million people were unemployed. The Great Depression was characterized by soup kitchens, bread lines, and failed farms. Song of the Trees takes place roughly a year before Roll of Thunder. It tells the story of the trees cut in the forest near the Logan family's house, which Big Ma retells briefly in Roll of Thunder. Readers eagerly welcomed this work because there were so few works of fiction that portrayed African American history authentically.

Let the Circle Be Unbroken, The Friendship, and Mississippi Bridge

In Let the Circle Be Unbroken, published in 1981, Taylor returned to T.J. Avery's story. The book tells about his trial. It blends that story with other encounters with the Jim Crow laws limiting African American rights in the 1930s.

Both The Friendship (1987) and Mississippi Bridge (1990) are directly based on stories Taylor's father told her, and both are set in the early 1930s. The first recounts the relationship between a white man and a black man. It concerns customs governing how African Americans could address whites. In Mississippi Bridge, Taylor switches point of view fundamentally. She brings the white Jeremy Simms, whose family plays a major role throughout Roll of Thunder, back to narrate this story. The novel also focuses on racist customs in the South, though this story contains a more overt moral than some of Taylor's stories. A black family is displaced from a crowded bus by a white family that wants their seats. When the bus crosses a bridge, the bridge collapses, and many of the white passengers die.

The Road to Memphis and The Gold Cadillac

In 1990 Taylor published The Road to Memphis. Set in 1941, the novel mentions major period events, such as the start of World War II (1939–45). World War II was a global conflict involving many countries. For the United States, the war started with the surprise Japanese attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in December 1941. These wartime events put new pressures on the Logan family. However, the story focuses on a violent interracial event in Strawberry.

Three white brothers harass friends of the older Logan children (Cassie and Stacey). One of their friends loses his temper and beats all three brothers with a tire iron. Jeremy Simms helps that friend get out of Strawberry, but the Logan siblings and their friends realize he won't be safe anywhere in the South. This results in the drive to Memphis, which gives the novel its name, as they put their friend on a train to Chicago. When Jeremy Simms eventually confesses his role in the events, his father beats and then disowns him.

Taylor based her 1987 novella The Gold Cadillac on her family's drive from Ohio to visit relatives in Mississippi in the 1950s. This novella appears to be distinct from the series, but Taylor has said she thinks of it as part of the Logan series, but with different names for the characters. In this book, as an African American family drives south in their new 1950 Cadillac, they encounter segregation. As they drive further south, they see "white only, colored not allowed" signs.

The Great Depression

During the 1920s, the American economy grew very quickly. Many people speculated in the stock market, driving stock prices to a record high in 1929. However, the inflated stock prices were disconnected from the actual economic value of things. This was especially acute since 1929 saw a mild recession and a drought hit some agricultural regions. In October 1929, the stock market crashed, which set a chain reaction through the economy. Industrial productivity plummeted. People who had bought houses on credit experienced foreclosure. Many farmers had taken out large loans from banks when the economy seemed prosperous. Farmers had not generally shared in the soaring prosperity of the 1920s. Now they found prices for their crops plummeting until they could not even afford to harvest them. It was cheaper to let them rot in the fields or burn them. Banks began to call in the loans, and poor farmers who could not repay loans lost their farms. Many people became homeless and were desperate for any kind of jobs.

The Depression hit the South, where Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is set, hardest. While most of the country was living the high life in the 1920s, southern farmers suffered from several years of low prices. Boll weevils also destroyed crops, and cotton imported from overseas sources undercut American prices. Many fled the South as a result. More than 150,000 African Americans left Georgia alone, looking for better wages elsewhere but also to escape oppressive racist policies. Those blacks who moved north and did find work often earned less than their white coworkers did. When the Depression hit, white unemployment was about 30 percent. But unemployment among black workers was over 50 percent. In the 1930s U.S. government policies were implemented to help the millions of unemployed Americans get back to work. However, in the South these policies were carried out along racial lines, helping poor whites but leaving poor blacks struggling.

Race Relations in the Rural South

As almost every page of this novel documents, race relations played a major role in the rural American South. Three areas deserve special attention.

The Legacy of Slavery

Slavery began in the United States in the early 17th century. It continued after the American Civil War and was finally abolished by the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1865. For more than 200 years, slavery was interwoven into many parts of American culture. In the South slaves played a major role in the agricultural economy. Slave labor made the huge tobacco, cotton, and sugar cane plantations of the South possible. African Americans occupied a lower legal status than white Americans enjoyed. This inequality was written into the Constitution: for purposes of representation, slaves were counted as 3/5 of a free citizen.

During the roughly 12 years of Reconstruction, the federal government attempted to reshape Southern law and culture to make it more egalitarian. However, this period was relatively brief compared to the centuries of slavery. The grand plantation homes of the South and the memories of many Southerners testified things used to be different. This novel is set long after slavery ended—more than 60 years later. But the Granger family still tells stories about how things used to be during that lost era. And they resent the Logans for owning land they think is rightfully theirs.

The Jim Crow Era

The Jim Crow era stretched from the end of Reconstruction (1877) to the civil rights movement that began in the 1950s. The term Jim Crow comes from a character played by white actors in minstrel shows. In these stage shows whites often performed in dark makeup to appear black. In minstrel shows Jim Crow was a slave character who was dumb and clumsy. In political terms the character's name refers to a system of state laws institutionalizing African Americans as second-class citizens. Blacks suffered under a web of laws regulating almost all aspects of their lives. Blacks could not serve on juries with whites, ride in shared transport (like railroad cars), or, in many cases, vote. To uphold these legal limitations, segregated institutions were created: separate schools, separate churches, and separate cemeteries, for example. A complex array of customs arose to support these legal limits. Blacks had to address whites formally, calling a white man "mister." At the same time, whites were expected to call blacks by their first names. Neither informality nor affection could flow from blacks toward whites without punishment for the person offering them.

Within Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, the legal framework of Jim Crow is visible in the segregated schools the children attend. The cultural aspects of Jim Crow are visible in details such as the custom of white drivers having the right of way on Soldiers Bridge. Whites have the right of way even if it is much harder for black drivers to back up or turn around. Readers can see the darkest aspects of Jim Crow in the actions of the "night riders" and the burning of the Berrys. It is very evident in the vigilante "justice" T.J. receives at the novel's climax.

The Civil Rights Era

In the 1950s African Americans and white supporters organized to protest the systemic oppression of the Jim Crow era in America. Their activities started a national civil rights movement to gain equal rights under the law for African Americans. This was about the time Mildred Taylor entered high school. Since the strictest forms of segregation were primarily found in the South, much of the civil rights movement happened in the South. In Virginia in 1951 several groups protested racist oppression, especially in education. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a civil rights organization first formed in 1909 to ensure justice for African Americans, joined these protests. Civil rights groups took cases to the courts to end discrimination. One case led to a landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. The Court ruled racial segregation of public schools was unconstitutional. A string of protests followed throughout the South.

In 1955 Rosa Parks was arrested for breaking the segregated seating mandated for public buses in Montgomery, Alabama. In response regional black leaders founded the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), led by African American civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The MIA led a boycott of public buses in Montgomery. The boycott only ended when the U.S. Supreme Court declared segregated seating unconstitutional.

In 1957 nine black students prepared to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. But mobs of protesters (and the Arkansas National Guard) met them. The situation was so bad President Dwight Eisenhower ordered federal troops to guard the students. Eisenhower signed the Civil Rights Act of 1957, the first civil rights legislation since Reconstruction.

Scores of protests occurred throughout the early 1960s, culminating in a series of high points, victories, and tragedies. In 1963 hundreds of thousands of people assembled for the March on Washington. President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, supporting integration, access to voting, and equal employment. However, in 1965 in Montgomery, Alabama, city and state police met civil rights protesters first with opposition, then with open violence. Civil rights leader Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968.

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