There are some topics many authors seem to think are immediate keys to success, topics so fraught with meaning and depth that any story exploring them is destined to be good. Racism in America is one of these, and so the number of novels about blacks living in the South is almost equal to the number of writers seeking fame and fortune.
But because racism is about the easiest thing to mess up, the few able to write meaningful and beautiful stories about it really are ensured a place in the ranks of Those Remembered for What They Wrote. Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird comes immediately to mind, and now that I've read it, so does Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor.
This story, narrated by 9-year-old Cassie Logan, follows the Logan family across the summer of 1933. The Logans are a black family living on their own farm in Mississippi, surrounded by white folk fueled by resentment, arrogance, and outright hatred. Big Ma is the family matron, and it is her husband who acquired the land in the first place.
Papa (Big Ma's younger son) works for the railroad and is gone for long stretches. Mama and Big Ma run the farm in his absence, helped by 12-year-old Stacey, Cassie, and the younger boys Christopher-John and Little Man. Uncle Hammer helps when he's around but he lives and works in Chicago where he has a job that pays him a man's wages.
Which is more than the blacks can expect in Mississippi. A man's pay for picking cotton amounts to 50¢ a day, barely enough to eke out a living during the Great Depression. The whites have a solution, however: the sharecropping farmers are given credit at the whites's store, so that in addition to the percentage given to the white landowners the blacks have their debt payed off at the end of each year.
The whites see this situation as one of benevolence on their part, but it's really just a vicious continuation of slavery—the whites profit from work they don't do, and the blacks are kept in submission, never able to break out of the vicious debt cycle. When Papa returns from the railroad, though, he hatches a plan to help his non-landowning neighbors by buying goods for them in Vicksburg, with the non-racist lawyer Mr. Jamison acting as creditor.
Papa and Mama figure this will upset the whites of their community, but they don't calculate just how much rage will erupt once the Wallaces, owner of the general store, get wind of their scheme. Tensions mount, until a string of violent encounters ends in tragedy and a loss of innocence for young Cassie.
There's another plotline, though. It also involves racism, but from a more personal perspective: Cassie begins to see just how she and her family are perceived by the whites, is mistreated and scorned publicly, and begins to realize her place in the world, the value and price of dignity, and life's often brutal realities.
The result is a novel that is by turns funny, moving, deeply sad, and quietly hopeful. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is nothing short of brilliant, in fact. By making the Logans black landowners, poor but educated, and fairly insular from the white society around them, Taylor is able to show racism from every conceivable angle.
One of the most fascinating and tragic characters in the book is T. J., Stacey's best friend and a fast-talking black boy who always seems to get away with whatever he feels like doing. It's clear that the character was at least partly modeled on the trickster character in African and African-American folklore, often depicted as a spider, and able to ingratiate himself with almost anyone.
Cassie doesn't like him, however, and she likes him less and less as he becomes more and more unruly and eventually begins spending all his time with two white boys who despise and use him openly. This relationship only goes from bad to worse, and by the end of the novel it has erupted into violence that threatens to destroy the entire community, both white and black.
There are details that will make many cringe. The N-word is employed fairly frequently, some of the violence is quite graphic, and the scene where Cassie is physically and verbally assaulted by Mr. Simms is frankly horrifying. Taylor depicts racism as it was, with no attempt (or need) to embellish or exaggerate.
But the book is not bleak. It ends with death and terror, but it also ends with the firm resolve and integrity of men and women determined to maintain honor in a society largely without it. The Logans are Christians who faithfully attend church, the family unit is close-knit, the children are respectful of their parents, and Papa and Mama are determined to live peaceably with their white neighbors regardless of their neighbors's intentions.
Not all the whites are ogres, of course, and once again this is testament to Taylor's genius. There are whites who hate racism, whites (like the boy Jeremy Simms) who want to befriend the blacks but can't, whites who hate blacks, etc. And there are blacks who hate whites, blacks who will rat out their brothers, blacks who are afraid, and blacks who simply leave well enough alone.
Taylor invests her young narrator with a believable innate poetry that makes Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry a joy to read simply because it's so musical. And the music extends to the plot—at times a dirge, at times the blues, at times a rollicking jazz, at times a hymn or spiritual, and always the bittersweet melody of a faithful people waiting for redemption from injustice.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.