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A Second Look: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry

RollofThunder_hardcoverIt was one of those rickety paperback book racks that creak when you turn it. It listed to one side, so I made sure to stand on the side it was leaning away from, in order to see the books better.

Spin. Creak. Spin. Creak.

I’d read most of these books already. But I had to choose a new one, and worse than that, I had to pick up two copies of it. All the books on the rack came in pairs, which meant fewer selections overall. Annoying.

Spin. Creak.

It was seventh grade. The assignment was to read a book along with a parent and discuss it. My mom, who was largely responsible for me being an avid reader, would be reading along with me.

I was not looking forward to this project. Worse, I was plagued with guilt for not looking forward to this project. I had lucked out with an incredibly awesome, loving mom. And yet, being a seventh grader, I generally wanted nothing to do with her.

Spin. Creak.

There it was. The perfect book. The copy in front was nearly pristine. Glossy and flat, possibly never read before. Like it had been waiting for me. The second copy was softer, and had a dented corner, but was also in pretty good shape.

These are the kind of details you remember when your life is about to change.

RollofThunder_paperbackIt was the Puffin paperback edition with a cover illustration by Max Ginsburg — the image of a black girl, Cassie Logan, hugging her little brothers while a fire rages in the background. The title seemed interesting, too. I liked thunder. Its power. Its rain. I hoped my own cry would be heard.

I doubt if I consciously registered that Mildred D. Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry would be the first novel I had ever read with a core cast of black characters, but in retrospect I’m certain that it was. I’m not sure I even read the jacket copy — the cover simply called out to me.

I brought the two paperbacks home and laid them on the kitchen table. We picked them up. “Okay,” my mom said. (Actually, I don’t remember what she said. It’s equally likely that I tossed the book at her and stormed upstairs to my room.) We read the novel separately, and then we were supposed to talk about it. I know that we did the second part of the assignment dutifully (on my part) and joyfully (on my mom’s part), but I don’t remember the substance of our dialogue about the book. I mostly remember the experience of reading it. The total absorption in the world that Taylor draws to life, the dawning realization of the devastating racial history of this country, the blooming understanding of the impact race might have on my own life.

Cassie Logan, age nine, narrates the story of one year in the life of her family in Depression-era Mississippi. Cassie comes to a new understanding of the world she lives in as the Logans struggle to preserve their land, along with the independence and pride it represents. I offer this summary for anyone who isn’t yet familiar with the novel. That said, if you haven’t read it, run, don’t walk, to the nearest bookstore or library and invite the Logan family into your heart.

It’s been twenty years since I first read Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, but just saying the title still evokes visceral images of certain scenes in the book. It remains easy to conjure portraits of each character in my mind.

In particular, the scene where the Logan kids are walking to school and the bus that carries the white kids drives by and deliberately hits mud puddles so that the black children get splashed. Through Cassie’s eyes, I got a glimpse of the everyday racism that infused our nation’s past.

As a biracial child of the 1990s, my daily lived experience of race was quite different from Cassie’s. However, the idea of racism resonated with me on a deeper level. Cassie’s evolution from naiveté to social consciousness mirrored a process that was beginning at that time for me, too. I was simultaneously drawn to and unsettled by the history class lessons that began with slavery, paused for Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, and ended with Dr. King exclaiming “I have a dream” and singing “We Shall Overcome.” Racism was a thing of the past, according to my teachers. Now we were all equal.

I didn’t yet have language for it, or even a conscious awareness of the struggle, but I experienced a profound cognitive dissonance between these lessons and my lived experience, which was rife with subtle instances of discrimination, bias, and microaggressions.

These were things that could not be named. As an observant and sensitive child, I was simply aware of something unsettling in my midst. Like swimming in an ocean that has been declared safe, while no one has mentioned the deadly undertow.

If racism was a historical artifact, how did that explain the Ku Klux Klan rallies that occurred annually in our Midwestern community?

If we were all equal, why were there so many things that didn’t add up?

I can recall the first time my father told me I might have been denied an opportunity due to my race. I recall the lack of comfort that came in the wake of him saying it. I recall looking at him, and struggling to process the reality that so many important chances in life might already be taken out of my hands. I knew intellectually what his generation had been through to give me the opportunities that I had, and it hurt to know that it was still not enough, that the world had not yet learned to see me differently.

It must have been difficult for him, too, having to lay that truth upon me. Having to prepare me for a world in which my independence and confidence might not be well received. Mildred Taylor wrote about her own father in the preface to Roll of Thunder: “From my father the storyteller I learned to respect the past, to respect my own heritage and myself,” she wrote. Her father passed away shortly before the book was released, and the author’s note pays tribute to the values he shared with her, influences that led her to put this story on the page. “He taught me of hopes and dreams,” Taylor wrote. “And he taught me the love of words. Without his teachings, without his words, my words would not have been.”

It is vital that we honor the powerful voices in our lives, the ones who encourage us to also speak. Following her father’s example, Taylor has herself become one such voice for many young readers and aspiring writers. In her introduction to the fortieth anniversary edition of Roll of Thunder, National Book Award–winning novelist and poet Jacqueline Woodson says, “I am a writer because Ms. Taylor wrote this book and I saw myself inside the pages of it.”

The book was first published in 1976, at a time when few books for children dealt with black characters and culture. Taylor was only the second black author ever to win the Newbery Medal. (The first being Virginia Hamilton in 1975 for M. C. Higgins, the Great.) The book debuted to critical acclaim, which has continued unabated over the years.

Roll of Thunder’s release coincided with a moment in which people began to “take seriously family heritage…and to recognize that whatever group you belong to has great significance,” said literary scholar and historian Leonard S. Marcus, as quoted in Publishers Weekly. It was contemporary with Alex Haley’s Roots, and extended the conversation directly to include child readers. Creative offerings like these brought wider attention to the concept of embracing and teaching black history, something that had not often been included in mainstream American culture, but which gained traction and prominence during the protest movements of the previous decade. Roll of Thunder and the subsequent titles in the Logan family saga helped establish a legacy of black historical texts for young readers that I and other authors of my generation now strive to build upon.

RollofThunder_KadirNelsonIn the early 1990s, when I first read the book, there were still relatively few books about children of color available. I had no idea that Roll of Thunder had been published several years before I was born. It felt new to me. That first edition, the original hardcover, featured cover art by Jerry Pinkney. Now, for the novel’s fortieth anniversary, Caldecott Honor and Coretta Scott King Award–winning illustrator Kadir Nelson has updated the cover for the Logan family saga titles yet again. I feel joyful to imagine a new generation of readers discovering these timeless classics.

I would like to say that Roll of Thunder is the book that made me want to be a writer. It wasn’t. It would be another decade before I realized I had any interest in storytelling whatsoever. But in the midst of writing The Rock and the River (my first published novel), I realized that Roll of Thunder was the book I wanted my work to emulate. Not in style or content, per se, but in the impact it might have on some reader, somewhere. I hoped my novel would someday catch a seventh grader’s eye across a crowded bookstore, and it would be love at first sight. Life-changing.

It’s difficult to know what your work is going to do in the world. Maybe impossible to ever judge the effect of the words you put on the page. I’ve never met Mildred D. Taylor, but if I ever do it would bring me no end of joy to lean across her signing table and tell her this book changed my life.

As an author myself, I know now it would mean something to her to hear this. As a young reader, I would have been embarrassed to admit that I hugged this book. I slept with it. I stroked its pages with reverence and tried to take it into myself in every possible way. It spoke to me.

It’s impossible to measure the impact of a single book — on me or on the world of readers whose hearts it has touched over the last forty years. Happy anniversary, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. And here’s to many more.

From the September/October 2016 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

To commemorate Black History Month, we are highlighting a series of articles, speeches, and reviews from The Horn Book archive that are by and/or about African American authors, illustrators, and luminaries in the field — one a day through the month of February, with a roundup on Fridays. Click the tag HBBlackHistoryMonth17 and look for #HBBlackHistoryMonth17 on Facebook.com/TheHornBook and @HornBook. You can find more resources about social justice and activism at our Talking About Race and Making a Difference resource pages.

The Horn Book celebrates Black History Month

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Kekla Magoon About Kekla Magoon

Kekla Magoon's YA novels include The Rock and the River (Simon), How It Went Down (Holt), X: A Novel (with Ilyasah Shabazz; Candlewick), and the Robyn Hoodlum Adventures series (Bloomsbury). She holds an MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts, where she now serves on the faculty.

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