Jean E. Sutherland
We will now move forward to the year 1933, in the midst of the Great Depression. Students will be given a brief picture of the intervening years: the period of Reconstruction, the withdrawal of Northern support from the South, the emergence of hatred and discrimination toward African Americans, especially in the South, World War I, and the decline of the American economy. This will not be a detailed examination but should give students an idea of the forces that influenced the first fictional characters that we will investigate as we read excerpts from
Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry
Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry
Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry
, we will focus on excerpts related to the characters of Mama and Big Ma. Both are strong African American women who play a pivotal roll in this novel. Although neither had been born a slave, both were intimately connected to the rise of white power in the South as reconstruction crumbled. Along with the rest of the Black population, they had experienced the rise of the Klan and the accompanying beatings, burnings, and lynchings. They lived under Jim Crow laws and, though fortunate enough to own their own land, shared the pain of those forced to live under a system of sharecropping that held them in virtual slavery. Again, I refer the teacher to Darlene Hine's more detailed discussion of this time period.
Mama, Mary Logan is thirty-three years old. She is from the Delta but was sent
high school in Jackson and, later, to Crandon Teacher School by her tenant-farmer father. Her father died during her final year of teacher school, and she married Papa when she was nineteen. She has taught at the Great Faith school for fourteen years and has four children. Her strong pride in her race and a keen sense of injustice help her in dealing with the trials of her life, and the lives of those around her. Though she tries to keep the stories of violence and injustice from her children, she ultimately cannot shield them from the truth.
Big Ma, Caroline Logan is Papa's mother, a woman in her sixties. She holds the deed to the Logan land when the story begins. The land was bought by her late husband, Paul Edward, who had been born into slavery two years before the Civil War. She married him when she was eighteen, after meeting him in Vicksburg, where he worked as a carpenter. They raised their six children (Only two survived.) on the four hundred acres of land her husband bought between 1887 and 1918. Big Ma is the voice of history, telling stories about the past to Cassie. Her medical knowledge is often called upon to tend those injured by white violence, including the Berrys, who were attacked by night riders. She is very religious and is a source of comfort to Cassie, who shares a room with her.
Cassie Logan, a nine-year-old girl, serves as the narrator in this story about her family. The Logans are an exceptional black family, owning four hundred acres of farm land near Vicksburg, Mississippi, in 1933. Their land was purchased by Big Ma's husband, during Reconstruction. Papa must work a second job on the railroad to help pay the mortgage and taxes. The other blacks in the area are mostly poor sharecroppers. They all, including the Logans, live under the shadow of resentful whites, poor and wealthy, and the constant threat of physical assault from night riders.
Examining the First Excerpt: The School Books
In our first excerpt, we will focus on Mama, a dedicated teacher at the decidedly ill equipped Great Faith Elementary and Secondary School which Cassie and her three brothers attend. Little man, her precocious six-year-old brother, eagerly attending his first day at school, rejects his twelve-year-old text book, a cast-off from the white school. The book has the word "nigra" written in it to indicate its present owner. Their elderly teacher, Miss Crocker, worn down by years of white oppression, using lashes from her switch punishes both Little Man and Cassie, who has interceded on her brother's behalf.
After school, Cassie observes an indignant Miss Crocker telling Mama about the incident. Though Mama considers that they were wrong to disobey their teacher as they did, she never criticized their reactions to the book, as she calmly covers the offending page in Cassie and Little Man's book by gluing paper over them. She does the same for her seventh grade books. Miss Crocker is oblivious to Mama's remarks which mirror the stand taken by her children.
Examining the Second Excerpt: Night Riders
While Mr. Logan is away, word comes to the Logan house that the Night Riders are roaming. The children are certain that it is because they engineered a retaliation scheme that disabled the white school bus. In the moments revolving around the arrival of the Night Riders, we see evidence of Mama and Big Ma's courage, as they are prepared to defend their home and children at any cost.
Examining the Third Excerpt: The Insults
While in the town of Strawberry with her older brother, a classmate of his, and Big Ma, Cassie naively challenges a white storekeeper who repeatedly ignores them to wait on white customers. Her brother who is aware of the danger ushers Cassie outside where he leaves her to go find Big Ma. Cassie, then, absentmindedly knocks into a white girl she knows. This incident results in Cassie being thrown to the ground by the girl's father. This horrible day is made even worse when Big Ma, in order to protect Cassie and the family, forces Cassie to apologize to the girl.
At home, Mama attempts to explain Big Ma's actions and tells Cassie about the roots of white prejudice and unfair treatment of black people. Her discussion is one that all children should hear.
Each of these selections will be examined and discussed. All of them illustrate the many interacting pressures from family, community, church, their own need for personal fulfillment and especially from the white power structure which influenced the roles these women played and give vivid examples of how they coped. (There are many more events in this novel which a teacher could use to help students understand these points.) We will now make an "I am. . . ." list for each of them, noting and discussing similarities and differences. They, then, will be compared with the lists for Addy's mother and Harriet Tubman.
Examining Another Mildred Taylor Story:
The Gold Cadillac
This short story, also by Mildred Taylor, jumps forward to 1950, beginning in Toledo, Ohio when Daddy has just arrived home with a brand-new 1950 Cadillac Coupe de Ville, which he purchased after trading in their old car. Though 'lois, our narrator, her sister Wilma, and a host of relatives and neighbors are thrilled, Mother is displeased because they have been saving to buy a home in a better neighborhood and cannot afford this extravagance. She refuses to ride in the car until Daddy decides to drive to Mississippi, despite the danger facing a black man who owns such an elegant car. Hearing this, Mother declares that she and the girls will join him. The Cadillac is a symbol of achievement to Daddy and he feels that driving it south is his right and serves to emphasize his accomplishments.
As they drive south, the girls see evidence of prejudice and segregation in the signs they see, the hostile eyes staring at them, and the behavior of the police who detain Daddy for no apparent reason. When daddy discovers 'lois clutching a large knife for protection as the family sleeps in the car, he switches the Cadillac for a more modest car, and the trip is completed. Upon their return, Mother tells Daddy to keep the car, but he sells it, anyway.
Though Mother doesn't seem to play the major role in this story, she is a dominant force. We will discuss her actions, her motivations, whether she was right, and what we would have done in a similar situation. Lack of information may make Mother's "I am. . . ." list shorter than others, but many elements should be the same as we find in the two others we have made. Students should see her as another of the strong, caring African American women whom we have met.