Cassie is our go-to gal in Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. We get the entire narrative from her perspective. She's only nine years old (in the fourth grade) and is living through some pretty rough times in the American South during the Depression.
You may be wondering why we get the story through Cassie's perspective, since all the action revolves around T.J. and other members of Cassie's family (like Stacey, Mama and Papa). You can check out the "Narrator Point of View" section for more info, but it's pretty much because we're meant to learn about Cassie's world along with her. We go along for the ride as she grows up, following what she sees, hears (or overhears), and experiences.
From the very beginning, we find out that Cassie speaks her mind—even if it gets her whipped. When she notices the racial slur in the "new" school textbooks, she speaks up. When she learns that T.J. got his little brother, Claude, into trouble for going down to the Wallace store, she wishes she could "knock his block off" (1.63). We suspect she is like this due to Mama's influence: like mama, like daughter. Mama's known to be a "radical" compared to some of the other teachers and people in the town, and she's not afraid to stand up for what's right.
Plus, Cassie's persistent, and uses her words to get what she wants. She's usually able to manipulate Stacey into telling her things that she wants to know, like what happened to Papa and Mr. Morrison on the trip back from Vicksburg.
We're not talking growing up like having a sweet sixteen party or a bat mitzvah: Cassie grows up by experiencing the racism of the American South.
First, she hears from T.J. and by eavesdropping on adult conversations about the violence directed toward the African-American community (the "night men," the burnings and the lynchings). Then, she starts to experience some of this first-hand. A major realization comes to her when she's made to apologize to the white Lillian Jean Simms for bumping into her. After Mama lectures her about why Mr. Simms thinks Lillian Jean is better than Cassie (in a word: because Lillian Jean is white and Cassie is not), Cassie has a major lightbulb moment:
There was a sinking feeling in my stomach and I felt as if the world had turned itself upside down with me in it. (6.93).
Cassie here realizes that the whites like Mr. Barnett, Lillian Jean and Mr. Simms don't judge blacks based on reasonable criteria like character or behavior. They judge purely based on race: they think they're better than black people because of skin color. Cassie's response to this realization? "Well, they ain't!" (6.93).
You might say that Cassie gets it without really getting it. She doesn't completely understand Mama's lesson, though, or the one that Papa gives her later about self-respect. That one sort of slides right past her, though, because she ends up physically attacking Lillian Jean anyway. Well: two steps forward, one step back. It's a process. And a hard, painful process. Cassie doesn't really learn this lesson about self-respect until she sees what happens to T.J:
What had happened to T.J. in the night I did not understand, but I knew that it would not pass. And I cried for those things which had happened in the night and would not pass. (12.166)
T.J.'s lack of self-respect and obsessive need for validation makes him vulnerable to the Simms brothers. And it might end up killing him. It takes this tragedy for Cassie to finally learn the lessons that Mama and Papa have been trying to teach her all along.
Cassie has a bad temper—sort of like Uncle Hammer (8.39)—and she seems to hold a grudge. Papa has lectured Cassie about how all people have to make choices about which things they can live with (in order to survive) and which things they just can't live with (and therefore have to stand up against), but she doesn't really get it. Papa is trying to suggest that she should let the whole Lillian Jean grudge go, because it's just so not worth it.
But Cassie can't. And, luckily, she has the planning skills to go along with her anger.
Cassie spends weeks making Lillian Jean think she's her adoring lackey. After earning all this trust—and some juicy gossip, Cassie basically engineers a sneak attack on her. It turns out to be a pretty brutal fight, with Cassie throwing several punches and pulling Lillian Jean's long, blond hair. In the end, she makes Lillian Jean apologize to her, but do you think Cassie is really satisfied?
The book seems to suggest that Cassie is satisfied with what she has done, and that Lillian Jean deserved her punishment. For one, Cassie is only nine years old while Lillian Jean is 13. We don't condone violence, but, really. Knowing that Cassie is so little helps get us on her side.
Plus, Cassie steers a middle course between Papa's example and Uncle Hammer's: she gives Lillian Jean a good thrashing for her trouble, but does it in such a way that Lillian Jean can't tell anyone, or she'll look like a fool in front of all of her white friends (that's the planning skills for you).
In fact, Cassie seems to take after her parents: she not willing to lie down and take the racism, like her dad who saves T.J. or her mom who organizes the boycott. But we can't help wondering: will she be able to make a difference?