Welcome to Mississippi, circa 1933. Bad news: We're stuck squarely in the era of the American South's segregation and Jim Crow laws. We're hanging out with these characters before the Civil Rights movement. Way before. So, issues relating to race are a major concern in this novel.
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry shows us the many injustices inflicted upon blacks by the white ruling class. But, Taylor also provides some examples of non-racist whites, as well. Big Picture Alert: The novel shows how a major part of living as a black person in this time and place was learning how to navigate the unfair system without having it crush you and your dignity.
Papa is right: Stacey and Jeremy can never be true friends because their different races set them too far apart.
Stacey's and Mama's actions against racism in the novel are quite similar to the civil disobedience of the Civil Rights movement.
Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words… well, unfortunately, they can actually hurt you. We're going to put it right out there: some of the language used in this novel is not pretty, and it's a testament to how far our society has progressed that we recoil from the more ugly words (or at least we hope you do!). Language is a powerful tool in Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. It can be used to hand down history, to assert one's identity, or to engage in hateful and derogatory name-calling ("nigra," "n*****," "mud eater"). Sure, it may sound like a cliché at first, but Taylor shows us how words can be a force for good or can be abused—depending on how the speaker chooses to wield that power. Keep an eye out for who's allowed to speak and who gets shut down, and under what circumstances.
Part of growing up for Cassie involves learning how to control her use of language.
The "Roll of Thunder" spiritual that Mr. Morrison sings is just one example of how language can be used to take a stand against oppression.
So, you think the Great Recession is bad? Try on the Great Depression for size. And if you think that's bad, try being a poor black family during the Great Depression. That's our situation in Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. It's hard out here for these sharecroppers. They have to make a living at the mercy of wealthy landowners (and there's not much mercy there, trust us). Only one of the main black characters has a decent ride (Uncle Hammer), and the others get around in a horse and wagon. The school is lucky to get hand-me-down, beaten up, vandalized books, and most of the kids don't even have shoes to wear—they go barefoot during the week and save shoe-wearing for Sundays.
But don't think that only the African-American characters are poor. Most people, black and white, living in rural Mississippi during this time faced poverty. Taylor shows us that even some of the white children are skinny from lack of food (the Simms, for example).
Did we mention times are hard?
Taylor suggests that sharecropping is basically another form of slavery.
The poverty that the Logans suffer helps to bring them closer together. In this way, we might see it as a positive.
Church and church activities are big time integrated into the daily life of the black community in Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. You can tell it's important, because even the school's name has religious connections: Great Faith Elementary and Secondary School. Not only does the church provide spiritual comfort during hard times and an old-timey revival, but it's also a place to hang out, take part in the dating scene, and get the latest news. On a more serious note, though, slavery created a unique type of African-American church in the South—and we get to catch a glimpse of it.
Papa's act of burning his own land is a kind of Christ-like sacrifice.
The Logan family places less emphasis on religion than education.
Welcome to the point of the entire novel. In Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, the African-American characters have to persevere against many kinds of injustice caused by the racist oppression in the South during this time. From small injustices, like being ignored in the grocery store in favor of white people, to much more serious ones, like being burned alive for speaking to a white woman, part of building character and growing up in this novel is learning how to cope with these injustices while retaining your self-respect and dignity.
Cassie shouldn't have beaten up Lillian Jean. Her actions are a form of "vigilante justice," and similar in kind (though certainly not degree) as the Wallaces.
Lillian Jean gets exactly what she deserves from Cassie. After all, Papa said that Jesus advocated "turning the other cheek," but that he didn't mean to be a fool.
We're not dealing with a huge city where people are all nameless and faceless. In Taylor's setting, everyone knows everyone else. Plus, they know what you've been up to. For example, cheating on a history test. Yikes! The black community in Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is very tight-knit. The sharecroppers rely on each other, and they can always count on someone to lend them a helping hand when they are in trouble. Think about how Mama and the Logan children deliver tons of food to the poorer residents, and how they open their doors for the über-poor Averys (and Jeremy Simms) on Christmas. And don't forget the spirit of coming together at the revival meeting near the end of the book. So, despite the trials and tribulations taking place, the black community here really shows some good old-fashioned Southern hospitality to those in need. (The other southerners, though, not so much.)
Taylor shows us that a lot of conflict comes from within the black community itself, and not just from the corrupt whites.
The church is one of the main pillars of strength in the black community in the book.
In Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, it's all about the land. Families like the Averys and the Turners are at the mercy of their landowners for economic prosperity (or, economic failure, more like it). But the Logans have land, so they get to exercise independence that the others can't. As the novel progresses and their land is threatened by Mr. Granger, this issue becomes more pressing. Why does Papa obsess so much about keeping their land? Simple. Consider the legacy of slavery. The Logans descend from slaves, who were forced to work somebody else's land. Now, they own the land, but the threat of losing it is never far away. That's why Cassie also cries for the land at the end of the book.
For the Logans, land is inseparably linked to the concept of "family."
For Mr. Granger, land is something you dominate, and use as a force of domination over others.
Talk about separate and unequal: Great Faith Elementary and Secondary School (the African-American school) is lacking all of the necessary things that Jefferson Davis County School (the white school) seems to have. Despite this, the Logan family takes education seriously: it's a way for the Logan children to have a better future. "Be Cool...Stay in School" is definitely one of the Logan family's mottos.
Education doesn't seem to be the magic bullet for getting ahead. For example, Mrs. Logan is an educated teacher, but the family is still very poor.
Taylor shows us that some of the most important lessons in life cannot be learned in a classroom.
Do you think it's strange that Cassie doesn't seem to have a BFF? Her closest ties are with her family (Stacey, Christopher-John and Little Man). She rarely does anything without one of them, and she doesn't form close ties with anyone at her school. Considering the risks we see with friendships outside the family (think Stacey and Jeremy or Stacey and T.J.), it's probably no accident. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry shows that friendship can be a dangerous thing if you're not 100% certain of the other person involved.
In the world of the novel, true friends can be determined by the sacrifices they are willing to make for you.
The relationship between T.J. and Stacey shows that some friendships are just not worth the risks.