Study Guide

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry Themes

By Mildred D. Taylor

  • Race

    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.

    Questions About Race

    1. Why does Taylor go out of her way to point out that the Mississippi flag (which incorporates the Confederate flag) flies higher than the American flag at Jefferson Davis County School?
    2. Cassie's quite shocked at how she is treated during her trip to Strawberry—first by Mr. Barnett, and then by Mr. Simms. What surprises her so much about this treatment? What do you think has allowed her to not experience this so far in her life?
    3. What types of danger do the African-Americans face in the South just because of their ethnicity?
    4. Do you think the novel stereotypes any black or white characters? Let's say some are stereotyped. Which ones, and what is the effect?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Language

    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.

    Questions About Language

    1. Where do you see examples of characters having fun with language? Where is it playfully used?
    2. In lots of scenes, adults tell detailed stories of their own childhoods or youth. Why is storytelling so important to the black community in particular?
    3. Ever notice how sometimes nothing you say helps or fixes a problem? This happens several times in Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. Where are some examples of powerless language? Which characters are affected and why?
    4. Where do miscommunications occur in the book? What are the consequences?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Poverty

    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?

    Questions About Poverty

    1. Who is making significant money in the novel? How can you tell? Are they doing this ethically?
    2. Let's say Mr. Granger's car is a symbol for wealth and status. How is Uncle Hammer's car different? Do they stand for the same things?
    3. In what ways is the Simms family worse off than the Logans?
    4. How are class distinctions shown among the black characters?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Religion

    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.

    Questions About Religion

    1. How would the Great Faith Elementary and Secondary School be different without the support of the church?
    2. In what ways do you think the church of the white characters might differ from that of the African-Americans?
    3. Mr. Morrison is not a "churchgoing" man. Why do you think that might be? What circumstances of his life would support your view?
    4. Why is the revival so important to the community? How does it serve important social functions?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Justice and Injustice

    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.

    Questions About Justice and Injustice

    1. In what ways does Mildred D. Taylor make the issue of justice and injustice much more than a black and white issue? Consider Cassie's fight with Lillian Jean and T.J.'s mistakes.
    2. Which characters represent true justice? What are the traits that make them ethical?
    3. What do you think about Mr. Morrison's point that "sometimes a person's gotta fight" (4.201)? Where in the novel do you see this justified?
    4. What do you think Uncle Hammer means when he says, "You think my brother died and I got my leg half blown off in their German war to have some red-neck knock Cassie around anytime it suits him?" (6.56). What do you think he's saying about the injustices of large-scale violence (WW I), and the smaller-scale violence of Mr. Simms "knock[ing] Cassie around"?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Community

    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.)

    Questions About Community

    1. When does the black community seem at its strongest in the book? When is it most threatened?
    2. What are some clues that there are rifts even within the black community? Think about issues that are exclusive of the threat posed by the white men.
    3. Sweet-potato pies, ham, cornbread, biscuits—and don't forget the crowder peas! What's the role of food in the novel? What functions does it fulfill (other than filling bellies)?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Land Ownership

    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.

    Questions About Land Ownership

    1. How is the Logan's blood literally in the land?
    2. In what ways does land ownership serve as a sort of "great equalizer?" In what ways does it sometimes make no difference?
    3. How does Mr. Granger's greed end up (at least temporarily) saving T.J.'s life?
    4. What's up with the story about Mr. Andersen and the trees? Why do you think Taylor includes this? What does this story suggest about the security of the Logan land?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Education

    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.

    Questions About Education

    1. Cassie appears to check out at school. She's clearly pretty bored. Why do you think that is? What are some clues that she's quite intelligent?
    2. Can you always tell a character's education level in the novel by the way he or she speaks? What are some examples of how this might be difficult to determine?
    3. Does the Avery family appear to value education? What are some clues?
    4. What clues are given that each generation of the Logan family becomes more educated than the one before?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Friendship

    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.

    Questions About Friendship

    1. Compare the friendship between R.W. and Melvin and T.J. to the friendship between T.J. and Stacey. How do you think Taylor is defining a "true friend"?
    2. Who are Cassie's "true friends"? How can you tell?
    3. Why do you think Lillian Jean misreads Cassie's intentions so badly? Why is Cassie surprised that Lillian Jean didn't know her "friendship" toward her was just a game all along?
    4. What's the significance of Jeremy Simms saying he imagines he can see the Logan house from his treehouse?

    Chew on This

    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.