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Friday, September 30, 2011

Mildred D. Taylor, Hear My Cry

"We have no choice of what color we're born or who our parents are or whether we're rich or poor. What we do have is some choice over what we make of our lives once we're here." - Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry
In 1977, Mississippi native Mildred D. Taylor won the Newbery Medal for her book Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. In 1986, my mother gave it to me for Christmas. (They've redone the cover art since I was in elementary school, but this image is the one I remember.) The book is the third in a semi-autobiographical series about an African American family living in Mississippi. (Taylor based the books on her own family history.) It's set during the Great Depression, when lives were hard for farmers in the Delta, and even harder if your skin wasn't white.

This book was seminal to my understanding of race relations in my home state. I had heard the "N" word before and I knew it was a bad word that I wasn't supposed to say. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry explained why. It explained the front page of our textbooks, which even in the 1980s had a place for the race of the child using a book for the year. It explained the hurt that happened when someone was discriminated against for the color of their skin and the awful, insurmountable hatred that people inexplicably feel for their fellow human beings. It made me realize that words can do much more than hurt, that they can carry the prejudice, hate, meanness and unfounded superiority of past generations. After reading Mildred D. Taylor's book, I vowed that I would never say or even think words like the "N" word. I would never be like the people in her book.

Despite being an award-winning book for tweens and teens, the short novel has been the focus of several discriminatory groups:
  • In 1993, a Louisiana high school removed it from its reading list because of "racial bias."
  • In 1998, a California middle school challenged it because of "racial epithets."
  • In 2000, an Alabama elementary school library challenged it because of "racial slurs."
  • In 2004, a Florida school district challenged it because it was "inappropriate" for the age group reading it. Also, it uses the word "nigger."
To these detractors, I say, "Pish!" It is vital that children read more books like this. Books can entertain, true, and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is entertaining. Exceptional books, however, do much more than just entertain. They enlighten. They educate. They expand our minds. So much better to read, understand, and learn to form our own opinions than to sweep everything under the proverbial carpet.

Doyle, Robert P. Banned Books: Challenging Our Freedom to Read. Chicago, IL: American Library Association, 2010. Print.
Taylor, Mildred D. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. New York: The Dial Press, 1976. Print.

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