Facing the Past to Better the Future (A Book Club Post)
June 23, 2016 § 1 Comment
Like many of you, I am appalled, heartsick, and deeply concerned by some of the rhetoric surrounding this election—particularly by the latent racism and bigotry that appear to be awakening in pockets of our country. Each time I check my news feed, my own powerlessness in the face of what seems like a funnel cloud of hate threatens to consume me.
But then I am reminded of our children. Of how good and true and fiercely righteous they are. Of how doing the right thing is of paramount importance to them at their young age.
“Right” can be subjective. People can act in a way that they justify as right, but which others would judge as cruel and hateful.
How do we teach our children the right “right”? Or, perhaps more critically, how do we inspire our children’s conscience to make those distinctions for themselves?
How do we ensure our children will grow up in a country that celebrates differences, instead of condemns or even merely tolerates them? How do we ensure our children won’t make the same mistakes that generations of their forbearers did—and which some of their contemporaries are dangerously close to repeating?
In the midst of this unsettling time, I am once again reminded of the small but not insignificant power that we as parents have in what we choose to read with our children. Our time with them as willing listeners may be fleeting, but it is time that is immensely valuable. When we read to our children, we shape the way in which they see the world. We encourage them to ask questions of themselves and of others. And we give them a working vocabulary to navigate the undeniably treacherous terrain of life.
This past spring, I had the privilege of leading a book club with some of the children in my son’s elementary class on a book that made an indelible impression on me as a child—and which today, even as it celebrates its 40th anniversary, feels as valuable as ever.
Mildred D. Taylor’s 1976 novel, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (Ages 10-15, possibly younger if reading aloud), tells the story of a black family’s perseverance amidst the poverty and racism of rural Mississippi in the early 1930s. Told through the eyes of the nine-year-old daughter, the story is also a coming-of-age one, as Cassie trades the innocence of her youth for a sobering understanding of the way in which race so narrowly defines her family’s place in the world.
In writing this book and the sequels that follow, Taylor set out to put down on paper the various stories that her father and other family members had passed down to her about their childhood in the South—living at a time when blacks were no longer enslaved, but were “still not free.”
Roll of Thunder addresses a part of our country’s past that has often been kept quiet. In writing the book, Taylor did more than simply catalog her family’s oral histories. She dared to write outside the history books. She dared to tell the kinds of stories that had been deliberately withheld from textbooks; and in doing so, she gave the world a deeper, fuller, truer portrait of the southern American experience.
You want to motivate kids to tackle a book whose reading level might initially seem daunting, or whose cover might seem like it has nothing to do with their day-to-day reality? Tell them they’re getting to read stuff that people (not that long ago) went out of their way to keep secret. Tell them they’re getting to read stuff that many people—the very perpetrators of the kind of inhumanity exposed in these stories—would like to pretend never happened.
These children were every bit as shocked and spellbound by the novel as I remember being when I read it as a child.
And that is because this is MIND BLOWING stuff.
For starters, there’s the realization that the Logan children walk over an hour—usually barefoot on the dirt road—to get to their all-black school, while the children headed towards the white school tear by in school buses whose drivers purposely kick up mud in their wake.
There’s the descriptive contrast (which we sketched out together one week) of the white and black schools: one with manicured lawns and bleacher-framed athletic fields; the other with crabgrass checked by a roaming cow.
There’s the chilling scene that commences when Cassie’s teacher makes a big fanfare of presenting each member of the class—for the first time in the history of the school—with his or her own reader. Cassie and her brother’s excitement is quickly tainted when they open the readers and learn by the ledgers inside the cover that they are actually twelfth in line to use the books—and that their turn has only come because the white school has worn down the pages to the point of disintegration. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the twelfth spot is labeled “nigra.”
And this is all from the first chapter.
What follows goes well beyond poverty and offensiveness and cuts clear into injustice, emotional cruelty, and physical violence. Black adults in the novel face burning (“the skin was scarred, burned, and the lips were wizened black, like charcoal”), tarring and feathering, and even death—all at the hands of white community leaders. The children in the book may be on the outskirts of such attacks; and yet, they face bullying of a different sort, like when Cassie is spit on and shoved into the street by an older white girl, after refusing to address her as Miz Lillian Jean.
I’ll admit that, several times early on in the book club, there were moments when I questioned whether I had overstepped in my book selection. These were largely eight and nine year olds, while Roll of Thunder is probably more appropriately suited for eleven and twelve year olds. The vocabulary is challenging, the sentence structure complex, and on top of that there’s Southern dialect. Most significantly, there is graphic and upsetting subject matter, including offensive language. Were these children ready for this? Were they even capable of understanding it?
Since the book was first published, Roll of Thunder has been criticized and even banned in various communities, particularly in the South, for—among other things—its use of the word nigger. In the new forward to the book, Taylor defends her work: “My stories will not be ‘politically correct’…as we all know, racism is offensive.”
The benefit of reading a book like this in the context of a book club or at home with parents is that it allows for controlled, guided discussions. Early on, the children and I looked up the history of the word nigger: its derivation from the word Negro—a word initially keyed by black intellectuals out of pride and respect for an African heritage—and its bastardization in the hands of white supremacists. We had passionate debates as to whether it was appropriate to say the word in the context of sharing passages aloud from the book; some children remained steadfast in their vehemence that they would not utter the word in any context.
Despite the challenging reading level and upsetting content, week after week, the kids kept showing up.
Even more, they astounded me with their insight and their passion.
They would stop me around the neighborhood and update me on where they were in the reading, reminding me of how many days until our next meeting and asking if I was as shocked as they were about what was happening.
During book club, they would request to act out scenes, not only to audition their Southern accent, but also to make sense of various grown-up practices, like buying on credit, which play a key role in the novel’s politics.
They were fascinated by the cover—a stirring illustration by Kadir Nelson for the book’s 40th anniversary—and often speculated on Cassie’s thoughts, while simultaneously emulating her defiant arms-crossed stance.
On their own, they memorized the Negro spiritual from whence the book’s title is derived and which is cited several times as Cassie’s rallying cry. They chanted it in unison as I walked into the room one week, their voices drumming together in a steady beat, their fists pounding on the table in emphasis.
How do I account for this kind of enthusiasm and engagement?
One word: Cassie.
By casting Cassie as the heart and soul of the story, Taylor gives the child reader a kindred spirit, one who transcends skin color or experience with prejudice. At the end of the day, Cassie is a nine-year-old child. She is fiercely protective of her siblings and deeply loyal to her self-respecting and determined family. She questions everything that is happening around her, and her unwavering sense of justice will feel familiar to any elementary child. She is both afraid and brave.
There are many other well-developed and relatable characters in the book—including Cassie’s older brother, Stacey, who was another favorite with my group—but it is through Cassie’s raw, innocent, inquisitive eyes that we are drawn firsthand into this very ugly side of American history.
Still, do not misunderstand me. Amidst the ugliness, there are plentiful moments of beauty, hope, and courage throughout the novel. There are the ways—many of them quiet and subversive, born out of cleverness as opposed to physical violence—that the different members of the Logan family wield power in the community, asserting their rights and enlisting others in the fight.
There is the love—and the deep, deep tenderness—that the Logans have for one another and the ways in which the older generation embeds in the younger ones the sacredness of family history, a reverence for the earth, and a way to preserve human dignity at all costs.
In reaction to a particularly upsetting demonstration of white power in the book, one of the book club members burst into tears and said she wished she wasn’t white. I realized we needed to take a step back and refrain from falling ourselves into the trap of vilifying an entire group of people because of their race. And so we spent the next twenty minutes talking about the white characters in the book who do respect their black neighbors, who go out of their way to offer friendship, and who even at times speak out against others who oppose their views. It is actions, not skin color, that should command our attention and judgment.
On another day, we watched a contemporary video about the pitfalls of labels, be they race or religion or gender related. Then we watched it again.
One of the most profound realizations of the entire book club came on the heels of one of the most surprising chapters in the novel, when Cassie—after spending weeks submitting to Lillian Jean in an effort to earn her trust—lures Lillian Jean into the woods and beats her up. Some of the children admitted to being as duped by Cassie’s intentions as Lillian Jean herself, although all agreed that they figured out what was happening long before Lillian Jean did. I argued that Lillian Jean’s bewilderment at being “turned on” by Cassie is especially interesting, in light of the fact that Lillian Jean has gone out of her way to insult Cassie for most of her life.
“Why should it come as such a shock to her that Cassie would want to be mean back?” I asked the children.
There was a long pause, and then one child spoke up: “I know this sounds weird, but I don’t think Lillian Jean thought she was being mean all those times. I think she thought she was doing what everyone else like her was supposed to be doing.”
Another child jumped in: “It’s like her parents and all the other adults in her life have always been telling her, ‘you have to be mean to black people,’ ‘black people aren’t the same as us,’ and so she just thinks that’s how it is.”
And another: “It’s like my name. My parents have always called me by my name, so I know that it’s my name. If someone tried to tell me it wasn’t my name, I wouldn’t even believe them.”
May I remind you that these children are only eight and nine years old?! Oh, the wisdom that can be unearthed in our children! Because, of course, they are exactly right about the power of brainwashing, of the power that we as parents possess in the way we teach our children about the world.
After we finished the book, as we wrapped up our final meeting, I told the children I had two questions.
“Would you like to be friends with Cassie?”
The unanimous, affirmative shouts were so loud that they likely carried out to the street.
“If Cassie came over to your house for dinner, what would you want to ask her?”
Several of the children immediately responded that they would ask her how she felt about things that happened in the book—particularly during the nail-biting events of the final pages.
One girl was silent for a few minutes. Then she said, “I don’t think I would like to ask her about anything that already happened. I would like to ask her how she is enjoying the rest of her life.”
I continue to be struck by this statement—by the generosity and kindness and optimism that it reflects. (Of course, I immediately jumped at the chance to plug Mildred Taylor’s sequel, Let the Circle Be Unbroken.)
We all want to believe that things will get better. We all want to believe that, like the Logan family, we will do everything in our power to see that it does.
Right now, our children are still so young—still so innocent in the way they see the world. And yet, what they see and hear and read is beginning to open their eyes wider. With this widening comes not just power but responsibility: what they do with that power will depend on what examples of leadership we continue to share with them.
Let our children always have characters like Cassie to inspire them to stand up for what is right and just, to resist the danger of lumping groups together with labels, and to celebrate the rainbow of colors and individuality around them.
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Review copy by Penguin. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!