The Major Themes in "Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry"

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“Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry” explores the heartbreaking and brutal realities of a black family living in the segregated South in the early twentieth century. Focusing on the Logan family’s interactions with racist neighbors and town folk, the book explores key themes that emerge from its setting. These themes swirl around ideas related to power, influence, family, justice and racism. Ultimately, each of the individual themes can only be understood in relation to the others, which is why Mildred Taylor’s “Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry” is an award-winning classic in the children’s literature canon.

1 Influence is Power and the Powerful are Influential

“Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry” explores the theme of influence, both how people gain influence and how they are moved by it. The power of one person’s influence or a family’s influence over other characters in the book generates much of the actions that drive the story. For example, the Wallace family’s racist attitude toward the Logan family and other black families influences many of the other whites in the story to hold similarly racist attitudes. This is because the Wallace family owns a local store in the area that doesn’t allow black patrons. This example illustrates how “Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry” examines the ways in which those who have a little bit of power can exert influence on those who don’t have any.

2 Importance of Family

The various interactions in “Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry” occur between three families, indicating that the role and importance of family is another key theme in the novel. The protagonist Cassie Logan and her family struggle to get along with two racist families, the Simms and the Wallaces. Cassie often looks to her father and mother for support when she confronts the racism of the Simms and Wallaces, just as Cassie’s younger siblings look to her for support. Similarly, though they are certainly narrow-minded, the Simms and Wallace families both rely on the same type of familial support (though they use this support to do bad things). Ultimately, regardless of which family you consider -- the Logans, Simms or Wallaces -- their reliance on each other reveals the thematic significance of family in the novel.

3 Confronting Racism & Segregation

The primary tension that exists and drives the story in “Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry” is the racial clashing between the Logan family and the Simms and Wallace families. This racial tension is highlighted by the fact that the story takes place in segregated Mississippi in 1933. For example, throughout the book, the Logans and other black families must contend with knight riders, a group of racist terrorists that seek to frighten and even kill African Americans. Similarly, at the end of the story, Cassie’s friend TJ, a black schoolchild, is about to be tried and maybe even killed for a crime that he did not commit. Racism and segregation -- specifically how the different characters and families confront each issue -- plays a key role in developing not just the theme of the story, but also the plot.

4 Searching for Justice

As they struggle to get by, the Logans -- specifically Cassie -- are in constant search of some shred of justice in a cruel and unjust world. This search for justice often emerges in the characters’ actions and reflections. For example, Cassie uses physical violence to punish people who have done her wrong. She beats up TJ after he cheats on a test and passes the blame off onto her. Later in the story, she also beats up Lillian Jean, a white classmate, and forces her to apologize for being demeaning and cruel to Cassie and her siblings. Cassie’s father, Papa, is also in constant search for justice, particularly at the close of the book as he tries to stand up for TJ as the young boy is about to tried for a crime he didn’t commit. Though it’s often difficult, if not impossible to find, the constant search for justice is an important theme for specific characters in the book, as well as for the entire book itself

Samuel Hamilton has been writing since 2002. His work has appeared in “The Penn,” “The Antithesis,” “New Growth Arts Review" and “Deek” magazine. Hamilton holds a Master of Arts in English education from the University of Pittsburgh, and a Master of Arts in composition from the University of Florida.