Monday, March 09, 2009

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (and anyone else you deigns to listen)

Well, I've moved. I'm now in sunny, warm, South Carolina in my new apartment doing laundry. And blogging on something I've been wanting to blog on since Friday, but the site was throwing a tantrum but I couldn't.

Oh, well.

Anyway, I'm here, and I'm going to stalk about Mildred D. Taylor's Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry and why this novel is THE novel that started my love for reading and in many ways has influenced my writing. And even a decade and a half later, it is still at the top of my favorite books of all time. I love this book, it's as poignant now as as it was when I first read it. I think this will be a book, and this will be a series, I'll continue to read well into my eighties (Lord willing!).

In the beginning of the novel, Ms. Taylor says her father was a master storyteller, a trait he clearly passed on to his daughter. The choice to use Cassie as the narrator was brilliant because female voices were rarely heard during that time or even in the 70s when Ms. Taylor wrote the book--especially black female voices. Coupled with that, I don't think a male narrator would be able to highlight the gender differences and nuances the way a woman could; just like a white character couldn't discern the racial differences and nuances the way a nonwhite character could. More importantly, through Cassie, the reader is allowed to see the entire breadth of black family life in the 1930s South in a way an adult narrator would probably take for granted. There is the innocence and fun along with the terror and stress of what it meant to be black during that time.

And folks, I can honestly say I don't think I would've been able to make it.

Cassie is about three years younger than my grandmother, which means my grandmother is Stacey's age. Reading this book, especially towards the end and how the night riders really had the right to do whatever they wanted to black people and could get away with it...that David Logan had to burn a quarter of his crop so he could save the life of a black boy not even of his Black people during this time never had post-traumatic stress because there was never a "post", it was just traumatic stress every day. Can't get a good night sleep because you have no idea if you said or did something to piss off a white person. Tiptoeing in your own backyard because the laws weren't meant to protect you, were meant to be used against you, having to have those "hard" conversations with your children that white parents would never even fathom to have with theirs.

And those conversations still happening today, even if the language of it is a bit different.

I remember reading that book and believing in my heart of hearts I was Cassie Logan even though I'd never picked cotton a day in my life; or had to walk barefoot for an hour just to go to class; or had my dignity shat upon because "that was the way of things"; or having to see my parents capitulate to white people even though everyone in the situation knew those very white people were wrong. And yet...I was still told all of this growing up, warned, cautioned. I remember my uncle (may he rest in peace, as last week was the fifth anniversary of his passing) tell me to never show how smart I am to other people. I took that lesson to heart because he'd never steer me wrong and I loved him. And now that I'm older, I realize why he told me that. Because showing how smart you were was the quickest way to land yourself into trouble, specially if it were proven you were smarter than someone white. In many ways I'm still unlearning that, especially when it comes to my writing and putting myself out there. Basically, I need to own up to the fact that I am as good as I think I am, which is really hard to do when you've been taught to be humble, almost to the point of making yourself invisible, and have been very good at it for the majority of your formative years.

Although I don't think your "formative" years stop until you die.

Roll of Thunder is one of the main reasons family is such an important theme in my writing, or why my supporting characters almost mean as much to me as my main characters. Every person in that novel meant something to Cassie, even if that character was mentioned on page 57 and was never spoken of again. And while it's not a romance, it's a love story because it shows the love Cassie's family has for each other, the love the family has for the land, the love Cassie has for herself despite an entire society telling her why she shouldn't.

In many ways, nine-year-old Cassie is who I aspire to be, who my heroines aspire to be. To have that much self-knowledge and efficacy despite everything...that girl was blessed. Yes, her parents shielded her from a lot, and she had to grow up real fast between the beginning and end of the novel, but the essence of her remained the same. That impetuous, unfiltered sense of justice and demanding it; knowing you're worth dignity and respect and becoming damn affronted when it's not given instead of "accepting it as things are"--Cassie is the real definition of heroine to me. I don't mean to be all lofty about it, but she is who I want to reclaim, who I think a lot of black women want to reclaim. I think as black women grow older, a lot of us give up our inner Cassie so we can "make our way and make do", but we miss her. We really do. I know I do.

I'm slowly getting her back, though. And when I write my heroines, I try to get them back to their "inner Cassie" also. Because until you have her, I don't think you can truly, truly fall in love. And maybe it's when you're falling you realize how much you've missed her, how much you need her back so you don't fall so far you forget about yourself completely.

*rubs chin in thought* I'll have to let that bit marinate some more...


mcclary said...

welcome to sc and good luck with the writing.

Bana said...

Thank you so much! I appreciate it!