I’ve been teaching a unit with my seventh graders based on Mildred D. Taylor’s novel, Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry. As I previewed the book, I found myself recoiling from the harsh depictions of racist violence, which are very true to what really went on in Mississippi in the 1930′s, ’40′s, and ’50′s. I wondered if my classroom–a racially disparate group of 12 year-olds–would be able to handle it. I’m not sure what I was so afraid of… I guess I felt like reading about those events really hurt me, and so perhaps it would hurt them, especially if they didn’t have the maturity to understand it. I was feeling similar to a group of parents who wanted to censor the book back in 2004, saying the content was too mature and disturbing for middle schoolers to be exposed to.
But then a little bell rang in my head. Why was I trying to shield these kids from the truth of what happened in history? If I did so, wasn’t I just playing accomplice to the thousands of sugared-over history textbook editions that have lain, guilty, in classrooms across the nation for decades? If I was nervous to talk so directly about racism in my classroom, with black kids and white kids, Latinos and Hmong, wasn’t that my own little contribution to racial tension in our own society? After this mental tug-of-war, I convinced myself that I would tackle it, and after an introductory explanation about the need for grown-up behavior, sensitivity, and reverence, we plunged in headfirst.
Best move ever. The responses from studying this novel have been the most heartfelt, complex, and complete responses I’ve gotten from my seventh grade. Not that it’s been without pain–for instance, when I was explaining how tar-and-feathering was a humiliating and excruciating “punishment” that whites inflicted on blacks for the most minor offenses, I was interrupted mid-sentence by a cocoa-faced, curly-haired girl with watery eyes: “But why would someone do that? Why would anybody ever think that was ok? What made them think that wasn’t wrong? It’s wrong!” The only answer I could give her was, “I wish I knew the answer myself. To be honest, I really don’t know where racism or hate of any kind comes from. But it’s bad, bad, news and it’s really hurtful, isn’t it?”
One of the most interesting lessons we did involved using poetry to talk about how race interactions were more complicated than simply pitting whites against blacks. For this activity, we analyzed Jeremy’s friendship with the Logan children by connecting it with Countee Cullen’s “Tableau,” which I’ll post here–
Locked arm in arm they cross the way/The black boy and the white
The golden splendor of the day/The sable pride of night
From lowered blinds the dark folk stare/And here the fair folk talk
Indignant that the two should dare/In unison to walk
Oblivious to look and word/They pass, and see no wonder
That lightning brilliant as a sword/Should blaze the path of thunder.
Here are a few of my favorite student responses to the poem:
I say what happened in the poem was two kids (black and white) fighting against racism. They were signaling out that skin color does not effect a person’s feelings. And when the lightning struck and cut through the segregation, it burned all thoughts of hatred and led people to think. If God made different races for a reason of hope, why was it used as a reason for bad individuality, segregation, and downputting of someone of another skin type or race? All races form the reason of life. People, living, and being are the cause of the new age. In Roll of Thunder, segregation was at full cruelty. But every action has its own special consequence.
I love this poem because I think it is so true about white kids and black kids becoming friends, without anybody having the right to say anything. Countee Cullen is impressing with this poem. He’s awesome!!
I see hope in the poem where they don’t care what people are thinking about them. I think that it would be unfair if we couldn’t hang out with someone because of their race or their religion. It’s unfair to judge people because of the color of their skin and it’s rude and cruel.
I think the poem is trying to say “don’t care about what people think.” If you think or know what you are doing, have trust in yourself and go for it. They are trying to tell us even when it is hard, don’t give up because we’ve come a long, long way just to give up. In the book, the blacks are going through hard times. A couple nice white people are trying to help them go through that and say something like, “What is the difference between us?” but without words.
I’ll end this post with the wisdom of Mildred D. Taylor herself, in her response to the attempted censorship of her novel. Here’s a quote from her, courtesy of the National Coalition Against Censorship website:
“As a parent, I understand not wanting a child to hear painful words,” Taylor wrote. “But also as a parent I do not understand trying to prevent a child from learning about a history that is part of America… I must be true to the stories told.”
Thank you, Ms. Taylor, for reminding us that we have to look the world straight in the eye in order to form our own opinions of it. Even if we’re twelve years old.
P.s. Every day, I am greeted at the door by a different child that whispers to me, “Ms. H, can I read first today?”