History Historical Badasses

How Mildred D. Taylor’s stories can teach us how to be hopeful throughout hardships

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When I was in seventh grade, my English class was assigned to read a book titled Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor. I can’t remember the exact moment I learned about racism in school, but reading this book was an eye-opener. To this day, I can still recall two vivid scenes from the book: Cassie Logan describing the worn-out textbooks meant for Black students and her Papa’s leg being crushed by a wagon during a racist ambush.

Mildred D. Taylor began writing about the Logan family in 1975 with her first novella, Song of the Trees. Her historical works are about the hardships faced by African-American families living in the Deep South. Taylor was not the first author to narrate such moving stories. Yet, to me, she stood out for the sense of hope and resilience she breathes into her characters.

Taylor was born in Jackson, Mississippi, but moved north with her family when she was just three months old. Despite not having a Southern upbringing, she insisted that the region held pleasant memories for her as her family’s home. They eventually settled in Toledo, Ohio as her father did not want her and her sister to grow up in the racially segregated society of the South that he lived in. When Taylor started school, she was the only black child in her class. Yearly trips to Mississippi and firsthand stories from family gatherings helped her become familiar with the South. Taylor would eventually use some of the stories for her novels.

Taylor attended the University of Toledo where she majored in English and minored in History. By age 19, she had written her first novel, Dark People, Dark World. Sadly, due to revision disagreements with a publisher, the novel was never published. After graduation, Taylor joined the Peace Corps and taught in Arizona and Ethiopia. She then attended the University of Colorado School of Journalism, where she worked with university officials and fellow students to curate a Black Studies program. It’s inspiring how Taylor maintained the respect from her roots and encouraged for others to do the same in education.

In addition to all those accomplishments, Taylor kept writing. In 1973, Taylor entered a contest funded by the Council on Interracial Books for Children. “I tried writing [a story] from a boy’s point of view because the story was based on my father’s life, but that didn’t work,” Taylor said in a 2006 interview with the American Library Association. “So I decided to retell it from the girl’s point of view. It won that honor and got my foot in the door.”

The story was eventually published as Song of the Trees, and won first prize in the contest’s African-American category. It was also listed as an outstanding book of the year in the New York Times.

In 1977, she also won the Newberry Medal for the sequel to Song of the Trees, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, and several other literary recognitions.

“I wanted to show a different kind of black world from the one so often seen,” she said of her characters, the Logan family. “[Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry] will always be the most special book I have written.”

Black stories are often heavily centered around trauma. There’s a common assumption that Blacknes and suffering go hand in hand. While the Logans are a disadvantaged family, what we learn from them is their ability to make the most out of situations. Cassie and her brothers are a strong unit who have a solid relationship with their parents and appreciate who they are surrounded by. If anything, Taylor has shown us the importance of family dynamics in the face of constant trauma.

In an interview with The Brown Bookshelf, Taylor commented on the backlash of parents who felt her work was too painful for children to read. “As much as it hurts me to write words of pain, I know that they must be written, for they are truthful words about the time I write,” she said.

Sometimes, even if it can be uncomfortable, writing about pain is necessary. It can help others become more attentive to voices that are often silenced. What I find heartbreakingly relatable is that the Logan children instantly learned that they were living in a different world than their white peers. How Taylor writes about pain from Cassie’s perspective lets readers know that children are never too young to start understanding the world around them.

In the same interview, Taylor discussed receiving letters from students like myself who read her books as required reading. The students, however, said the books weren’t just about history. Rather, they are about the values they wished were more a part of their world today.

In Taylor’s words, “[It] is so uplifting to find there are still those who read my books and not only feel a greater understanding about our past, but feel the relevancy of that past to apply to the great turmoil of today’s world.”

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The reopening of Emmett Till’s murder case could bring us closure, but can it accomplish much else?

In 1955, 14-year old Emmett Till was murdered in Money, Mississippi. His murders were never prosecuted, and now almost 65 years later, the US Department of Justice has decided to reopen the case, citing new information. His death, along with the powerful actions of his mourning mother, mobilized the civil rights movement. Although this murder may have sparked progress, Emmett and the Till family never received justice for his brutal death. The reopening of this sensitive and racially charged case has many wondering if after six decades justice will have the opportunity to prevail.

In August 1955, Emmett and a few other young boys went to the store to buy some gum in Mississippi. Here is where Emmett interacted with Carolyn Bryant, a white woman behind the cash register. No one knows exactly what went on in that exchange, but Carolyn told her husband that Emmett had made offensive gestures, grabbed and whistled at her. Carolyn’s husband, Roy Brant, and his brother-in-law, J.W. Milam, decided to find a way to punish Emmitt for these accused actions. They took Emmett from his Uncle’s house at gunpoint, and no one ever saw Emmett alive again. Days later, his lifeless and unrecognizable body was found in the Tallahatchie River. He had been beaten, shot in the face, and lynched. His wounds were so bad that this mother could only identify his body because of the ring he was wearing with this initials on it.

Emmett Till’s original murder trial and investigation began at the end of September in Tallahatchie County, Mississippi. All testimonies were heard by an all-white jury who quickly acquitted the defendants after hardly an hour of deliberations. After the trial, both men confessed to Emmett’s murder.

No charges were ever brought against them.

More importantly, his murders were never prosecuted. This act of injustice fueled the civil rights movement by being a representation of the inequality in America’s justice system, which was especially apparent since both the murderers had publicly confessed to the crime. For the first time in history, it was easy for both black and white people to see the ways in which systemic discrimination and racism polluted the United States and oppressed people of color.

This is not the first time Emmett Till’s case has been encouraged to be reinvestigated. In 2004 the DOJ was requested to reopen the case. At the time, it was concluded that the department of justice did not have federal jurisdiction to reopen the case. In 2007, the case was referred to a grand jury in Mississippi who determined not to press any charges. Later that year, the Obama administration passed the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act of 2007, also known as The Till Bill 2. This Bill made it so that the Department of Justice was accountable for investigating unsolved cases that were civil rights related or racially motivated, and had occurred before 1970. This bill also evoked a mandatory annual status report.

This status report is how news first broke about the new evidence prompting the DOJ to reopen the Till case. While no officials have stated what this new evidence is, many think it was a statement made from Carolyn Bryant on her deathbed. In Timothy Tyson’s book “The Blood of Emmett Till,” he recounts an interview he had with Carolyn. She stated that unlike her testimony in the trial, Emmett TIll had never actually grabbed her or made inappropriate gestures to her. She confessed, “Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him.”

We won’t ever know if an honest testimony from Carolyn would have been able to penetrate a room full of prejudice jurors at the time. Today, this opportunity for justice stands as a beacon of hope that the harsh and corrupt prejudices from the Jim Crow South have faded. Or it may display the ways in which those prejudices still flourish in America.

The sad truth is that today, young African American boys are still being murdered by white males. And those white males are still not being prosecuted for their actions. In the same way that Emmett Till’s murder catalyzed a movement, so did the murder of 17-year old Trayvon Martin in 2012. His killer was also never convicted.

It’s important to be hopeful that, at the very least, this investigation could provide a source of closure and justice for Emmett Till’s murder. The ability for this case to be looked at is a signal of progress. Still, how much safer is America today for the 14-year old black child in the south? Justice for Emmett Till is deserved, and justice for many other African Americans should be demanded. In the cultural climate of the needed Black Lives Matter movement, it’s the job of the oppressor, not the oppressed, to ensure that they do, in fact, matter.