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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Gender Race Inequality

Without this woman, Barack Obama could never have become president

Like so many Black women, when Shirley Chisholm saw trouble, she took things into her own hands. She said, “screw it, I’ll do it.” What was “it”?

Well, not only was Shirley Chisholm the first Black Congresswoman in the US, but she was also the first Black candidate to run for a major party’s presidential nomination.

Chisholm was born in 1924, a few years before the Great Depression began. She was the oldest of four. Her parents were of Caribbean ancestry and blue-collar cut. Her mother was a seamstress and her father a factory worker. She would go on to graduate from Brooklyn College with honors, as well as Columbia University, and thereafter became an educator.

Chisholm started her political career in 1965, as a state legislator for New York. For perspective, The Civil Rights Act of 1964 had just passed.

Chisholm wasted absolutely no time in making her impact. She served for three years until the opportunity arose for her to run for the House of Representatives.  For perspective, Chisholm ran for Congress the same year that Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. It was a scary, emotional and trying time for folks of all colors and creeds. She hoped to aid in unifying the country, at one of its most volatile times.

When Chisholm became Representative for New York’s 12th Congressional district, her racist, sexist colleagues had no trouble wasting her time. They assigned Chisholm, a candidate representing in one of the most densely populated cities in the world…to the agricultural committee. Still, she turned lemons into lemonade. Shirley’s biggest priorities were the working poor and education.

Those two often mixed.

She used her influence concerning Agriculture to greatly increase food stamp benefits. She helped create WIC, which was a program that helped new and soon-to-be mothers feed their children. She helped create and join the Congressional Black Caucus and the National Woman’s Political Caucus. Her work in Congress was remarkable.

So obviously, the next step was to run for president.

Chisholm ran because she knew someone had to do it. It was 1972, and no one had paved the way.

So, of course, she had to.

[A campaign poster for Chisholm’s 1972 presidential run. Chisholm is depicted, along with the words “Bring U.S. Together” and “Vote Chisholm 1972, Unbought and Unbossed”]
You’d be surprised at who supported her run, and who didn’t.

Chisholm mentions frequently that she experienced more strife fighting against sexism than racism. People didn’t really know what to do with a Black woman running for the Democratic nomination. She was often a punchline.

Whereas Gloria Steinem, the feminist icon of the 70s did not endorse Chisholm’s run, Chisholm managed to gain the favor of her opponent. Someone who was perhaps one of the most racist men in America: George Wallace. You know, the man who said he wants segregation forever.

He was the governor of Alabama at the time, and he was a Democrat.

The campaign itself was rather dangerous for Chisholm and her opponents.

Wallace was shot while on the campaign trail and ended up paralyzed from the waist down for the rest of his life. Chisholm caught a lot of flack for visiting him in the hospital, but she was simply being a good colleague. Chisholm’s life was threatened at least three times while she was campaigning, and she was appointed a Secret Service detail due to these threats.

She lost the race for many reasons, mostly because no one truly took her seriously. Her experience mattered not: she was a Black woman, and that was enough for a great deal of Americans to discount her.

After her run for the Democratic nomination, Chisholm returned to her seat in the house. She left Congress in 1983, having served in the House for fourteen years. She passed away in 2005 and was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Perhaps the biggest tragedy is that Shirley Chisholm didn’t live to see Barack Obama elected into the White House. After all, she truly paved the way for him.