Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry: Theme Analysis
The backdrop of blatant racism pervasive throughout the novel is the main theme of Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. From Cassie’s initial outrage that the few books available at her school are in fact the leftovers no longer considered usable by white students to the family’s struggle to maintain their land sought by the former white owners, each generation confronts the challenges of a society dominated by whites. Cassie learns from her parents’ leading the boycott of the Wallace store not to passively accept racist practices, but rather to thoughtfully resist injustice in all its forms. While the Logans are victims of racially motivated violence, they are also survivors who reclaim ownership of their lives by fighting for their land. Although Mama’s loss of her job and Papa’s broken leg are evidence that they cannot fix the system alone, they persist in the struggle to teach their children to respect themselves and to earn the respect of others.
Coming of Age
Cassie’s childhood in the American South is overshadowed by the forces of white oppression and racism that force her to grow up painfully aware of inequalities between blacks and whites. As Papa advises her to do “what you gotta do” Cassie must learn which things are best left along and which are worth fighting for. Like her older brother Stacey, also wrestling with adult issues of injustice, Cassie looks to her parents as role models but also must look deep within herself. From her initial outrage, shared with her brother Little Man, at the word “nigra” printed in her school book, Cassie learns to control her temper and approach situations with a cooler head. She eventually fools her nemesis Lillian Jean Simms into believing she wants to be friends, then turns on her in a demonstration of her own power. While Cassie matures over the course of the novel, she is not as grown up by the end as is her older brother Stacey. Stacey has watched his former friend T.J. experience the wrath of the whites who believe him responsible for the death of Jim Lee Barnett, the white shopkeeper in Strawberry. Both siblings develop a more sophisticated understanding of the unfair world around them over the course of the novel. Respect
Even at the young age of nine, Cassie is a confident and head-strong person. She is aware of mistreatment, whether of her youngest brother or herself, and demands Mr. Barnett treat her and even T.J. as equal paying customers. She and her brothers have been encouraged by their parents to respect themselves and others, using the word “Miss” for white people because they are forced to out of fear, but also for other black people who earn their respect through their actions. Papa cautions Cassie to choose her battles wisely and to remember to first respect herself as she expects others to, a lesson the Averys have failed to impart to their son T.J., who so craves attention in any form he will sink to any level and any company to get it. Mr. Morrison earns the family’s respect and gives it as well, taking on a parental role in urging Stacey to tell his parents himself that he has gone to the Wallace store, an act which earns them all a beating. Sometimes responsibly embracing such a decision comes at a cost, as is also the case with Papa’s decision to uphold the boycott of the shop, with the consequence of bodily injury but no loss of self-respect.
Loyalty to family and friends
The theme of loyalty is evident throughout the novel, but is presented as needing to be earned rather than given blindly. Cassie and her brothers loyally stick together in facing all challenges, at home, at school, on the road between, and in the wider world. Their parents demonstrate by example the importance of family, and their uncle and grandmother reinforce this bond as something special and unique, to be appreciated and protected at all costs. Mr. Morrison is accepted into the family fold, and is welcomed by the Logans to live in the shed behind the house. David has brought him home from the railroad out of a sense of responsibility and friendship toward the older man, whose strength has been used and continues to be used against the forces of hatred. This model of friendship contrasts with the relationship between Stacey and T.J., as the latter does not remain loyal to his race but rather follows whoever gives him what he wants. He pays dearly for the mistake in trusting R.W. and Melvin Simms. The false friendship Cassie cultivates with Lillian Jean affirms the impossibility of friendship between the races, as long as they are not equals in society. This holds true for Stacey and Jeremy Simms as well. None of the Logan children have friends as true and loyal to them as their own siblings.
The importance of family is closely tied to the working of the land, which the novel imparts with human qualities, especially the “Caroline” named for Big Ma in her youth. It represents independence from the power structure around them, since by working their own plot of land the Logans are free, in both the sense they have no master and can shop where they like. Unlike their forebears born into slavery, the Logan brothers are landowners, and thus have the ability to resist white dominance. However, they must exercise their freedom carefully within the confines of a wider society still fettered by inequality.
Despite the forces set against her, Cassie maintains a sense of optimism throughout the novel, refusing to submit to injustice or lose her sense of hope. Hope is not extinguished by the many hurtful racist incidents that plague her and her family and community, but rather seems to grow as they find support in one another to continue their fight for the land and equal rights.