Essay on Mildred Taylor


 Contemporary SouthernWriters

Works of Mildred D. Taylor

Song of the Trees --l975

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry--l976

Let the Circle Be Unbroken--l981

The Friendship--l987

The Gold Cadillac--l987

The Road to Memphis--l990

Mississippi Bridge--l990

The Well: David's Story--l995

"Newbery Award Acceptance Speech"--l977


Biographical Information: Mildred Taylor was born in Jackson, Mississippi on September 13, l943.  Three months later her family moved to Toledo, Ohio, so Taylor grew up in the North.  After graduating from the University of Toledo with a BS.Ed in l965, Taylor taught English and history in Tuba City, Arizona, and spent two years in Yirgalem, Ethiopia with the Peace Corps.  This experience provided her firsthand information about the culture and heritage of her family and of many others who had been brought to America as slaves.  Returning to the United States, Taylor recruited for the Peace Corps from l967 to l968 before entering the School of Journalism at the University of Colorado.  As a member of the Black Student Alliance she worked with students and university officials in structuring a Black Studies program at the University. 

            Mildred Taylor has won numerous awards for her books.  These include the following:          First prize in the African-American Category, Council on Interracial Books for Children for Song of the Trees, l973; the New York Times' Outstanding Book of the Year citation for Song of the Trees  l975; American Library Association Notable Book citation for Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, l976; National Book Award finalist, Boston Globe -Horn Book Honor Book citation, and Newbery Medal all for Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, l977; Buxtehuder Bulle Award for Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, l985; American Book Award nomination, Coretta Scott King Award, and New York TImes' Outstanding Book of the Year citation all for Let the Circle Be Unbroken, l982; Coretta Scott King Award for The Friendship, l988; and Christopher Award for The Gold Cadillac, l988.  In Fall, l997, ALAN (Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of NCTE-National Council of Teachers of English) awarded Mildred Taylor for her contributions to Young Adult literature.

Critical Essay

            Throughout her childhood, Mildred Taylor had traveled every summer to visit relatives in Mississippi.  As she describes in her Newbery Medal Acceptance Speech in l976, for Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, "it was a magical time" rich with night times of hearing the storytellers, her relatives, share stories of their days in racially-segegrated Mississippi.  Taylor relates as well that at some point she realized the stories were not magic; she realized trips to the South were not fun, given that the baskets of food her mother prepared were actually prepared since many restaurants served "Whites only."  She learned the harsh reality that they had to take water on the trips, that they would need to sleep in the car, and trips were longer since the South she visited restricted "Colored folks" from drinking fountains, restrooms, and motels.  She learned to fear police sirens, having seen her father more than once be subject to searches or hearing of relatives even put in jail for driving a car "too good" for a colored person to be driving.  Taylor records this story in The Gold Cadillac, l988.

            Offsetting the tragedy of assaults on human dignity that so clearly marked the experience of her family and others in the pre-Civil rights years of the 20th century, Taylor emphasizes the role of her father, who impressed on his children that they were "somebody," and they had self-respect.  He offered them principles on which to build their lives; primarily that anger was futile in the fight against bias.  Taylor recounts that her father told her she needed a "much stronger weapon."  That weapon is Mildred Taylor's power as a writer to put into novels and stories for children and young adults the real stories of human pride and dignity in a clearly racist society.  Taylor offers a real, true sense of Black history and of Black people, which she discovered repeatedly in her own education was lacking in history books. 

            The second force dominating Taylor's life was the strong family experience .  Her roots in family that bore everything from oppression and humiliation and bonded despite any attempts at destruction, gave her the ability to create the Logan family who appear in nearly all her novels.  Again in her own words from the Newbery Award Acceptance Speech Taylor explains,

            I will continue the Logans' story with the same life guides

            that have always been mine, for it is my hope that these books,

            one of the first chronicles to mirror a black child's hopes and

            fears from childhood innocence to awareness to bitterness and

            disillusionment, will one day be instrumental in teaching children

            of all colors the tremendous influence that Cassie's generation--my

            father's generation--had in bringing about the great Civil Rights

            Movement of the fifties and sixties.  Without understanding that

            generation and what it and the generations before it endured,

            children of today and of the future cannot understand or cherish

            the precious rights of equality which they now possess...If they can

            identify with the Logans, who are representative not only of my

            family but of the many black families who faced adversity and

            survived, and understand the principles by which they lived,

            then perhaps they can better understand and respect themselves

            and others.

            Mildred Taylor's books are as vital as those about the Holocaust.  Every child and every teacher of children needs to learn through Taylor's poignant, tragic retellings about the human potential for inhumanity, injustice and hatred.  Though she hates violence and hates to write of it, Taylor knew the stories of lynchings, night riders, verbal abuse, false accusation, and cruelty were her weapon for addressing prejudice.  Her books, particularly the trilogy, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry; Let the Circle Be Unbroken, and The Road to Memphis, portray as well the richness of family, the love of the land, and the dignity of those who can endure despite incredible oppression.