To fully understand the Logans and the other characters in the book, one must understand the circumstances, the laws and the spirit of the time.
Mississippi is located in the south of the U.S.A. This part of the country still had legal slavery up until the end of the American Civil War in 1865 .
“Roll of Thunder Hear my Cry” takes place in the 1930’s, which means that around that time there still could have been people alive who had either been enslaved or had owned slaves. Even though slavery had been abolished in 1865, some the population had not accepted the new amendment directly.
They were still used to their old way of life and their views on black people did not change overnight. Since a big part of the southern economy was reliant on cash crops like cotton, which required huge plots of land, slave labor was very important.
The north wanting to abolish slavery and thus weaken the south’s economy considerably was one of the main reasons for the secession of the south and later on the American Civil War. Even though the south lost, it was not easy to reconstruct a post-slavery economy and society since most of the population had lived this way for generations.
Even without slavery, black citizens in states like Mississippi had a very rough life. Laws and plans like the Mississippi Plan from 1875 enforced the rule of white supremacists in the south by pressuring black people to vote Democrat or not at all. With this plan they wanted to strengthen the democractic party and stop freed men from voting against white interest.
Groups like the infamous Ku Klux Klan start to emerge and illegally terrorize black citizens. Lynching (convicting someone of a crime without any proof or court hearing and then murdering them, often in form of a public execution) was used when the black population didn’t behave in an expected manner.
Law enforcement was unreliable since the police themselves only consisted of white men who, even if they weren’t racists themselves, would never investigate white people for crimes against blacks.
This era also saw the return of “Black Codes”, (laws that heavily regulated the behavior of black people, making it illegal for them to be outside after the dark, for example and limiting black people’s ability to vote).
They had to take a literacy test, and since it had been illegal for slaves to be educated, they hadn’t had the best education. They also had to pay a voting fee, which for poor black people ( most of whom had earned no money under slavery) was an insurmountable amount.
The final legal assurance to bar black voters was the “grandfather clause”: if your grandfather was able to vote,you can too. Obviously this was impossible for black people.
While Black Codes were introduced to regulate andcontrol slaves, but also partially reinstall slavery after the Civil War. The Jim Crow laws tried to deprive black people of political and social power by segregating black and white people but also placing black people in worse institutions.
These laws are crucial to the identity and the rights of black Americans up until the Civil Rights Movement in the 60’s.
Jim Crow is a caricature black man featured in many comics and tv shows.
He has all the stereotypical characteristics of a black man (according to racist white people).
“Crow” referes to the very dark skin, comparable to the feathers of a crow. The Jim Crow laws were a series of laws passed throughout the nation (mainly in the south) which were aimed at separating the races. Separate bus seats, separate cafes, separate bathrooms are a few examples. While this sounds somewhat fair, the facilities black people got were far inferior to the ones used by white people. The rationale given was that the races (and their facilities) should be “seperate but equal”. This was far from the case though.
David Logan is a proud, hardworking family father, who is seen as a lesser human being by the whites, having to be subordinate to them.
He knows that stepping out of line or demanding the same treatment could end up with white people killing him during the night. All the injustice the Logan children have to endure, the daily walks to school while the white students go by bus or the way they are treated when they want to buy goods from a shop cannot be changed.
They have to endure it while all their parents say to them is, “You’re right: it’s not fair, but this is the way it is sadly”.
It requires a mentally strong and proud woman like Mary Logan to not feel inferior and less than white people. Owning their own land is fundamental for the Logans since sharecroppers like the Averys (sharecroppers for the Grangers) live in a modern form of slavery: the pay they earn for working the Grangers farm is so low that they can’t even afford food and housing which is also provided by the Granger’s. This leads to a never-ending cycle of working the Granger’s land. Instead of being able to save up money, they get deeper and deeper into debt.
The land the Logans own stands contrary to oppression and as a symbol of progress and their freedom. The ownership of their own land and being, thus, independent defies the racist mechanics of their society.
For further reading about the cultural studies and societal norms during the time of 1930 and before here is a list of Literature:
Ellison, Ralph, Invisible Man, Washington: 1952