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I lived in Mississippi from the moment I was born until about two years ago, when I moved to Upstate New York for a writing job. Culturally, geographically, and, obviously, climatically, New York is drastically different from home. To say that the first years have been difficult is an understatement: I moved during a pandemic and uprisings against racism across the country.
In this separation from my homeland, I've been looking for tastes of it in this region's bless-your-heart attempts at soul food—and lately, in used bookstores.
These bookstores, home to works from so many of Mississippi's literary giants, have been a refuge from routine insults to my home state.
Sometimes, the insults come without the person knowing where I'm from—"This isn't Mississippi" is a surprisingly common adage up North. But more often than not, the comments come specifically because they know I'm a Mississippian. They'll ask me if it was "scary" living in Mississippi. They'll tell me, unprovoked, that they would never want to go to Mississippi.
I take these attacks personally. I respond, defending my home, my family and friends, my ancestors, and myself. As a multigenerational Mississippian, those attacks are personal. Worse, the insults are often ahistorical and rooted in nothing but misunderstanding.
See also: Toothless, cousin loving
The same people who insult my home do not know it's the Blackest state in the country, nor do they know our history of resistance. And when presented with these truths, they don't care, choosing instead to double down on the dirt-slinging.
One day, a stranger clocked my accent while I was making groceries. She asked me if I "was so glad to have escaped" Mississippi. I inhaled deeply and counted before responding: "I did not escape anywhere and I miss my home state and all my loved ones there." As usual, I defended my home. As usual, my fervent defense only made me miss the Magnolia State more.
After this encounter, I drove across town to my choice bookstore to decompress. I wandered through it aimlessly, as I do, not looking for anything in particular, and not wanting anything but silence and the comfort of a book—something I truly felt when I read some of my favorite Mississippi authors for the first time.
By the time I arrived, the sun had broken through the clouds to warm the city. Inside the bookstore, the owner was listening to the local NPR member station. The shop was empty besides me, the owner, and the resident cat. I appreciated the solitude.
Making my way from one room to the other, I felt the weight of the books I had collected in my arms and smiled at the pile, eager to make new friends with the characters inside.
Then I saw her: A young girl with plaits all over her head, not unlike those of any little Black girl in the South, looking straight ahead, her gaze even and steadied. Above her, the book's title reads: Mildred D. Taylor, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry.
Recognizing it as a first edition, I slowly put down the pile of books I was carrying and picked up Roll of Thunder. I know I bought other books that day, but their names escape me now. I only remember leaving the shop with the one.
Later that day, I sat down and opened the book. For the first time in months, I was transported home.
With decades separating us, Taylor and I were both born in Jackson, Mississippi. Her family moved to Toledo, Ohio, when she was only a few months old. Though her parents, Wilbert Lee and Deletha Marie, left Mississippi to keep their children from growing up in a segregated 1940s society, Taylor was the only Black child in her northern classroom. From yearly trips and her family's stories, the author fell in love with the South, and with Mississippi.
Taylor's first published book, Song of the Trees (1975), immortalizes that love and appreciation of her family's stories. The book was the first in a series of nearly a dozen award-winning books about the Logan family, followed by Roll of Thunder the next year.
Because she doesn't shy away from Mississippi's fraught past, nor does she embellish or languish in it, Taylor's works are love letters to the people of the Magnolia State. The author plainly focuses on the ways in which Black Mississippians fought back and resisted, while loving themselves and each other. She does all of this in books written for children and young adults, though her works are of significant value to adults, as well.
Like Taylor, my understanding of myself, my family, and the place around me was largely shaped by the ancestral stories I heard as a child. I grew up listening to my elders—cousins, both close and distant; aunts and uncles; grand-aunts and uncles; my grandmother; my mother; and random people who would stop by and recount stories of the past. Storytelling is in our genes.
Growing up in Mississippi, Jackson in particular, the idea that you can become a writer is not far-fetched.
Though separated by several decades, poet, playwright, and Native Son author Richard Wright and my father attended the same high school. After visiting for the first time with my high school English class, I spent many spring and autumn afternoons walking to and admiring the home of Eudora Welty, a Jacksonian author and photographer. Alice Walker, activist and author of The Color Purple, dedicates several essays in In Search of Our Mothers' Garden to Jackson. Katy Simpson Smith, author of The Story of Land and Sea, and I attended the same high school—with only a few years separating our time there; later, when I was in undergrad at a college in Jackson, I took one of her classes. At that same college in Jackson, I took classes from W. Ralph Eubanks, author of A Place Like Mississippi. I met Kiese Laymon, acclaimed author of Heavy, for the first time at Lemuria Books in Jackson, and then again at various places across the city that is our mutual hometown. Margaret Walker, a native Alabamian who authored Jubilee, loved and protected Jackson, where she raised her children and taught at Jackson State for three decades, like it was her birth home.
And that's just the capital city, a place with less than half the landmass of New York City and about 166,000 residents. Expand the list of writers to include everyone from or who lived in the rest of the state and it becomes very, very long—from Jesmyn Ward, to Ida B. Wells, to Eddie Glaude, to Anne Moody.
But before I learned who Richard Wright, William Faulkner, and Eudora Welty were, there was Mildred D. Taylor. Yet, in the typical pantheon of writers from Mississippi—a pantheon that is deservedly great—Taylor is often conspicuously absent. Though she grew up in Ohio, Taylor never turned her back on the place of her birth. Her life's work, the Logan family saga, is a chronicle of Mississippi through the lens of a decidedly Mississippian family.
Her work spans generations, both in this world and in fictional ones. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry was published in 1976, and her most recent work was published in 2020. In telling the Logan family's story, which spans from the 1800s to more recent times, Taylor troubles the notion of the past being past while showing how our history and legacies help shape our future.
I was assigned Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry for summer reading going into my fourth grade year.
I remember reading it and truly understanding for the first time what it meant to be transported into a book. Cassie, Little Man, and Stacey all walked with me, talked to me. Cassie and I knew that Stacey's friend TJ was annoying and no good. Little Man and I knew that his Mama, a teacher, and the students in the school all deserved better. Stacey and I knew that we were maturing and had more responsibilities now that we were practically grown.
Taylor's transportation began with the first sentence. By the end of the first full paragraph, narrated by Cassie, I was fully immersed:
'Little Man, would you come on! You keep it up and you're gonna make us late.'
My youngest brother paid no attention to me. Grasping more firmly his newspaper-wrapped notebook and his tin can lunch of cornbread and oil sausages, he continued to concentrate on the dusty road. He lagged several feet behind my other brothers, Stacey and Christopher-John, and me, attempting to keep the rusty Mississippi dust from swelling with each step and drifting back upon his shiny black shoes and the cuffs of his corduroy pants by lifting each foot high before setting it gently down again. Always meticulously neat, six-year old Little Man never allowed dirt or tears or stains to mar anything he owned. Today was no exception.
During my first read of Roll of Thunder, I was unable to put the book down. I had to keep it near me at all times. I remember feeling scared when Cassie's mama lost her job, feeling satisfied when Cassie exacted her revenge against Lillian Jean Simmons, feeling proud of Uncle Hammer's car. I vividly remember reaching the last page and, like Cassie, weeping—for TJ and for the land.
My fourth grade year was difficult. I attended an academic and performing arts school, full of kids from around Jackson. Coming into my first year at the school, I knew only a handful of people and didn't live close to most of my classmates. I felt very much an outsider at first, not privy to early morning conversations on the bus rides to school or meetings at nearby parks.
I still remember bits of my first day, how every experience was new and nerve-inducing. I remember trying to cover my nervousness with coolness, and I remember the first interaction that made that façade falter.
I talked to the girl who was sitting next to me and said a sentence that included the word "either." She laughed, repeating the word twice, and then three more times, before chastising me for my "country" accent. I felt embarrassed, as if my own words had betrayed me and become something for which I should feel shame.
I continued to find company in Taylor's work instead, if even accidentally.
My thoughts regularly returned to the Logan family and their friends; I missed Cassie, Stacey and even TJ. I wondered if the land would recover. I wondered how they would have all fared in my lifetime.
One day, I saw a book I hadn't noticed before in the school library."Mildred D. Taylor," it read. "The Land. Prequel to Newbery Medal Winner: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry."
The cover featured two men, one visibly Black, one lighter skinned. They each held axes and looked straight at whomever was viewing the cover, their gazes steady and even like the plaited girl on the first edition cover of Roll of Thunder.
I checked the book out as soon as I saw it.
Once again, I was in Taylor's world.
Paul-Edward Logan and Mitchell quickly became like my uncles. Reading The Land, and the banter within it, felt like I was listening to a family story. Their love for each other was one with which I was readily familiar—it was the fraternal love my uncles had always shown each other and their old friends.
At least a portion of all of my childhood summers and holidays were spent in South Mississippi with my family. By then, all of my aunts and uncles had led full lives. Many left Mississippi, participating in the Great Migration, only for some to return again with their children for visits several times a year. Others, like my family, never left the Magnolia State.
When my uncles and aunts all came home, it always felt like a celebration. Their childhood friends would visit then, too, some riding in on horses that dazzled me as a girl. They'd joke and my uncles would laugh like young men before disappearing for hours to hunt and fish. When they would return, we'd have a big feast. The holidays or summers with them felt, and still feel, magical.
I easily found myself in Paul-Logan's world, though it was one that existed centuries before my own. Reading about Paul and Mitchell's clearing the land made me feel as if I better understood stories about my great-grandparents, who lived around during the post-Reconstruction era in Mississippi's Pine Belt.
The Land stood out to me then, too, because Taylor did not neglect the role of women in the late 1800s. Though Paul-Logan and Mitchell are the book's primary protagonists, their stories do not supersede those of the women in their lives. Paul Logan's mother's narrative is vital to the story, as is his sister's. His eventual wife, Big Ma from Roll of Thunder, is present, too. Her story weaves its way through his, intertwined in such a way that it is seamless without feeling forced.
That Taylor ensured the women were on par with the men was important to 9-year-old me. By then I was old enough to see—even if I didn't yet possess the language to describe—the differences between men and women's societal roles. From family to family friends, I was surrounded by women who were independent, sagacious, and industrious. They were, and are, my inspirations, my models. They, too, like Taylor, have gone under-acknowledged and under-appreciated, even in the face of tireless work.
Taylor won the Children's Literature Legacy Award in 2021, the same year the Burbank Unified School District superintendent removed Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry; To Kill A Mockingbird; Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; The Cay; and Of Mice and Men from the district's required reading lists. While the books were not removed from the library, teachers are not allowed to make them required reading.
What does this do to students? For the 9-year-old growing up in California with relatives in the Deep South, mired in propaganda that perpetuates the myth that Southerners—specifically Mississippians—are unintelligent, uncreative and resigned to live in oppression, how does banning a book that actively counters these myths help them?
By not allowing Mississippians, specifically Black Mississippians, to tell our stories, especially on the national stage, those inside and outside of the state continue the centuries long work of silencing and attempting to erase us.
Roll of Thunder has given me the gift of bridging the temporal gap between my own childhood and those of my mother and grandmother. Through the novel, I walked on the same red roads they walked on, played in the same pond and fished in the same clear waters. Roll of Thunder gave context and imagery to stories my mother, grandmother, aunts and uncles would tell of family, of our history.
Through Roll of Thunder and its vivid descriptions, I was able to color in the sketches of the stories my elders told me. I was there, with my mother, aunts, and uncles as neighborhood elders visited and told ghost stories. I was sitting next to them in their pre-integration classes, learning from teachers who were also cousins. I was there, sitting in dusty, red Mississippi clay, playing "Possum Up a 'Simmon Tree" with my mother. And now that I'm living outside of Mississippi, I cherish these stories even more.
The loneliness I sometimes feel as an outsider in New York is only compounded by the fact that, unless I actively work to mask or lessen my accent, people here regularly joke that they cannot understand me. When that happens, I feel like a fourth grader again, trying to make friends with the person closest to me only to be met with laughter.
When that happens, I think of my family, my home. I think of my accent and how it is reminiscent of my mother's accent and my grandmother's accent, both of whom I consider to be masters of language and storytelling. I think about how much people miss out on when they write off rural Southerners as people to be laughed at, mocked and condescended to.
As a young child, I knew I wanted to be a writer. I never considered the notion that I was not or would not be one. Before I knew how to draw the curves of each letter, aligning them so that they spelled words and formed sentences, I used thick markers and broken crayons to form squiggly lines—pictographs that came alive when I read them. I wasn't sure how exactly one became a writer, besides by writing. I did not consider any of the difficulties of publishing, job hunting, a shrinking market, or changing literary landscape—I wrote because I had to, and therefore, I was a writer—because I was.
Taylor's works helped to make this notion of becoming a writer real for me. I knew that I wanted to write things that comforted people and forced them to ask questions. In the decade since I first read Roll of Thunder and The Land, I never forgot the stories or the people I met in those pages. I thought regularly of them. I think regularly of them.
Taylor's stories are, especially now that I live outside the state, essential in my memories of Mississippi. Her work is consequential to the story of the state. Taylor deserves constant and intentional inclusion in our state's pantheon. While waiting for that to happen, the voices and stories into which she breathed life live on in the imaginations of readers across the country and world.
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