During her childhood and young adulthood, Mildred D. Taylor experienced and understood the south—where most of her books are set—in light of her life in the north. Born in Jackson, Mississippi in 1943, she and her family moved to Ohio after her birth because of her father's impassioned refusal to raise his daughters in a racist society. Though they lived in the north, Taylor and her family never left the south behind, and every year they traveled there to visit family.
Taylor grew to understand and even dread the encounters with bigotry characteristic of her trips to the south—in Something About the Author, she describes being overcome by nausea while crossing over the Ohio River into Kentucky. However, while her northern town more subtly harbored racist biases, they were no less hurtful than the biases of the south. For example, according to Phyllis Fogelman in The Horn Book, Toledo's high schools, nominally open to both black and white students, used an admission standard that made acceptance into the stronger schools difficult for black children. Most of the black students came from neighborhood schools inferior to the schools of their white counterparts. Consequently, Taylor often found herself in the dubious position of being the only African American in her class, where she experienced the pressure of being the first example of her race her classmates had ever known. Also troubling were the versions of history and black heritage presented in her textbooks, which perpetuated a subtle brand of racism: they ignored the suffering of African Americans under the white-dominated system of slavery, and they glossed over the tremendous struggle African Americans waged for freedom. No one, Taylor's teacher included, believed her when she tried to explain the truth.
These experiences fired Taylor's desire to write. In The Horn Book, she explains: "By the time I entered high school, I had a driving compulsion to paint a truer picture of Black people." After Taylor completed her college education, she worked as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ethiopia and as a teacher, recruiter, and editor around the country. In 1973, she wrote her first book, Song of the Trees. Song of the Trees introduced the Logan family, the heroes of Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, and won the contest for which she wrote it. Continuing to draw on her family history and the stories her family shared when she was growing up, she completed Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry in 1977, which was awarded the Newbery Medal. She continued to develop the story of the Logan family in Let the Circle Be Unbroken, The Road to Memphis, The Well: David's Story, and The Land.
Taylor based her writing not only on her firsthand experiences in the South, but also on the stories of the past her family loved to tell. The Land, for example, is based on her great-grandfather's experiences during Reconstruction in the south. The story portrays the economic and social upheaval of the years between the Civil War and the Depression, and the increasingly virulent racism of southern whites. During the war, the south had sustained great damage to crops, animals, and railroads, on top of losing the foundation upon which their economy rested: slave labor. The north tried to impose a government on the southern states, in the form of coalitions of African Americans, Northerners, and pro-abolition southerners. In response to the deterioration of their economic and social power, a political backlash rose up in the south in the form of the Ku Klux Klan and Jim Crow laws, which denied African Americans the rights of citizenship and equal treatment guaranteed to them by the Fourteenth Amendment. Also, Reconstruction and its attendant political changes failed to provide blacks with access to land, which was the economic base they would need to fully realize their newly-won freedoms. As a result, blacks were forced to become sharecroppers—they worked the land of another and paid him part, often almost all, of their crops as compensation. Sharecropping, which virtually enslaved black farmers to white landowners, along with a strict social policy of racial segregation, in effect, created a system that retained the structures of slavery while still nominally following the Fourteenth Amendment. Paul-Edward, the protagonist of The Land, understands the importance of owning the land on which he farms, and the book centers on his struggle to obtain the piece of land that will guarantee his family true freedom. Taylor's own family, like the Logans, relied on and took fierce pride in the patch of land they bought during Reconstruction. The fate of this land, their one claim to self- sufficiency, is inextricably linked with the fate of the family.
Critics have accused Taylor of displaying bias against whites, and censors shudder at her use of the word "nigger." But Taylor staunchly stands by her stories and her choice of language. She simply affirms that the incidents she describes are based on fact and that the painful language she uses reflects a painful and shameful part of American history that should not be glossed over. She sees the lives of people, such as the Logans, as an indelible part of American history and a crucial link between slavery and the Civil Rights movement—a story that must be told, heard, and understood. The story of the Logans, fraught with instances of defeat, loss, and cruelty, represents the strength, determination, and unwavering dignity of its protagonists.
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