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The novel 'Roll of Thunder' is based around racism and discrimination,
during the 1930's. Mildred Taylor has chosen to set her novel in a
time where black people were discriminated against. The context in
which the story is set is a conscious choice of the writer to
emphasise the extent of racism. T.J. is used by Mildred Taylor to
represent the injustices the Black community were subjected to in
these times. Although T.J. is not portrayed as a victim throughout the
novel, he is certainly seen as a victim during the concluding chapters
of the book.
The narrative is by a young girl of ten years, Cassie. Cassie is a
very opinionated, strong willed character who tends to judge people at
face value, without taking other factors into consideration. This
could be seen as a hindrance in such a novel, a novel that is being
used to exploit racism and could benefit from a more open-viewed
narrator. In this book however, the character is purposefully made to
be single-minded by Mildred Taylor because it encourages the reader to
think in more depth about the story.
The author uses this narrow perspective of T.J. to encourage the
reader to realise that he is a victim of the times. This realisation
is encouraged not through Cassie's opinion but because she cannot see
this fact until nearing the end of the story. Cassie's view of T.J. is
blunt, 'I didn't like T.J. very much,' and during the beginning of the
book the reader is persuaded that T.J. is not a nice person as there
is no evidence otherwise. As the book proceeds however, the reader can
show more insight into details that Cassie overlooks. This is as the
writer intends, it helps to include the reader more in the book and is
a similar idea to dramatic irony used on the stage. Mildred Taylor has
used Cassie's simplistic views of T.J. to persuade the reader to think
more deeply. She has used this simple point of view to show that the
effect of racism is not always obvious and as the reader comes to
realise that T.J. is a victim, Taylor's central theme is portrayed.
To help the reader understand that T.J. is a victim of the times,
Mildred Taylor uses other characters to show a more balanced opinion
of him. Stacey is often used in this way; he is one of the few
characters that show sympathy towards T.J. Stacey demonstrates a
certain level of understanding about T.J.'s position and why he is how
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'As far back as I could remember, Stacey had felt a responsibility for
T.J. I had never understood why. Perhaps he felt that even a person as
despicable as T.J. needed someone he could call a " friend", or
perhaps he sensed T.J.'s vulnerability better than T.J. did himself.'
Being older Stacey realizes that T.J. is a vulnerable person that's
personality is not bad, just misguided. Had T.J. been born in the
modern day where such discrimination is not present it seems unlikely
he would appear so cruel as he did in the opening chapters. It is this
recognition, that T.J. is affected by the prejudice around him, which
allows Stacey to dismiss T.J.'s sometimes-hurtful actions.
Papa is also another character use by Mildred Taylor to help the
reader understand how difficult the times were, especially for people
like TJ. The Avery family sharecrops on Granger land, so although
Cassie doesn't understand how different life is for T.J. Papa does. He
once said to Cassie:
'You ain't never had to live on nobody's place but your own and long
as I live and the family survives you won't have to. That's important.
You may not understand that now, but one day you will. Then you'll
It is only nearing the end of the novel that Cassie comes to
understand this, but the reader understands a lot earlier. T.J.'s
whole family depends on Whites; they own the land the family earns
their money from. Without them his family could not survive, it is
therefore understandable that he may be more tolerant of the Whites'
actions than many others and not object to the discrimination.
Papa and Stacey play important roles in truly understanding T.J. and
why he does the things he does. By viewing Stacey's actions towards
T.J. and understanding the situation T.J. is subjected to via Papa it
is possible for the reader to understand why T.J. does specific
things. The underlying facts of T.J.'s life can help the reader
comprehend why he can act so irrationally at times. His dependence on
White people must surely explain why he feels that he owes Whites
something and that he should respect them. T.J. has been bought up in
the debt of White people, so understandably his personality has formed
in such a way that he respects Whites and does not have the confidence
like Cassie to speak out against their discriminative attitudes.
When Papa talked about the land to Cassie it also showed a deep
affection within the Logan family, a love of the land and a love of
each other. The Logans are a close-knit family who care deeply about
one another and for a Black family were doing very well, owning there
own piece of land rather than sharecropping. Comparing this to T.J.'s
poverty stricken life and troubled family, his desire to be liked by
the Simmses' seems more reasonable. T.J. never experiences the
tranquility of a happy family; his life is plagued by a jealousy for
those with more than him. This background helps explain the incident
between he and Stacey where he spitefully ridiculed Stacey about his
coat. Describing him as looking like a 'fat preacher'. These actions
are symptomatic of his background, the lack of a loving relationship
with his family leave T.J. not appreciating or recognizing those who
really care about him like Stacey. T.J. is a victim of the time, the
poverty, especially during the Depression, caused him to become
deceitful and encouraged jealousy and is likely to be the cause of the
break down in relations between his family and friends.
This difficult background also left effects on his personality. T.J.
is both nave and insecure, characteristics undoubtedly a result of
his difficult upbringing. His insecurity was shown when he craved a
gun. His reason was:
'There's other things a boy needs protectin' from more than a
rattlesnake. I get me that gun and ain't nobody gonna mess with me.'
T.J.'s insecurity is obvious; it is not only this physical insecurity
but also mentally. He finds it difficult to trust people, like Stacey.
He has never been able to rely on his parents, so he finds it
difficult to trust other people. Cassie does not understand this she
often says thoughtless comments like, 'you sure you ain't lying, TJ?'
and 'Yeah, shut up, TJ.' With people voicing comments like this it is
no wonder T.J. has very little self confidence and finds it hard to
The insecurity clear in T.J. is also a direct result of the time he
lives in. T.J. has grown up in a world of discrimination where he is
continually reminded he is inferior and is victimised by white people.
A perfect example of this was the situation with R.W and Melvin. T.J.
for once in his life felt he was no longer inferior, he felt important
and valued. The most important fact to him though was that they were
White. This is shown when he says:
'Got me better friends than y'all! They give me things and treat me
like I'm a man and they white too'
All his life he had felt inferior and he finally felt accepted. To the
reader it was always obvious the friendship was far less equal than
T.J. imagined, Mildred Taylor used language to underline this
difference. T.J.'s strong accent, which would be associated with a
poor person, stood out particularly during this part of the book. She
uses the striking differences in speech to portray to the reader just
how different the Black and White people are and the startling extent
of difference in their quality of lives.
It is in the last chapters of the book where it is made undeniably
obvious that T.J. is a victim of the times. T.J. is held responsible
for a crime that he did not solely commit, a crime that in an equal
and fair society three people would have been punished for, a crime
that could never justify such a cruel punishment.
T.J does not deserve the punishment the men imply he will receive.
T.J. made a mistake, but a mistake that's consequences were only so
serious because of the times in which he lives. The White men show
clear prejudice and discrimination, they do not consider how severe
the punishment should be. They immediately decide that T.J. should be
killed, this decision is merely based around the colour of his skin
and the fact that they feel they are superior.
Mildred Taylor does portray T.J. as a Victim of the Times frequently
within the novel. It is during the last chapters that it becomes most
clear but throughout the book it is always an underlying factor. The
moving ending of the book really brings the portrayal to light. T.J is
portrayed as a victim, in the way that however he behaved, even when
he tried so hard to be friends with R.W and Melvin, he was never going
to be an equal because he was Black. The most powerful sentence in the
novel, 'I cried for TJ. For TJ and the land,' is the ending note of
the book. Even Cassie whom throughout the novel had disliked T.J.
finally realised he was a victim of the cruel times in which they