Allison's Book Bag

Everything You Might Want To Know About Mildred Taylor

Posted on: June 21, 2012

Despite my best organizational skills, sometimes creating teasers can be an organic process. When I started researching into Mildred Taylor’s life, I compiled over five pages worth of information and mistakenly  thought this would provide me with a month’s worth of teasers. Two weeks in, I reached the end of my notes. Yet many gaps in my research existed. For example, I knew little about Taylor’s middle and high school experiences. I also knew little about the origins of any of her books except the first two that she wrote.

My mind full of questions, I started searching for biographies of Mildred Taylor at our local library and found Presenting Mildred Taylor (1999) by Chris Crowe. To a certain extent, Crowe and I had shared a parallel research experience. Like me, he had read tons of articles and taken tons of notes. Like me, as he started to sift through those notes, he realized how many of them gave the same facts and so how little information he actually had. Through these steps, both of us had also come to quickly realize that Mildred Taylor is a private person.

Unlike me, Chris Crowe had been asked by a publisher to write a book about Taylor and so had reason to request an interview with her. It took several months of waiting, but eventually she telephoned him and they talked for an hour. I don’t know what details from her life he discovered through research and which he obtained by talking with her, but Chris Crowe’s biography greatly expanded upon my knowledge of Taylor’s life.

I recommend checking it out, to read the details which I left out. Also, his biography includes a chapter on the historical context to Taylor’s books, a chapter on racism and inequality in the United States, and an analysis of the themes Taylor most often explored. If my research inspires you to look for additional biographies of Taylor, would you please return to post a comment about them?

Official seal of City of Jackson

Official seal of City of Jackson (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One cannot read too much African-American literature for young people without hearing the name of Mildred Taylor. Because of segregation in Mississippi, unlike most white people in the 1940′s, Mildred Taylor was born in her family’s home. Her mother acted as midwife. Taylor had one sister, who was three years older. Even though Taylor was born in the South, she grew up in the North.

Before Taylor’s birth, her father had thought about moving North. Life in the racially segregated South was not always pleasant. At times, racially motivated outbreaks of violence occurred. The North would offer the family offer more freedom and better opportunities.

Yet Taylor’s father was reluctant to leave, because he had a stable job as a trucker—considered a good job for blacks in those days. However, a few weeks after Taylor’s birth, her father was involved in a racial incident at work, where he almost punched a white man. He came home angry and packed. His wife, having no idea why yet he intended to leave her and their children, unpacked his bags.

That same day, Taylor’s father boarded a train North. He wanted his children to live in a society that didn’t discriminate against them on the basis of their color. Within a week he found a factory job in Toledo, Ohio, a job that he would keep until his fatal illness in 1976. Just before Christmas in 1943, the Taylors joined in a historic migration, when thousands of black families moved North for greater freedom and opportunity than the South allowed.

CHILDHOOD

Official seal of City of Toledo

Official seal of City of Toledo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Taylors first moved into a duplex on a busy commercial street in Toledo. The two daughters loved their new home because, as far as they were concerned, everything they might have wanted was on their street or in a nearby neighborhood. Across the street was a fish market and a beauty parlor. Down the street were a cleaners, a cafe, and a grocery store. At the other end of the block was a drugstore. Also within walking distance was a hotel. Only a block away was one of the prime attractions of Taylor’s youth, a movie theater. The school and church were also within a few blocks. Besides the convenient location, Dorr Street also boasted a small-town atmosphere where everyone knew each other.

Taylor’s parents liked the duplex well enough too, because it offered ample rooms to accommodate other family members as needed. When World War II ended, two of Taylor’s uncles from the South returned from the war, and married, they moved in with them. Other aunts, uncles, and cousins from both sides of the family eventually followed. Soon all the rooms were filled, including the coal room in the basement. It was not unusual for the sisters to give up their bedroom to relations and to sleep in the living room or dining room. Neither of them minded for they loved being surrounded by relatives. Family was very important to Taylor, as is evident in her stories about the Logans.

 After the family’s move to the North, Taylor’s father attempted to instill within her and her sister an awareness of their past and of their future. Throughout her father’s life, the family regularly returned to the South. The sisters fell in love with the beauty of the South, the memories of their trips, and the family and friends living there. Taylor has described those trips to audiences as a “twenty-four hour picnic”. To prepare for those trips, Taylor’s mother would prepare their favorite foods—fried chicken, cake, sweet potato pie—and pack them into a basket, along with jugs of ice water and lemonade. The sisters could hardly wait until they were out of Toledo to dig into the food. As wonderful as the travel was, the destination was even better. During the day, the sisters would play outside in the warm Mississippi summer sun. Taylor would ride a mule named Jake and a mare named Lady. She would also spend time picking cotton. In the evening, Her parents and relatives would gather to tell stories. Taylor was enthralled by what she heard and has described it to audiences as “a magical time”.

As Taylor grew older, she became more aware of the segregation and racism in the South. On one summer trip she “suddenly felt a climbing nausea as we crossed the Ohio River into Kentucky”. In the South, the sisters had to stay quiet, allow the parents to do the talking, and not ask to use restrooms when they pulled into gas stations. In her biography at Scholastic, Taylor recalls, “Each trip down reminded us that the South into which we had been born . . . still remained. On the rest rooms of gasoline stations were the signs WHITE ONLY, COLORED NOT ALLOWED. Over water fountains were the signs WHITE ONLY. In restaurant windows, in motel windows, there were always the signs WHITE ONLY, COLORED NOT ALLOWED. Every sign we saw proclaimed our second-class citizenship.” It was then that Taylor sadly she realized that her mother prepared food for the road trip not for the fun of it, because they couldn’t stop in restaurants along the way. She also realized that her father pushed the exhausting twenty-hour trip not because he was anxious to get to Mississippi, but because the family couldn’t check into hotels along the way. Chris Crowe observes that for Taylor, there were two sides to the South: the one of racism which terrified and angered her and the one of family and community  from which she developed a sense of history.

Although the Taylors usually visited the South during holidays, sometimes the sisters would attend classes at the community school which her father had attended as a child or would work in the cotton fields. Her father wanted the sisters to experience the Mississippi world as he had experienced it. If not for the lack of freedom in the South, he would have preferred for the family to have continued to live there. Her father also wanted the siblings to be grateful for the relatively comfortable lives the family enjoyed in the North. He believed that unless they understood the lack of black freedoms in the South, they could not understand the freedom in the North.

ELEMENTARY SCHOOL

Nine years after moving into a duplex, the Taylors purchased a renovated home in a newly-integrated Toledo neighborhood. Taylor believed this new home to be as grand as those on television. It had a breakfast nook, shower in the bathroom, bedrooms on the second floor, recreation room, three fireplaces, and many windows. The house felt so big, Taylor thought she might get lost in it.

A new neighborhood meant a new school and new demographics. In her previous school in Toledo, most of Taylor’s classmates had been black. Now most were white. Actually, when she started sixth grade, Taylor was the only black student in her class. That’s when she began to feel the pressure, as Chris Crowe termed it, of being the “only one”. Being such an obvious minority made Taylor feel that everything she did reflected not just on her or even her family but on all blacks. Taylor felt if she failed, everyone would think she failed because of being black. In addition, she couldn’t just be as good as her classmates, she had to be better. The positive side to this pressure is that it led Taylor to work hard, set goals, and plan ahead. Not only did Taylor know from an early age that she wanted to be a writer and to join the Peace Corps, she did everything she could to succeed in those goals.

Taylor credits the storytelling of her father and her relatives with her decision to become a writer. According to a biography of her on Grade Saver, Taylor calls these family stories “a different history from the one I learned in school”. Family members told about the struggles relatives and friends faced in a racist culture, stories that revealed triumph, pride, and tragedy. Taylor recalls those storytelling sessions in a biography of her at Penguin: ”I was fascinated by the stories, not only because of what they said or because they were about my family, but because of the manner in which my father told them. I began to imagine myself as storyteller, making people laugh at their own human foibles or nod their heads with pride about some stunning feat of heroism.” Shocked by the “lackluster” histories of African-Americans which she found in her history textbooks, Taylor tried to shared her knowledge of black history with the class. Unfortunately, her teacher and peers didn’t believe her but thought that she was inventing stories.

HIGH SCHOOL

In high school, Taylor had the most success in English. Her classmates came to see her as a writer. Taylor herself however often questioned her abilities, especially when she compared herself to white students for whom writing seemed to come easy. It didn’t help that one day Taylor’s teacher read one of her stories as an example of how not to write. Fortunately, another high school teacher recognized Taylor’s talent. After reading one of Taylor’s stories, she recommended Taylor submit it to a citywide writing contest. Although the story didn’t place, it played a pivotal role in Taylor’s growth as a writer. Not only had she written about a family incident, but for the first time Taylor had used the first-person point of view. Noticing a positive difference in Taylor’s style, her teacher advised Taylor to continue with it. In the senior class prophecy in the school yearbook, her classmates wrote, “The well- known journalist Mildred Taylor is displaying her Nobel Prize winning novel.”

High school wasn’t all work for Taylor. In many ways, she had the usual aspirations of high school girls. For example, although she was one of those girls who was a class officer, editor of the school newspaper, and member of the honor society, she also longed to belong to the cheer leading squad. When disappointed on not being selected, her father told her she had greater things cut out for her. He was right.

Living in the North, Taylor was not directly exposed to the Civil Rights movement. However, an incident in her high school also served to prove that racism existed even in the North. When a black student was chosen to be homecoming queen during Taylor’s freshman year, many white students reacted with anger and violence.

UNIVERSITY & JOBS

Although her parents supported her childhood dream to become a writer, they convinced her to get a practical major. There weren’t any black journalists in the local media, but there were black teachers. Her parents felt confident a teaching degree would land her a job.

While at the University of Toledo, Taylor spent much of her free time writing. At first, she patterned her writing after Charles Dickens and Jane Austen, but she soon found emulating their literary styles to be unnatural. Instead at age nineteen she wrote a novel in the first person about a blind white man in Chicago’s black ghetto. The story has never been published.

After obtaining a university degree, Taylor applied to join the Peace Corps. Her family didn’t take this particular dream seriously, believing she would grow out of it. However, as an African American, Taylor had long felt interested in Africa. Of particular interest to her was Ethiopia, one of the few African counties not colonized by Europeans. When Taylor actually received an invitation from the Peace Corps, she received all kinds of opposition from her family including relatives. Her father opposed the decision: She was too young; Africa was too dangerous; and she wouldn’t have any protection. Her uncles also opposed the decision. They felt that because of the treatment blacks received from America, blacks should not feel any call to serve America. While her mom also disliked the idea, she seemed resigned to it. Only Taylor’s sister thought it would be a good adventure. Her father took her to Mississippi over the Easter holiday so she could talk to her grandparents, whom he felt sure would discourage her. When they didn’t, he refused to help Taylor financially and even tried to bribe her to stay home by offering to buy her a car. Thankfully, one night after a church service, he returned home with the feeling that “God meant for you to do this.” While he remained worried about Taylor, he also felt proud of her.

Upon returning to the United States in 1967, Taylor enrolled in the University of Colorado School of Journalism. She became involved in the Black Student Alliance, where she studied black culture, history, and politics. Working with university officials and fellow students, she created a Black Studies program. Upon earning her Master of Journalism, Taylor worked for the Black Education Program as a study skills director. The job was demanding and interfered with her growing urge to write.

THE LOGANS

200

200 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Logan stories closely follow the history of her father’s generation from the time he was a boy in the 1930′s, through the days of World War II, to the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement. Nearly all the events are based on stories Taylor heard from her father or from other family members.

In the same way, most of the characters are based on family members or acquaintances Taylor knew or learned about. She patterned Stacey Logan after her father. Christopher John and Little Man were based on two of Taylor’s uncles. For Cassie, Taylor drew on an aunt and her sister and to some degree herself. Uncle Hammer is patterned after two legendary great uncles who had shown great courage growing up in Mississippi. The mom she based on her grandmother, who had also been a teacher. The father came from Taylor’s father and grandfather.

Although not initially written this way, the saga begins with The Land. Narrated by Paul-Edward Logan, it tells how he left his family in Georgia in the 1870s and eventually settled in Mississippi where he buys the land that became the homestead for all future Logans. The next part of the saga, The Well, is told by one of his sons, David Logan. Taylor wanted to tell a story from her grandparents’ generation as children. The third book of the saga, Mississippi Bridge, is the only book in the Logan stories not narrated by a member of the Logan family. Jeremy Simms, whom readers familiar with the series will know as a white friend of the family, reports a tragedy that he and the Logan children witness in 1931. The fourth sequential book (albeit the first actually written), Song of the Trees, is told from the point of view of a third-generation Logan, Cassie, who narrates the rest of the Logan stories: The FriendshipRoll of Thunder, Hear My CryLet the Circle Be Unbroken; and The Road to Memphis. A ninth book and final book called Logan is supposedly planned. It’ll also be narrated by Cassie and will take the Logan family from their home in Mississippi to their new home in Ohio.

SONG OF THE TREES

Ironically, a deadline for a writing contest inspired Taylor’s first novel. Written in just three days, Song of Trees was a revision of an old manuscript based on a family story about trees cut down. Taylor played with various viewpoints, that of a boy and that of a grandmother, but both felt unconvincing and flat. As she struggled to revise it, new twists to the story began to emerge. When she finally tried writing from the perspective of an eight-year-old girl, the viewpoint worked.

All through the weekend, Taylor rewrote the story, finishing it early Monday morning. Friends at work helped her edit it and retyped the final manuscript. With their help, she met the midnight deadline. When Taylor’s father read the manuscript, he was surprised at how much of the family history had been integrated into Song of Trees: “I never realized you were paying such attention.”

Dedicated to ‘the Family, who fought and survived,” Song of Trees began the epic of the Logan family, about whom Taylor would write seven more novels. Her writing career had begun.

“It is my hope that [this series of children’s books about the Logan family]…will one day be instrumental in teaching children of all colors the tremendous influence of 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 possess.”–Mildred Taylor, Answers

Winning the contest gave Taylor the chance to meet several New York publishers and to discuss publication of her manuscript. Both fulfilled childhood dreams of hers. She had met with a few other publishers before but Dial proved the perfect match. According to Crowe, publishers Phyllis Fogelman and Regina Hayes recalls that at their first meeting, “Mildred essentially interviewed us.” All of Taylor’s books since then have been based on family stories and published by Dial.

“It is my hope that [this series of children’s books about the Logan family]…will one day be instrumental in teaching children of all colors the tremendous influence of 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 possess.”–Mildred Taylor, Answers

Cover

Cover (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

ROLL OF THUNDER, HEAR MY CRY

On the heels of Song of Trees came a second book about the Logan family: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. Published in 1976, it won the Newbery Award, which recognizes excellence in books written for children. It was dedicated to Taylor’s father, whom the characters of Stacey and David were based on.

In Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (and all her books about the Logans), Taylor attempted to show a different kind of black world from the one she had seen presented. At school, Taylor heard taught that black people had accepted their fate of slavery, without once attempting to free themselves. Taylor felt embarrassed by the lack of “heroic or pride-building qualities” in black history instruction and in media presentations. What she heard through them and what she learned at home seemed to contradict one another. To repudiate these negative portrayals, Taylor showed a family united in love and self-respect. She also represented parents as strong and sensitive adults, who guided their children without harming their spirits through the difficulties of living in a racist society. In doing so, Taylor drew on the values and principles by which she was reared to write Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry.

“It is my hope that to the children who read my books, the Logans will provide those heroes missing from the schoolbooks of my childhood, Black men, women, and children of whom they can be proud.” Mildred Taylor, Penguin

The idea for Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry came together for Taylor while she was visiting her parents in Toledo on her way back to Los Angeles after accepting the award for Song of Trees. During breakfast with her father and an uncle she listed as the two men told a story she hadn’t heard before of how a black boy started hanging around two white boys and how the three of them had broken into a local store and how the store owner had been killed. What I find most remarkable is that Taylor knew she would win. “I was inspired by the song ‘Roll of Thunder’  which came to me when I most troubled about my book. At the moment the song came to me, I knew the book would win the Newbery Award, and I told my father so.” On that January evening when Taylor expected the call, she kept waiting and waiting, until sometime after ten o’clock. The award allowed her to continue her dream of writing full time.

OTHER BOOKS

In light of all the online sites which feature a biography of Mildred Taylor, I’m surprised at how little information exists about the rest of her books. According to a teacher’s guide on Mildred Taylor, by the time she wrote Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry, Taylor thought there would be four more Logan books.

Let the Circle Be Unbroken was written after her father’s death. It represents an important move for Taylor in its use of historical research outside of her family.

The Friendship portrays a friendship between a white man and a black man in 1930s Mississippi that eventually becomes violent. All I could find about its origins is that Taylor based it on a story that her father shared a few years before his death.

According to Crowe, Road to Memphis is angrier, more frustrated, and even bitter. It is reflective of Taylor and her family’s lifelong experiences of living and working in a racist society.

In her Author’s Note for The Land, Taylor explains that her great-grandfather was the basis for the character Paul-Edward. He had bought the family land in Mississippi. As far back as Taylor could remember, she had heard stories about her great-grandfather. Born of an African-Indian woman and a white plantation owner during slavery, her great-grandfather was brought up by both his parents. He  often went with his father and his brothers on their trips around the community.

Although not officially labeled a Logan book, The Gold Cadillac draws on Taylor’s memories of the family’s regular visits to the South. It’s told from the point-of-view of her own generation. Unlike the Logan stories, the plot is drawn from Taylor’s own experiences.

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10 Responses to "Everything You Might Want To Know About Mildred Taylor"

Did Mildred Taylor experience racism as a child or teen

Mildred Taylor’s books are based on her childhood experiences. Her parents, her relatives, and Mildred herself experienced racism to varying degrees.

Would love to know if she has completed the book “Logan” yet. It was to be released in 2004

Me too. 🙂 I haven’t been able to find anything that suggests Logan was ever released.

An interesting and informative article about a great writer that makes me want to reread her books about the Logan family.

Thanks! Most reviews and comments I found online seemed to focus on Mildred Taylor’s first two books. Hopefully, my reviews and my article about her life will inspire ones to discover all of her books.

An excellent, thoroughly-written article that doesn’t merely skim the surface of Taylor’s life, but goes in deep…loved it! Since childhood, I’ve been a huge fan of the author’s; any information you can share on how/where I might write to her? Were you able to contact her for the writing of this piece?

I’m glad you found the article informative! It certainly took me longer than I expected to write. Unfortunately, I don’t have any contact info for her, but relied on second-hand information for my research. I understand that she’s a private person, but yet interviews have been done as late as 2008 with her. All I can suggest is writing her in care of Penguin, who published several of her books.

That’s my plan, at least. I’d still like to personally contact her. If for nothing more than to tell her how many readers have accessed my reviews of her books and how much I loved the Logan series. I’ll post an update if that plan works out.

That would be awesome, Allison. Keep up the good work, and please keep me posted, as well, if you can, of any success you have trying to contact her. In the meantime, any leads available to her most recent interview(s), such as the one you said took place in 2008?

The Brown Bookshelf interviewed Mildred Taylor in 2008: Mildred Taylor Another option for contacting Mildred Taylor might be to email sites which features interviews with her. 🙂

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