Chapter One Summary:
Cassie Logan and her three brothers (Stacey, Christopher-John, and Little Man) walk down a dusty road in rural Mississippi on their way to the first day of school in the fall of 1933. Stacey, aged twelve, is grouchy because he will be in the class taught by their mother. Christopher-John, aged seven, is a cheerful boy who keeps to himself. Cassie is annoyed that they must go to school on a "bright August-like October morning" and is even more annoyed that they must wear their Sunday clothes and shoes.
Little Man is six years old. It is his first day of school ever, and he walks very slowly and carefully to avoid getting the dust from the road on his shoes or corduroys. Cassie tells him that he will make them late to school, and she drags her feet in the dust until Stacey yells at her to stop because they promised their mother that they would arrive neat and clean.
As they walk, the children pass an old oak tree that marks the boundary between their family's four hundred acres of land and the forest. The forest and the land beyond is part of Harlan Granger's ten-square-mile plantation. The Logans' land had once belonged to the Grangers. Cassie's grandfather bought the family's first two hundred acres in 1887, and after he paid off the mortgage on that land bought two hundred more in 1918.
The Logans still have a mortgage on the second two hundred acres of land and have to pay taxes on all four hundred acres. In 1930, the price of cotton dropped, and the profit from their cotton crop could not pay the Logans' bills, so Cassie's Papa left to look for work. Every year, Papa works in Louisiana on a railroad, and is away from home from spring until the next winter.
Cassie remembers Papa telling her that the land is important because as long as she lives she will never have to live on anybody's place but her own. Cassie knows that the land belongs not only to her Papa but also to her brothers, their grandmother, their mother, and their uncle. Papa describes it as "Logan land." While Papa is away, Mama teaches school and Big Ma works in the fields.
Halfway to school, an "emaciated-looking" barefoot boy named TJ and his brother Claude emerge from the trees and walk with the Logan children. TJ failed Mrs. Logan's class the previous year and will be in it again with Stacey. He tells Stacey that Mr. Berry and his two nephews were burned by some white men the previous night. Stacey says that Mr. Lanier had fetched Big Ma to help nurse Mr. Berry the night before. TJ knows about the burning because Mrs. Logan had stopped by to talk to his mother about it before school earlier that morning.
TJ is angry at Cassie for telling her mother who told his mother about him going up to the Wallace store to dance. He only escaped being whipped by telling his mother that he only went up there to follow Claude, who wanted to buy candy. Cassie knows that Claude was willing to take TJ's punishment because he is more scared of his brother than of his mother.
The children have to jump out of the way as a school bus rushes by and covers them with dust. Stacey explains to Little Man, who is furious, that the bus is only for white children and that they don't have a bus. A blond white boy named Jeremy runs out of the forest and starts walking with the Logans. He tells Stacey that his school has been going since the end of August. Cassie recalls that Jeremy has always walked with them to the crossroads in the morning and met them there after school. Other kids at his school pick on him because of this and he sometimes has red welts on his arm as punishment for associating with them, but he continues to meet them.
At the crossroads, some other white children rush past and Jeremy's older sister, Lillian Jean, yells at him to come with them. Cassie looks at the white children's building, Jefferson Davis County School, and notices that it has two school buses, a sports field, and the Mississippi flag with the emblem of the Confederacy on it. The black children turn east to head to their school.
They go to Great Faith Elementary and Secondary School, "consisting of four weather-beaten wooden houses on stilts of brick, 320 students, seven teachers, a principal, and caretaker, and the caretaker's cow." Most of Cassie's classmates are children whose families sharecrop on three nearby plantations. They start school late because their families need them to pick cotton until October.
Cassie walks slowly over to the building that houses the first four grades. Mary Lou Wellever, the principal's daughter says hi, and Cassie notices that she is wearing a new dress. Cassie looks at the other children wearing their Sunday clothes and knows that after today, they will come to school barefoot again until the roads freeze. She also sees Stacey's friend Moe Turner, who walks to school for three and a half hours from the Montier plantation.
Inside the school, Cassie sits with Gracey Pearson and Alma Scott, who say they would rather have Mary Lou sit with them. When the teacher, Miss Daisy Crocker, tells everyone to sit down, Mary Lou looks angrily at Cassie. The first and second grade teacher, Miss Davis, is in Jackson for a few days, so Miss Crocker temporarily teaches both classes.
Miss Crocker announces that they will all have books this year. Cassie has never had one of her own before and is excited until she notices that they are old and worn. She sees how excited Little Man is to get a first grade reader because he cannot see the cover. Cassie picks up her book and begins to read it until she hears Miss Crocker yelling at Clayton Chester (Little Man) because he has asked for a book that is not dirty.
Little Man takes the book back to his desk, but when he opens it, sees something inside it that makes him throw it on the floor and stomp on it. Cassie looks inside her book and sees columns listing the book's condition and the race of the student for every year from 1922-1933. This is the first year that the book's condition is listed as "very poor" and the first time that the race of the student is listed as "nigra" instead of "white." As Miss Crocker is about to take the switch to Little Man, Cassie explains that her brother can already read and shows the teacher why he was angry. Miss Crocker tells Cassie that the books says "nigra" because that's what she is and orders her to sit down. Cassie tells Miss Crocker she doesn't want her book either. Miss Crocker takes the switch to both Little Man and Cassie.
After class, Cassie is determined to tell Mama the story before Miss Crocker does, but accidentally bumps into the principal, Mr. Wellever, and receives a long lecture from him on watching where she is going. When she gets to her mother's classroom, she sees Miss Crocker showing her the book that Little Man broke. Miss Crocker cannot understand why the children got so upset about what was written in the inside cover. Though Mama says that Miss Crocker had the right to punish them for disobeying, she clearly doesn't agree with her. Mama trims brown paper to the size of the page and glues it over the inside covers of her children's books. Miss Crocker is shocked that she would "damage" county property, but Mama says she is going to do it to all the seventh graders' books the next day. Cassie can tell that her mother understands, and sneaks away.
This chapter provides an introduction to the social and historical structure of black life in the South in the 1930s. The educational system functions as a microcosm in which the reader can see the greater inequalities in society reflected in the differences in schooling available to black and white children. The black children must walk for an hour (or in Moe's case, three and a half hours) to get to school, while the white students have school buses that will drive them directly there. The physical ease with which the white children attend school reflects their greater access to education. Cassie personifies one of the two buses as "our own tormenter." The bus is a tormenter not only because it sprays them with dirt as it passes but also because in doing so, the bus illustrates society's that they are somehow inferior to, or dirtier than, the white children.
Similarly, the physical differences in the structures and appearance of the schools demonstrates the cultural and physical divide which separates black and white society in the 1930s South. The white children's school is named after Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy. Cassie notes that the Mississippi flag "waving red, white, and blue with the emblem of the Confederacy emblazoned in its upper left-hand corner" flies over the white school. This flag is a symbol of segregation and oppression. Flying over the white school, the flag's presence illustrates that the "ideals" of the Confederacy, including oppression of blacks, still exist many years after the Civil War.
Cassie notes that the Mississippi flag flies above the American flag. The positioning of the flags illustrates the domination of racist Jim Crow ideology over the more inclusive American ideal of equality. "Jeremy and his sister and brothers" can "hurr[y] toward those transposed flags" because they represent a system which will allow them power and success, but the black children must turn away and head in the opposite direction.
The incident with the schoolbooks demonstrates the ability of the children themselves to recognize the system of symbolic as well as actual oppression. Little Man lives up to his name in that he is far more perceptive than the teacher, Miss Crocker, in reading the deeper meaning behind the columns in the front cover or his book. The equation in Cassie's book of "very poor" and "nigra" illustrates not only the county's contempt for black children's educational needs but also reminds the reader that characters like TJ and Claude, who have no shoes, or like the Logans, whose father must work away from home for months to afford taxes and a mortgage, are poor as a result of discrimination.
Cassie recognizes the power of language more clearly than Miss Crocker does. Miss Crocker attempts to push her students into action by making them respond in unison to her. Cassie's refusal to respond to Miss Crocker's request that she "share, share, share" comes in part because she recognizes the futility in saying something that you don't mean. "I never did approve of group responses," she thinks. Cassie also fails to respond because she is thinking of something more meaningful: the burning of the Berrys.
Furthermore, Cassie recognizes the danger inherent in the abuse of language. She says "S-see what they called us," when showing Miss Crocker the book, assuming that the teacher will think the labeling as wrong as she does. Miss Crocker, who later urges Mrs. Logan to make the children accept the way things are, cannot contemplate any means of resistance because she accepts the labels given to her by the whites in power. By accepting the racial title written in the book, she also accepts a type of subordination.
Chapter Two Summary:
Big Ma watches as Cassie balances halfway up a pole in the cotton field. She, Christopher-John, and Little Man are all picking the last of the cotton at the tops of the plants. (Stacey is too big to climb the poles now.) Big Ma tells Mama that they have picked enough for the day.
From the top of her pole, Cassie sees Papa and another man coming down the road. The children rush over to hug them, and he says they're getting too big to call his "babies" anymore. The other man with them is Mr. Morrison, who is very tall. He has burn scars on his face and neck, deep wrinkles, some gray in his hair, and "clear and penetrating" eyes. Mama wants to know if something is wrong, but Papa avoids the question.
Mr. Morrison and the family walk into Mama and Papa's room, which doubles as a living room. Mr. Morrison looks around the room, the walls of which are covered with pictures of various family members, before sitting down in Grandpa Logan's rocking chair. Big Ma asks her son how long he will be home, and he tells her until Sunday evening. It is already Saturday. The children want him to stay longer, but he says that if he does, he will lose his job.
Papa says that he came home to bring Mr. Morrison, who is going to work in the house as a hired hand for room and board and a few dollars in the winter. He used to work on the railroad but cannot get work anymore. Mr. Morrison, whose voice is "like the roll of low thunder" says he got fired from his job because some white men started a fight with him and he beat them up. They didn't get fired.
That evening, as they milk the cows, Cassie asks Stacey if Papa brought Mr. Morrison home because of the burnings. Stacey tells her not to worry about it. Cassie says she just wishes she knew more. Christopher-John, close to tears, says that he wishes that Papa could stay at home.
The next day, at church, Mrs. Lanier tells Big Ma that John Henry Berry died the night before. The deacons announce it as well, and the people pray for his soul and for his brother and uncle's recovery. After church, Mr. Lanier says that John Henry had a nice place up by Smellings Creek with a wife and six children and that "they" have been after him since he came back from the war. Big Ma says he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Mrs. Lanier says that Henrietta Toggins, who is related to the Berrys, was with them in John Henry's Model T when it happened. They had stopped for gas and some drunk white men came by and said: "That's the nigger Sallie Ann said was flirtin' with her." Henrietta made John Henry and his brother Beacon get in the car and drive off without filling up on gas. After they dropped her off at home, the three white men caught up with them and kept hitting the back of the car. Knowing he didn't have enough gas to get home, John Henry stopped at his uncle's. The white men dragged John Henry and Beacon out of the house and when their uncle tried to stop them, lit all three of them on fire.
TJ's father says that he heard that a boy was lynched in Crosston a few days ago. Mr. Lanier says that the worst thing is that no one can do anything about it. The sheriff called Henrietta a liar when she went to him, and now the white men who did it are bragging about the lynching, saying "they'd do it again if some other uppity nigger get out of line." Papa says that his family doesn't shop at the Wallace store. The room goes silent. After the Laniers and Averys leave, Papa tells the children that Mama has heard about other older kids going to the store to dance, buy bootleg liquor, and smoke. He says he does not want his children going there and says he'll "wear [them] out" if they go there. The children agree not to go, knowing that Papa swings a mean switch.
The power of language is once again prevalent in this chapter. The use of derogatory, racist terms and the act of racist hate-crimes are part of a continuum of power. In their society, the white men face no reprimand for calling Henry John derogatory names. This too-permissive atmosphere implicitly condones the growth of their hatred into physical action.
For this black community, language is both powerful, and, in their own mouths powerless. All the white men need to do to "justify" their attack on the Berrys is say that Henry John was flirting with a white woman. This second-hand hearsay is the only reason that they appear to have for attacking the Berrys. Similarly, their later bragging and threats operate just as strongly as physical threats. At the same time, black language does not have the same power in white society. Henrietta's testimony is powerless to make the sheriff investigate. Truth, therefore, is an essentially meaningless concept in this society, where the power of language is determined by race rather than by validity.
The allusion to the novel's title functions as a means of foreshadowing Mr. Morrison's significance in the novel. His voice, Cassie notices, is like "the roll of low thunder." Understanding that Mr. Morrison may be in danger, the reader can equate the threat represented by the sound of thunder with the threat to Mr. Morrison. His presence in the story marks the first entrance of an outsider into the safety of "Logan land" and suggests that, like thunder before lightening, Mr. Morrison's presence will herald dangerous changes.
Mr. Morrison's physical appearance is symbolic of his place in society. The scar on his face and deep lines show he has been literally, as well as economically, hurt by a white society that will dismiss a black man defending himself but will not fire his two white aggressors. Mr. Morrison's penetrating eyes demonstrate his spirit of resistance and his ability to see to the truth. His immediate explanation to Mrs. Logan of why he lost his job shows how highly he values the truth.