“Racism is offensive. Racism is not polite, and it is full of pain.” So says award-winning novelist Mildred Delois Taylor. Racial injustice is a major theme in her literary works for children and young adults. It is what compelled her father, Wilbert Taylor, to move his wife, Deletha Marie Davis Taylor, and their family to Toledo, Ohio, soon after Mildred was born in Jackson on 13 September 1943. Through summers with her relatives and the stories they shared, however, Mildred came to see the South as home. According to Taylor, “Many of the stories told were humorous, some were tragic, but all told of the dignity and survival of a people living in a society that allowed them few rights as citizens and treated them as inferiors.” Taylor learned about her great-grandfather, the son of a white plantation owner in Alabama and “an Indian-African woman” during slavery. In the late 1800s Taylor’s great-grandfather went to Mississippi, where he bought and settled land that remains in the Taylor family.
The oral history handed down through generations of Taylors became the inspiration for her lifelong work: “I do not know how old I was when the daydreams became more than that, and I decided to write them down, but by the time I entered high school, I was confident that I would one day be a writer.” Although Taylor graduated from an integrated high school in Toledo in 1961, she had firsthand experience with segregation from her visits to Mississippi, where she saw signs declaring “whites only.” Taylor graduated from the University of Toledo and then spent two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ethiopia. Living in Africa had a profound effect on her, and she gained a deeper appreciation for her own personal and family history.
Taylor returned to the United States in 1967 and became a recruiter and instructor with the Peace Corps before enrolling at the University of Colorado’s School of Journalism. Just as the Black Power movement took off, Taylor joined the Black Student Alliance and played an integral role in creating the university’s black studies program while earning a master’s degree in journalism.
Taylor’s first break as a writer came when her Song of the Trees won first prize in a contest sponsored by the Council on Interracial Books for Children. At the time, she was working as a copy editor and decided to fiddle with the point of view of a story she had been developing about life during the Great Depression. After several revisions, Taylor used the point of view of eight-year-old Cassie Logan, and the members of the Logan family have recurred throughout her writings.
Her second book, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, won the 1977 Newbery Medal, the most prestigious award in children’s literature, and was a National Book Award finalist. Set in Mississippi, like all her works, the book is Cassie’s coming-of-age tale. The nine-year-old learns about night riders “coming fast along the rain-soaked road like cats eyes in the night” and the indignity of being forced to apologize to a white girl for being on the sidewalk. Taylor’s other novels for children include Let the Circle Be Unbroken (1981), The Friendship (1987), The Gold Cadillac (1987), The Road to Memphis (1990), Mississippi Bridge (1990), The Well (1995), and The Land (2001). Her writings have received numerous honors, including several Coretta Scott King Awards and an Outstanding Book of the Year citation from the New York Times. Mississippi governor Haley Barbour declared 2 April 2004 Mildred D. Taylor Day.
- Mississippi Writers and Musicians website, www.mswritersandmusicians.com
- Mississippi Writers Page website, www.olemiss.edu/mwp
- Penguin Publishers website, www.penguin.com