Reviewed by Marnie Mueller (Ecuador 1963-65)
Mildred D. Taylor’s ALL THE DAYS PAST, ALL THE DAYS TO COME is a young adult novel, the final book in a ten volume series for which Taylor has won innumerable awards, among them a Newbery Medal, four Coretta Scott King Awards, a Boston Globe—Horn Book Award, a L.A. Times Book Prize and the PEN Award for Children’s Literature.
I have never before read a young adult novel as I have no children and during my teens so many decades ago, they didn’t call them by that name. When I was asked to review the novel, I Googled Taylor, and up came effusive accolades on literary sites followed by reader comments that invariably began “I love this book.” Frankly, I’m always wary of a work that is so universally loved, concerned that it signifies an easy read, one written to please.
This is decidedly not the case with the one book of Taylor’s that I’ve now read; it is a tough, realistic novel from start to finish. Her entire series is based on stories, history, and lore that she heard within her home and gleaned from her own experience growing up Black in America. She is a writer who has lived her material and brings that knowledge brilliantly to the page.
The series has followed Cassie Logan since she was eight years old. When we meet her now in the first chapter of ALL THE DAYS PAST, ALL THE DAYS TO COME she is a young woman of nineteen years. It’s 1944 and she and her younger brother, Little Man, are waiting for a bus in McComb, Mississippi. Little Man is a soldier based in Fort Hood, Texas. He’s about to leave for Europe to fight in the war in a segregated unit, but before he ships out he is going home to say goodbye to his family. Cassie who was on break from Jackson College to visit an ailing aunt is returning to Jackson with him. Little Man is in his Army uniform when they get on the bus yet he must still suffer the indignity of sitting behind a black canvas curtain that divides the white from the Negro riders. The curtain is designed to shift toward the back the bus to accommodate white riders, gradually eliminating the seats for the Negro travelers.
Little Man begrudgingly moves once, but when the driver demands that he move a second time, Little Man refuses, “We’re not moving back.” The driver is shocked “You sassin’ me, boy?…Nigger I’ll put y’all off this bus!” Little Man gets up and looking directly into the driver’s eyes, says, “We already decided to get off.”
As a result of his refusal to be bowed to racist authority, he and Cassie must walk miles along the rural road, the hours stretching into treacherous darkness, until they reach their destination, home of the close-knit Logan family, who have been waiting anxiously as their time of arrival has passed.
I recently read a statement from a young African American speaking of her descendants: “Love and support of family and community must have been what filled their hearts and kept them going.” Taylor’s book is a testament to the family bond and support, but never is the Logan family’s struggle sentimentalized. Rather Taylor is direct about the horrific dehumanization of the Jim Crow period and the rage it engenders in the minds and hearts of her Black characters. She never pulls her punches in that regard, beginning with her Author’s note in which she states,
“…I wanted to write a truthful history of what life was like for Black people in America. The truth includes the “n” word. It inflicted great pain, but it is a truth that needs to be told. I do not promote the word, but not to include it in my writing is to whitewash history, and that I will not do.”
The novel covers Cassie and the multigenerational, upstanding Logan family from the post-war period in Mississippi, through the Great Migration of Blacks from the south to the north, through a move west to California and a certain freedom that allows, until finally we find ourselves back with the Logan family in Toledo, Ohio and Mississippi during the voter registration era.
With the passage of time, one forgets the visceral details of what Blacks had to endure in this country under Jim Crow and during the voter registration time, not only in the south in Mississippi, but in Toledo, Ohio, in Chicago, and Boston. As Taylor writes in the introduction “All across America I heard the “n” word,” as she was growing up and into adulthood. Taylor takes us through the rituals of preparing food to carry on car trips because there will be no eating establishments where they will be served, having to drive through the nights because no motel will take them in, and the fear of traveling on back country roads even in daylight. Toward the end of the book Cassie expresses relief that the Interstate is finally being built from Toledo to Atlanta to Jackson. Once finished, It would be safer to drive while Black, when visiting home. There are the libraries from which they cannot borrow books, and narrow sidewalks where they must step aside for white people, and the department stores where they can pay their hard earned money, but cannot try on the clothes, necessitating buying without knowing if their purchases will fit properly. As I read, I thought, what must this feel like to be so reviled that white people refuse to let their bodies be touched by a dress that your body has worn for five minutes.
Having established this background of discrimination, the book moves into the life-threatening stands taken by Blacks and some whites as the campaign to register Black voters heats up. Again, Taylor doesn’t shrink from the truth as she depicts through her characters that the greatest sacrifices are made by those who will have to remain in small town racist communities, working for their livelihood for racist employers, as they fight for the right to vote. She is clear, too, that many northern Blacks, like Cassie, who by then is a respected lawyer in a Massachusetts white firm, have the luxury of coming and going in the Mississippi battle for suffrage. Yet we learn of the terror of even the most mobile participants like Cassie and outside activists, as they commit themselves to joining in the struggle.
What sustains the Logan family members throughout is the family itself, their love and respect for each other, the food they cook and eat heartily together. One’s mouth waters reading the communal preparations for holiday feasts. It is a deep pleasure to live within the heart of this family. I can imagine young African American and readers of every race experiencing the emotional richness and complexity of this extended family. But they will also be confronted with one of the results of constant, centuries-long subjugation when they read of the Logan’s deep, well-earned mistrust of whites, pointedly shown by Cassie’s older brother, Stacey, when he suspects that there is something more going on between Cassie and a white lawyer in the Boston firm.
“This white man, he’s taking you away, taking you into that white world of his.”
“What if I told you he wants me to marry him?’
Stacey’s jaw set and he stared icily at me. “Do you think I give a damn if he want to or not? You’d still be a black woman choosing to go with a white man! Too many of our women gone with them! Forced them to go with them, our blood included! Now you’ve got choices and this is what you’re choosing to do?…You do, you turn your back on all of us. I won’t even call you my sister.”
Taylor brings everything to bear on that shameful yet complex period of American history so that it informs our understanding of the white resistance to universal suffrage. She writes so powerfully, re-awakening our outrage for the atrocities like the killings of Emmett Till and Medgar Evers, and the terrifying attacks on the Freedom Riders’ buses, that we hear it resonating in our current politics of division. We remember that calls for “state’s rights” means having legal permission to subjugate another race, by suppressing their right to vote through poll taxes, false literacy and history tests, the cruel inanity of having to guess how many jelly beans were in a jar in order to qualify to pull a lever, of outright intimidation, terror, and death. My hope is that the young women and men, boys and girls, who have the privilege of reading this history in novel form, in which they can identify with a fully developed, strong female protagonist, will understand how sacred and crucial the right to vote is to maintaining a democracy. I wish for the adults of my generation that when they read this book it will not only refresh their memories of that terrible time, but will lift them up from their current despair and complacency as they remember the courage of a people who risked everything for the freedom of all in this country.
Marnie Mueller was born in the Tule Lake Japanese American High Security Segregation Camp to Caucasian parents. She is the author of three novels: Green Fires, The Climate of the Country, and My Mother’s Island. She is a recipient of a Before Columbus Foundation American Book Award, the Maria Thomas Award for Outstanding Fiction, a Gustavus Myers Outstanding Book Award, a New York Public Library Best Books for the Teenage, a New York Times Book Review “New and Noteworthy in Paperback,” and a Barnes and Noble “Discover Great New Writers” choice.