The Volunteer Who Created Compelling Novels out of Her Family’s Oral History — Mildred Taylor (Ethiopia)
by Jeremiah Norris (Colombia 1963-65)
Mildred Taylor served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ethiopia, 1965-67, after having graduated from University of Toledo in 1965.
She was born in Jackson, Mississippi in 1943, and is the great-granddaughter of a former slave who was the son of an African-Indian woman and a white landowner. After returning to the U. S. following her Peace Corps experience, she earned a MA degree in journalism at the University of Colorado where she was instrumental in creating the Black Studies Program as a member of the Black Alliance.
Mildred’s works are based on oral history, told to her by her father, uncles and aunt. She said that without her family, and especially without her father, her books “would not have been.” She’s stated that these anecdotes became very clear in her mind, and in fact, once she realized that adults talked about the past “I began to visualize all the family who had once known the land, and I felt as if I knew them”.
Mildred is best known for exploring powerful themes of family and racism faced by African Americans in the Deep South in works that are accessible to young readers. She was awarded the 1977 Newbery Medal for Roll of Thunder, Hear Me Cry, and the inaugural NSK Neustadt Prize for Children’s Literature in 2002. In 2021, she won the Children’s Literature Legacy Award.
Overall, Mildred’s books chronicle the lives of several generations of her family, from the time of slavery to the Jim Crow era. Her most recognizable work is Roll of Thunder which has been integrated into the language arts curriculum of many classrooms across the U. S. This book has been flanked by several other books that include titles such as Song of the Trees; Let the Circle Be Unbroken; The Road to Memphis, and The Land. Her collective contributions to children’s literature resulted in her being awarded the inaugural NSK Neustadt Prize for Children’s Literature in 2003. In 2021, she won the Children’s Literature Legacy Award.
Other book awards include Let the Circle Be Unbroken being awarded as Outstanding Book of the Year Citation by the New York Times in 1981; the Christopher Award in 1988 for The Gold Cadillac; the Coretta Scott King Award in 1990 for The Road to Memphis; First Prize (African-American category) by the Council on Interracial Books for Children in 1973; and for Song of the Trees, Outstanding Book of the Year Citation by the New York Times in 1975.
In comments Mildred made when becoming the first laureate of the NSK Neustadt Prize in 2003, she described the source materials for her books. In visits to her parents and grandparents’ house amid the South of racism and bigotry, there was also the South of family and community and history that filled her with pride. Here,
“. . . the adults would begin to talk about the past and I would begin to visualize all the people who once lived in that house, all the family that once had known the land, and I felt as if I knew them, too. I met them through all the stories told, stories told with such gusto and acting skills that people long since dead lived again through the voices and movements of the storytellers. Much of the history of the family and community was told through those stories, acted out on moonlit porches or by brightly burning fireplaces, and I used to sit transfixed, thirsting for more as I took in the history.”
Of the many stories her father told was of the cutting of trees on the family land and that became her first book, Song of the Trees.
Given Mildred Taylor’s long standing professional skills in chronicling her family’s oral history of racism faced by African Americans in the Deep South into well-received novels, most especially for children, she is most certainly a Profile in Citizenship.
One CommentLeave a comment
So impressive – Mildred inspires and exemplifies the importance of discovering from whence and where we came – confronting and appreciating our heritage in order to see ourselves in context to the world – becoming more grounded and aware – preparing the way to going forward, creating and taking action. Hope to read and share Mildred’s illuminating books. Geri