In 1945, after hearing local boys use a word I didn’t know, I asked the lovely brown woman who did the ironing for my mother what ‘nigger’ meant. Responding to her silence, which told me she was upset, I tried to make things better by telling her that Mommy had told me it was a bad word I was never to use. But she remained silent.

Years later, re-reading the classic black Southern novel Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, which introduces young readers to one of literature’s most endearing heroines, 9-year-old Cassie Logan, I remembered this incident. For Cassie’s growing up is punctuated by her own discoveries about the meaning of a word that is as offensive now as it was then.

As a young child living in a Mississippi town named Strawberry in the 1930s, unaware of differences between white and black people, Mildred D. Taylor’s deeply loved protagonist slowly learns about the effects of skin colour. Shocked, she does not cry. She takes in painful facts and decides what to do about them, as Taylor herself clearly did.

Early on, Cassie finds that at the black public school where her mother has taught for 14 years, the only Readers are dilapidated throw-away books from the nearby white school. Soon afterwards, when the two busses given to this school by local authorities splash water from muddy road puddles on her and her three brothers, she has to clamber with them up a steep bank amid the jeers of  white children and the bus driver.

The black school has no bus. Some children walk remarkable distances so that they can receive a bit of formal education before leaving school as early as Year 5 to work in the cotton fields. One cheerful boy does this walking daily, starting out in the dark and returning home in the dark. Rain or shine, hot or cold, the Logans and their closest companions brave painful falls, roadside ditches, and insults directed only at coloured people.

In response to additional humiliations suffered by members of her family, Cassie is a sensitive and reliable witness. Only when her devoted father, David, can get away on foot from the distant railroad that has given him labouring work does he get to spend a day with his wife and children. Yet he never complains. He laughs, he tells stories, and he showers everyone with love.

Even though David’s brother Hammer has done well enough up North to buy a Packard newer than the one driven by Strawberry’s richest white man, he too is badly treated by whites during visits to his mother. At the one shop in Vicksburg where they can buy groceries, the Logan children are treated as if they aren’t there when white customers arrive. An influential family named Wallace, led by a despot, do their best to put them down—though one Wallace child, Jeremy, refuses to join in on the cruelty.

When David and his wife Mary stand up for their rights, Mr Wallace threatens to get back at them. This he does with the help of un-named Night Riders—obviously the Ku Klux Klan—and others. A fine, respected professional man, Mr Avery, has nowhere to turn when he loses his job. A deplorable family named Simms repeatedly attack the innocent. The Logans’ car wheels are tampered with. A pillar of the black community is set on fire with his nephews by white men who know they won’t be jailed for criminal behaviour.

These frightening incidents, culminating in a forest fire threatening the entire region, force white men and women to join with blacks battling the blaze to ensure survival. A local white lawyer, Mr Jamison, is particularly helpful. But everyone knows that additional racial injustices, impossible to foresee in specific terms, will follow. Cassie senses this, even at her young age; and readers with historical knowledge know it.

This reflection is the third in a series about Growing Up that will describe fiction from different parts of the world. For most of her life, starting in Year 3, Susan Reibel Moore has taught Reading, Writing and literature.

Dr Susan Moore has been an inveterate reader all her life. Her PhD on Henry James (University of Sydney 1972) was revised and eventually published as a book in the University of Queensland Press Scholars’...