Tuesday, December 9, 2008

I'll be there

There's no Dust Bowl in these parts today. It's warm enough that it's been raining steadily all day, and with all the snow that was still on the ground...well, as Annie Wilkes would say, it's an oogie mess out there! Foggy, too. Ken has a late meeting, so I hope he doesn't have any problems on the roads tonight.

My pal Milwaukee Dan #2 wrote an entry about taking black and white photographs. (He's quite good at it, if you've never checked out his photos.) I commented that black and white photos have always intrigued me, because it seems that when you remove the colors, the contrasts and details are more apparent. Odd that this came up, because one of the lead stories on AOL today was about Dorothea Lange's famous "Migrant Mother" photograph.

The little girl on the left in the photo is still alive, still in California (where the picture was taken in 1936), almost 77 years old, and cleaning houses. In an interview, she stated that her family was ashamed of the photograph, because it showed how poor they were, but it made them all determined to work hard in order to never have to live like that again. The now-elderly woman told her tale of living in their car, unable to go to school or even to take a bath, and how their mother sometimes went hungry but made sure her kids never did.

One of my favorite books is The Grapes of Wrath, and I've read it a few times. (A piece of trivia: John Steinbeck is the one who coined the phrase "The Mother Road" in reference to Route 66, which the Joad family traverses from Oklahoma to California.) I wanted to learn more about the Dust Bowl migration and the plight of migrant farm workers, so a few years ago I found a book titled American Exodus which deals with the migration. It was a difficult read...not because of the reading level, but because it is such a tragic story.

Contrary to what many people believe, the Dust Bowl wasn't the sole cause of the migration of farmers to California. A severe drought happened to coincide with the Great Depression, and when farmers who made their living off the land could do nothing as they watched their crops die in the fields, many chose to leave their homes behind and make the trek to the "land of milk and honey," as the state was portrayed by many California farm owners. In 1933, unemployment in Oklahoma was 29%, and in Arkansas, a staggering 39%. They left in droves for California, and the resulting glut of workers meant that just like the crops in Oklahoma and other southwestern states, the California jobs dried up. With an overabundance of workers, landowners were able to offer incredibly low wages, because everyone wanted a job and was willing to take a little less then the next guy if it meant keeping their family from starvation.

Squatters camps sprang up at the edges of towns, with squalid living conditions, poor sanitation, and rampant health problems. The government camps established by the Farm Security Administration offered better conditions, but limited space, so the refugees formed their own camps, in which the living conditions were much worse. Before he published The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck released a pamphlet detailing the squalor in which thousands were living, especially when winter set in and there were no crops to be picked:

There is no work. First the gasoline gives out. And without gasoline a man cannot go to a job even if he could get one. Then the food goes. And then in the rains, with insufficient food, the children develop colds because the ground in the tents is wet. I talked to a man last week who lost two children in ten days with pneumonia. His face was hard and fierce and he didn't talk much. I talked to a girl with a baby and offered her a cigarette. She took two puffs and vomited in the street. She was ashamed. She shouldn't have tried to smoke, she said, for she hadn't eaten for two days. I heard a man whimpering that the baby was sucking but nothing came out of the breast. I heard a man explain very shyly that his little girl couldn't go to school because she was too weak to walk to school and besides the school lunches of the other children made her unhappy.

It's hard to imagine such conditions. But that wasn't all that the migrant workers had to endure. They were looked down upon by many of the local inhabitants, and "Okie" and "Arkie" were class epithets on the order of the N-word being a racial epithet. They were distrusted and hated and unwanted, and it was hoped that they'd just keep to themselves and not become a part of regular society.

But assimilate they did. With the arrival of WWII, many went to work in the California munitions factories, and for the first time in many years, were able to make a regular living, put food on the table every day, and a roof over their heads; that tragic chapter in our country's history was over, and was part of the reason for the growth of unions. (Although oddly enough, the independent migrant farmers had a deep distrust of and distaste for unions.)

I've always found this a fascinating topic, but especially so now that some in the media are wondering if we are on the verge of another Great Depression. From everything I've read, and from talking with my parents (who were children at that time), we are far from reaching that point. Things are not great right now, and I believe fixing this will involve growing the deficit before we can reduce the deficit, but we aren't in the dire straits experienced by the American refugees and others of the Dust Bowl era. I would hope that we, as a country, learned from our mistakes at that time: we cannot live beyond our means, we have a moral responsibility as human beings to not allow such suffering, and the government must step in to create jobs and make sure that people are able to make a decent living. Soon-to-be President Obama will be faced with a daunting task, but it is in our best interests as a country to realize that we cannot allow our country to spiral down to what we went through during that time. Job creation, including infrastructure work, will drive the economy. But it won't happen overnight.

I'll end this with a scene that never fails to choke me up...Tom Joad's soliloquy.

Source: Gregory, James N. American Exodus: The Dust Bowl Migration and Okie Culture in California. New York: Oxford University Press; 1989.


  1. I have read 'The Grapes' several times ... and I think about now with everyone pointing at the failure of the auto industry being problems they have with 'legacy contracts'.

    Legacy contracts? You mean the promises made to people who worked hard to help someone else earn their billions?

    On a more personal note, I wonder if my Mom felt like Tom Joad's Mom ... if she would have rather that I never run off ... just something to think about.

    But blaming the Unions when if there were no Unions, you could imagine people on a widespread level, living like this ... fighting for something as fundamental as dignity, being denied the same kind of hope that is starting to be reserved only for the haves ...

  2. I just read her story this morning. Nice to know the story behind the picture. My mum was born during the Depression and doesn't like to talk about it.

  3. My parents grew up in the depression too and told many stories around the kitchen table about what they had to do. The onset of the war did seem to give many jobs to those out of work. Sad that it was what brought life back to our country. I don't know what will happen in years to come, but I'm hoping it never gets that bad again. In this modern day and age we should be able to work things out. 'On Ya'-ma

  4. It's so important to read The Grapes of Wrath before experiencing Route 66, so I'm glad to know you've appreciated it for years. It's hard to imagine the Dust Bowl when traveling on today's Route 66, but there are quite a number of reminders along the way, if you know what to look for. You definitely have the right sensibilities to understand and appreciate the heritage of that part of history, both good and bad.

  5. Ah, Steinbeck, there is no other like him. I could (and do) reread everything he's put pen to.
    Thanks for the trip and sharing with your readers.

  6. Your like me, your intrigued by this kind of work. Thanks for sharing. Take care and enjoy,

  7. My mother was born in 1936. Times were hard then she said. That picture tells a sad story of poverty and pain. Grapes of Wrath was given to my English class to read when I was in High School. I never forgot it.

  8. my great grandmother that raised me knew poor and knew hunger. I was raised also hearing of how bad it once was for her and millions of others. Very scary to watch people daily spend, spend and not think of another day or the dollar they just spent. You wrote another excellent entry. I took black and white pics of Megan's Prom a few yrs ago and i still love those pics dearly. XO

  9. I've always loved that book and always had an interest in that time period. And... I always love black and white photos... they show so much character...
    great entry!

  10. Home safe and sound, if not a little late :o)

    The whole dust bowl story is tragic, yet oddly inspirational, as people moved on out to make changes.

  11. Great entry Beth, I also love The grapes of Wrath and the subsequent film, makes me wonder how many other survivers there are and if they have told their stories.


  12. I saw the picture on AOL yesterday also. The original (if there really is one) photograph was at the Speed art museum not too long ago and I missed it! Dang! I have read The grapes of Wrath and I should, maybe it will be my next book.


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