What is amazing is that John Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath in 1939 and it covered the era of the Dust Bowl, yet 81 years later I can see scenes of that past displayed in painful images and news reports today. If you don’t know 1930s US history, then let me give you a quick recap of what the Dust Bowl was all about and how I’m tying this into present-day.
Due to years of drought and improperly farmed land (due to high demand of rapid cultivation), wind erosion, and the influx of mechanized farm equipment a decade earlier, the unanchored soil turned to dust. That dust was whirled up by strong winds that swept huge billowing dust clouds throughout the panhandle of Oklahoma (northwest), northern Texas, northeast New Mexico, southeast Colorado, western and central Kansas, and a speck of southwestern Nebraska in the early 1930s.
More than 100 million acres were impacted by the dust storms, most of the states affected were choked off by dust for over four years, while some states were impacted for over 8 years. Tens of thousands of people were displaced because they could no longer farm their lands, pay their bills, and provide for their families. By 1936, the financial loss was $25 million per day, which is the equivalent to approximately $460 million today, according to the Federal Reserve of Minneapolis.
Families who had lived on their properties for generations, were forced to leave with whatever they could pack and load in their vehicles. Their houses and other structures were oftentimes bulldozed and destroyed. Since the banks now owned the lands because the families took out loans that they later could not repay, these families were left to be tenant farmers and had no claim to the land they once owned free and clear. Banks showed no mercy as they forced the families from their homes and off of their lands. Sound familiar?
My maternal grandparents were born and raised in Oklahoma, and were children during the Dust Bowl. Thankfully for them, the storms never reached their part of the state and they never had to leave their family’s lands. And although I’m a California native, thankfully when my parents and paternal grandparents moved to that state, the chaos of decades earlier had been a memory far removed. But maybe you can see another reason why I’m naturally drawn to the story, The Grapes of Wrath. Both sides of my family have been landowners and property owners for generations. Imagine making it past the Civil War and finally gaining a footing in this cruel country, to then be forced off of the land you bought and worked on. Just devastating.
Tens of thousands of people traveled from Dust Bowl states and migrated to California, because it was known as a state that survived the Great Depression better than most states. Individuals and families saw California as their second chance to rebuild and thrive. What they didn’t know was that Californians didn’t want outsiders and “foreigners”. The migrants were called “Okies” and this wasn’t just because many of them were from Oklahoma, it soon became a derogatory term to describe the level of disgust that Californians felt for the migrants. Yes indeed, people from other states were called foreigners, and they looked down on them. If you look at our country today, locals don’t feel cheery about a spike in their population due to newcomers. They start to fear a shortage in jobs, housing, opportunities, and space on the freeways and highways. They start to fear a spike in the cost of goods and services. Although they give the side eye, they aren’t acting out like we did decades ago.
Not yet at least.
If you read The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck then maybe you recall the struggle and strife of the people and families impacted by the Dust Bowl. You should also recall how they were overlooked and taken advantage of by those in their home states who didn’t lose their properties, and they were treated considerably worse by people in California.
Those who made it to California were forced to accept scraps, beg for jobs, and be subjected to inhumane conditions. And back then, the Salvation Army had a bad reputation in California for mistreating the destitute. If the “Okies” protested what Californians were doing to them then they were beaten, arrested, and many were murdered. Yes, even law enforcement was in on the mistreatment. Sadly, the migrants watched as their campsites were burned down by locals who didn’t want “Okies” there. Locals didn’t want to compete with the migrants so they did everything they could to force them out of the state.
Californians drove wages as low as possible to ensure that the migrants couldn’t live dignified lives. They created a mindset where people would accept anything just to eat. They would work for scraps of food to keep from dying of hunger. To keep prices of their crops high, the big landowners in California destroyed some of their crops instead of letting hungry migrants eat them. This waste and cruelty caused a “crop” to develop and sprout in the souls of the migrants—which Steinbeck coined, the grapes of wrath.
The irony is, Californians were doing all of that to protect the land that they stole from Mexicans. Yep, California was part of Mexico, along with Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas until 1850, 1912, and 1848, respectively. How did this happen? Well, in the early 1800s, Americans were desperate and they decided to travel to other lands looking for opportunities for a better life. They saw ripe acres of land and they chose to become squatters. They built houses, planted on and farmed the lands, and eventually stood strengthened in the belief that the land was now theirs. Since Mexicans hadn’t considered that squatters would be an issue, they weren’t prepared for what ultimately happened—losing their land to immigrants who forcefully fought to remain on land not theirs. In 1848 Texas fought and became a state. In 1850 California became a state, and because they also fought hard against slavery, it was a free state as part of the Union. Arizona and New Mexico eventually gained statehood in 1912.
Now, fast forward to the 1930s with Californians “owning” the land, they saw their old selves in the migrants, and rather than being neighborly, they acted rabid. They feared losing the land the same way they got it. They feared the migrants from Oklahoma and other states, and feared that just as they squatted on the land and fought the Mexicans, that the migrants would do the exact same thing to them.
If this wasn’t so painful to examine it would be comical. This nonsense has been happening since this country was first stolen from Native Americans. Our inability to coexist, share, be content with what is allotted to us in a land where we are all foreigners, so we steal that land and it’s resources from the people who allowed us to come here. Then when newcomers arrive we tell them we don’t want them here, there’s not enough land and resources to share. All I can do is smirk and shake my head.
If you never read The Grapes of Wrath and doubt you will go buy a copy or check out one from the library, let me help you out. I searched on YouTube and found all three parts of the audiobook from two sources. Below are the links. Listen to the book. Listen and see how then, is in many ways, now, and now is then.
This savagery, as I call it, is cyclical— generation after generation. We keep repeating this nonsense and we don’t see the need to stop and live right. We don’t see the need to treat others with dignity and respect, just as we would like to be treated. Greed drives it all. Big business keeps squashing the little person, banks keep getting bailed out even though they won’t do the same for their depositors, and the frenzy drives the working class into a state of sheer desperation and madness—where they too begin turning on each other. Sound familar? If only people learned how to unite against the status quo. That was a thread of wisdom that Steinbeck wove through the story, where certain characters would propose the concept of strength in numbers, and standing as a collective voice and force—but each time, fear would get in the way. Just like today.
In the book, people were prevented from buying land in California, and if it appeared there was an opportunity to purchase, the price would be set so high that the dream would quickly disappear. They would be forced to live in government and other campsites, with communal facilities, and unsanitary conditions. Today, how do we get the “undesirables” out of neighborhoods and communities? We raise the price of rent, we increase our police presence to get more arrests, we create or unfairly enforce rules or laws that target them, and we make the living conditions unbearable. That is also the strategy to keep people away.
I’ve read several articles recently about the skyrocketed cost of living in California and the staggering number of homeless who have no where safe to go. People with jobs who can’t afford to rent are being forced to sleep in their vehicles, in shelters, or on the streets. Just the other week I read of a tiny house community that was built to house the homeless. It’s ridiculous that this community even had to be built. If property owners reduced their rates on their rentals people could rent. If property owners stopped being greedy trying to sell their homes for way more than their worth, we could have more homeowners. But guess what? Between greed and fear, no one is budging from their position.
But guess what else? It’s not just California that has lost their mind with these ridiculous rate hikes. Have you checked the rental and sales prices of properties in Atlanta, Georgia and surrounding cities? Absolutely ridiculous. There are some areas where you can still be mugged or carjacked yet the houses are being sold for $500,000 to $750,000. I’m not joking. Houses that once were $15,000 to $50,000 were remodeled and because some sucker (most likely from California, New York, or other high priced state) was willing to pay $350,000 or more for a property nearby, that encouraged other sellers to list their homes for comparable prices. All of this has been driving the market up, which means a bubble will be bursting soon, and people will be wailing about the injustice of it all when the property values come plummeting down to levels that actually make sense. We could stop these bubbles from growing in the first place if people stopped being greedy.
Everyone thinks that someone is going to take or destroy what’s ours, even when what’s ours isn’t rightfully ours. We keep living with a “them” versus “us” mindset, rather than realizing that we all want the exact same things in life, and given the opportunity we could all live side-by-side in harmony. We simply choose the chaos. When will we grow tired of this treachery? Share your thoughts.
Copyright 2020. Natasha L. Foreman.