While at work on this paper, I glanced at the headline in the morning newspaper: “SWAT Team Kills Gunman at Sacramento Tax Office,” and I said to myself, “Probably an Okie.” I read the article and found no reference to Okies—that would never happen in California these days—but the evidence was there: A white man named Jim Ray Holloway, age fifty-three, from Manteca, wearing a cowboy hat, carrying a rifle, a shotgun, and a hand gun, ex-cop, mad about taxes. The name, the age, the hometown in the agricultural Central Valley, the cowboy hat, the kinds of weapons, the career, the lightening rage at the state, all point to his being an Okie.
Although the newspaper report was sketchy about the man’s background, I can almost imagine his life: Possibly the child of Oklahoma sharecropping parents who migrated to California during the mid-1930s Dust Bowl, he was born one year after the publication of The Grapes of Wrath, perhaps in a labor camp in the Central Valley. His older brothers and sisters would have been taunted in school for being ragged, hungry, and dirty; his family was not allowed in the many places that hung signs that said “No Okies.” His parents probably got on their feet during the wartime boom and soon he could feel superior at least toward the Mexicans and blacks because his parents taught him to be proud of being white and a native-born American.
He might have grown up to drive a truck or work in the oil fields or construction, but he became a California Highway Patrolman. Very likely he voted for Ronald Reagan for governor, Nixon for president, served in Vietnam, and hailed the presidency of Reagan. But he probably felt he had nothing to show for it and his beloved country was going to blacks on welfare, Vietnamese boat people, and the feminists and gays, with him footing the tax bill while no one had ever helped his family when they were in need. It’s a common story among the descendants of the Dust Bowl refugees.
The Okies were more accurately Southwestern, for they came not only from Oklahoma but also surrounding states. According to historian James Gregory in his definitive study, American Exodus: The Dust Bowl Migration and Okie Culture in California, by 1950, four million people or nearly a quarter of all persons born in Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, or Missouri, lived outside that region. A third of them settled in California while most of the others moved to Arizona, New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington. The best-known period of this trek westward is the period of the Dust Bowl, the 1930s, when the majority of the migrants first camped, and then settled mainly in the agricultural valleys of California. During the Second World War many of the Central Valley Dust Bowl migrants moved nearer the defense plants, particularly around Los Angeles, to work. And a half-million more Southwestern migrants, dubbed “defense Okies,” arrived for wartime jobs.
To some, Okies and their descendants are bigots who supported George Wallace and the Minutemen; the “little people” and “silent majority” addressed by Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon; proponents of antiabortion and antigay initiatives. To some Marxists, the Okies are petit-bourgeoisie who fall in and out of the owning and working class, unreliable in union struggles. There is truth in these negative images of the Okie. Depending on economic times, Okies may be self-employed or reluctantly working for a boss, but their dream is always to acquire land. A populist tradition is associated with the Okies, yet often they appear to hate the rich only out of envy. Generally hostile to “big government,” they are in the vanguard of defending their “country.” Many have been eager cannon fodder, as well as officers, in their country’s foreign wars. They believe they are the designated beneficiaries of the theft of land from Indians and of the booty of empire.
In the end, the only advantage for most has been the color of their skin and the white supremacy, particularly toward African Americans, that pervades the culture; what they are not (black, Asian, “foreign”) is as important as what they are (white, “true Americans”) in their sense of propriety and self-esteem.
The core group of those designated as Okies are descendants of Ulster-Scots colonial settlers. Usually the Ulster-Scots descendants say their ancestors came to North America from Ireland, but their trek was more complicated than that. The Ulster-Scots were a people born and bred of empire. They were Protestant Scottish settlers in the English “plantation” of Ulster in Northern Ireland in the early 1600s. A bitter war with the indigenous Irish of Ulster in the last years of the reign of Elizabeth I had ended in an English victory. A half-million acres of land in Northern Ireland were settled (“planted”) under English protection; these settlers who contracted with the devil of early colonialism came from western Scotland.
By 1630, the English and Scots population settled in Ulster was larger than British settlement in all North America—21,000 English and 150,000 Lowland Scots. In 1641, the indigenous Irish rebelled and killed ten thousand settlers. The response of the Puritan English revolutionary government of Cromwell was fierce. The Puritan policy of exterminating Indians in North America was similar, Richard Slotkin argues, to Puritan policy in Ireland; “where systematic assaults were made on Celtic tribalism, native bardic myth-historians were forbidden to sing, isolated clans were exterminated, and the rest of the population was ravaged. Cromwell even attempted to establish a wild Irish reservation in western Ireland.”
So the Ulster-Scots were already seasoned colonialists before they filled the ranks of the British settlers to North America. Before ever meeting American Indians, these Ulster-Scots had perfected scalping for bounty on the Irish. Later, during the early nineteenth century, after the United States was independent of Britain, Irish Catholics would immigrate in the millions, but the Ulster-Scots were another breed—they were the foot soldiers of empire; the Ulster-Scots and their progeny formed the shock troops of the “westward movement,” that is, empire.
During the last two decades of the eighteenth century, first and second generation Ulster-Scots continued to move westward into the Ohio Valley, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Ulster-Scots were overwhelmingly frontier settlers rather than scouts, explorers, or fur traders. They cleared forests, built log cabins, killed Indians, formed a wall of protection for the new United States, and during times of war, they employed their fighting skills effectively.
In Richard Slotkin’s mammoth trilogy on the American frontier, he finds the origin and reproduction of U.S. mythical-nationalism in the late eighteenth century treks of settlers over the Appalachian/Allegheny spine. It was the figure of Daniel Boone, the solitary, Indian-like hunter of the deep woods, that became the most significant, most emotionally compelling myth-hero of the early republic. The other myth-figures are reflections or variations of this basic type. Indeed it is rare even today to meet an Okie or any other descendant of the trekking culture who does not identify Daniel Boone as a direct ancestor, including my own family.
Slotkin finds several “types” within the universal Boone archetype hero: “New versions of the hero emerged, characters whose role was that of mediating between civilization and savagery, white and red. The yeoman farmer was one of these types, as were the explorer or surveyor and later, the naturalist.” In the twentieth century reformulation of the archetype, promoted notably in the writings of Theodore Roosevelt and, of course, western novels and films, Slotkin finds the “hunter” and the “farmer,” or “breeder,” and especially “the man who knows Indians.” This latter requirement, “the man who knows Indians” is complex. Most Okies and other trekkers claim “Indian blood,” although their white supremacy is unshaken in the face of culturally-identified Native Americans.
Many descendants of the Ulster-Scots trekked from Kentucky and Tennessee to Missouri and Arkansas, and then moved on to Oklahoma during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. By 1880, all the arable land of the continent was owned and millions were landless. Only the territory that is today Oklahoma, granted to the Indians by treaties, remained “unsettled.” Breaking the treaties, the federal government allowed the settlers to overrun Oklahoma and Indian Territories. Millions of landless farmers made the “run” to stake their claims, but only a fraction acquired land or held on to it. In 1898, the Oklahoma settlers showed their appreciation—a third of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders that invaded Cuba were recruited from Oklahoma Territory. But Oklahoma was where the American dream had come to a halt, the end of the frontier.
While many poured into the cities to work, most stayed in rural areas as tenants, sharecroppers, migrant farm workers, cow punchers, and miners. Okies and other descendants of the Ulster-Scots migrations do not think of themselves as foot soldiers of empire, nor is that the image of them that dominates the popular imagination. They believe they are the true native-born Americans, the personification of what the United States is supposed to be. From their perceived ancestor, Daniel Boone, to Steinbeck’s fictional Tom Joad, they are pure men of nature who are victims of bankers and other slick operators, and surrounded by red and brown and black and Jewish enemies, who they believe have hijacked their beloved country.
Oscar Ameringer, a native of Kansas, became the Socialist Party organizer in Oklahoma in 1907. He was doubtful about organizing farmers: “Farmers were not wage earners. They were capitalists, exploiting wage labor. They owned the means of production. They had a great deal more to lose than their chains.”
Ameringer soon changed his mind. In his autobiography, he wrote of speaking in Harrah, a small farming community eighty miles east of Oklahoma City:
The meeting was in a one-room schoolhouse…. Babies were sleeping on the speaker’s platform. More babies slept, nursed, or cried on the breasts of their mothers, uncomfortably wedged into school seats designed for ten-year-olds. All were wretchedly dressed: faded blue jeans for the men; faded Mother Hubbards and poke bonnets for the women. These people had trudged in soaking rain, or come in open wagons or on horseback or muleback, to hear a socialist speech—and they were farmers! This indescribable aggregation of moisture, steam, dirt, rags, unshaven men, slatternly women and fretting children were farmers! I had come upon another America…. No question but these people were American farmers, but not the kind I had known in the Pickaway plains of Ohio. These people occupied an even lower level of existence than the white and black “water rats” of New Orleans.
Between 1906 and 1917, the Wobblies and the Socialist Party won converts on a mass scale in Oklahoma. They adopted the religious evangelist technique—indeed many evangelists were themselves converts to socialism—of holding huge week-long encampments with speakers, usually near small towns. In 1915 alone, 205 of the mass encampments were held. The Socialists never won a statewide race in Oklahoma, but their percentage steadily increased from 1907 to 1914. In 1914, the Socialist candidates for governor and senator won 21 percent of the vote and they won five seats in the state legislature, along with many local offices. These phenomena were occurring in the state’s Indian and African-American communities as well as the white ones.
The U.S. entrance into the European war in 1917 produced a wave of patriotism and a brutal backlash against the (all antiwar) Socialists in Oklahoma. Fierce persecution was carried out in a lynch-law atmosphere. By the 1918 elections, Socialist candidates for state office received but 4 percent of the vote. In the 1920 election, no Socialist candidates ran for state office.
I began rethinking the role of Okie migrants in California in late April 1992, when a nearly all-white (ten out of twelve, with one Latina and one Asian) jury in Southern California’s Simi Valley found Los Angeles Police Department officers innocent in the videotaped beating of Rodney King. A large number of Simi Valley homeowners are second and third generation Dust Bowl and defense Okie refugees, the ones who made it. Yet I noticed that none of the plethora of news reports mentioned the fact—they would point out that Simi Valley was virtually all white and was a favored suburb for LA cops to buy homes, without mentioning that many of those cops had grown up there, or in other Ventura County and Central Valley towns. Even Mike Davis’s City of Quartz does not mention the Okie migration or break down the composition of the LA police department—he uses generic “predominately white.”
Yet Okie migrants were perceived as left-populists during the 1930s, and the U.S. Communist Party focused on organizing the farm laborers. Socialist author Upton Sinclair swept the Democratic primary for governor of California in 1934, shaking up the long-entrenched elite with the prospect of a red governor of the nation’s most volatile state. Sinclair’s grass-roots support came mainly from hundreds of thousands of Dust Bowl refugees. Will Rogers, the most famous entertainer of the time, an Oklahoman transplanted to Hollywood, supported Upton Sinclair: “A darn nice fellow, and just plum smart, and if he could deliver even some of the things he promises, should not only be governor of one state, but president of all of ’em.”
The socialist sentiment of the pre-First World War period profoundly affected many of the next generation of Oklahomans, Will Rogers being the best-known exponent. Their brand of socialism was frontier populism that never addressed white supremacy. As a young man, Will Rogers worked on cattle ranches in South Africa in 1903, just after the Boer War. He greatly admired the tough Boers who seemed to him exactly like his own rural folk back in eastern Oklahoma. He was contemptuous of the indigenous black Africans and of the British defeat of the Boers.
As a celebrated political and social satirist in the 1920s and 1930s, Will Rogers became a leftist-populist. Woody Guthrie followed in Rogers’ wake. During the mid-1930s, Guthrie hoboed to California as the troubadour of the Dust Bowl migrants. He wrote ballads honoring the Oklahoma outlaws hounded and killed by the FBI, such as Pretty Boy Floyd. But he also wrote of Jesse James, comparing him to Jesus Christ. Jesse James, his brother Frank, and the Younger brothers who together made up the train and bank robbing “James Gang,” were Confederate irregulars who continued their own war against the Union after the Civil War ended.
Guthrie sang the rural Oklahoma oral tradition in political songs he made famous like “Hard Travelin’,” “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You,” and especially “This Land is Your Land.” Unreligious and anti-establishment, Guthrie wrote “This Land” to counteract the top hit at the time, Irving Berlin’s, “God Bless America.” Guthrie’s biographer, Joe Klein notes: “No piece of music had bothered him so much… ‘God Bless America,’ indeed—it was just another of those songs that told people not to worry, that God was in the driver’s seat.”
Al Richmond, editor of the Communist Party newspaper, wrote in his autobiography: “I ran into this young hillbilly singer from Oklahoma, who turned out to be socially conscious (in a favorite phrase of that era), and accepted an invitation to perform at several Left events.” Guthrie offered to write a column for the paper, but “being suspicious of folksiness and words misspelled for comic effect, I wondered at first: is this columnist phony or genuine?” Richmond met him and found him to be “a man in his late twenties, slender and wiry, a wild mop of hair and a beard. He might have been called a hippie in later years, except that his Oklahoma speech was authentic and so was his familiarity with the folkways of the open road as it was traveled by uprooted farmers and migratory workers. He was genuine.”
In attracting someone like Woody Guthrie, and involving thousands of Okie migrants in strikes and elections, leftist organizers and artists may have been reinforced in believing that Americanism had done the trick. Actually, the Americanism created deep cultural and political contradictions, which would make the Communist Party and its “fellow travelers” vulnerable to the witch-hunts to come. Even worse, the consciousness of the “masses” as democratic imperialists was reinforced.
The decade of the 1930s was the period of the “Popular Front against Fascism” organized by the Communist International. The U.S. Communist Party thrived when it spread out and unified with other groups. One of their tactics, which remained a signature of the Party, was its attempt to “Americanize” the party: “Communism is twentieth century Americanism” was the new party slogan as it displayed U.S. flags and replaced the “Internationale” with “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The U.S. volunteers to Spain named their brigades after George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, not after John Brown, Big Bill Haywood, Eugene Debs, Mother Jones, Nat Turner, Frances Wright, or Crazyhorse.
During the same period, Carl Sandburg’s best-selling biography of Abraham Lincoln portrayed him as the hero of western folklore. And in Mainland (1936), Gilbert Seldes created a “left-Turnerism” which emphasized the Frontier as an indigenous American radical tradition, drawing on the Whiskey Rebellion, Jeffersonian agrarianism, Jacksonian leveling, John Brown antislavery and Lincoln Republicanism, Populism, and the radical unionism of the Industrial Workers of the World
John Steinbeck published The Grapes of Wrath in 1939. The blockbuster novel, together with the 1940 epic film, etched an indelible picture of the Okies in the minds of a whole generation. For them and for those who have come since, the book represents not fiction, but truth. Familiar myths reappear, and the wanderings of the Joads were identified with images of covered wagons heading west.
Steinbeck was already a celebrity, with a 1935 best seller Tortilla Flat, when he published The Grapes of Wrath. After meeting Tom Collins, an organizer for the Communist Party’s Cannery and Agricultural Workers Industrial Union, he published In Dubious Battle. The book, although sympathetic to the Okie farm workers, portrays the Communist organizers as cold manipulators. Despite this, the Party sang Steinbeck’s praises.
Steinbeck never spent any time in Oklahoma—he drove through on Route 66 once—but he was a keen observer and listener, and absorbed the self-perceptions of the Okie migrants, their own idealization of themselves and their dreams of more free land, more empire. The Grapes of Wrath was fueled with myth, but Steinbeck did not create the myth; he merely reported and dramatized it in a monumental work of fiction.
Meanwhile, Steinbeck published a series of impassioned articles on the farm workers’ plight, “The Harvest Gypsies,” which appeared in the pro-labor San Francisco Daily News in October 1936. Steinbeck “viewed the migrants as displaced Jeffersonian yeomen who needed and deserved their own small plots of land,” Charles Wollenberg observes. “Unfortunately, this ran counter to the whole direction of California agricultural history. The state’s rural economy had never been dominated by small, Jeffersonian yeomen.” Yet the ideology of the promise of land did reflect the Okie mythology. Like the Boers in South Africa, the Okies believed that their suffering was for a cause, mixing Christian fundamentalism with grassroots patriotism. And as with the Boers and their sense of “protecting” South Africa, the Okie ideology has prevailed in the United States as “defenders” of the country.
The Dust Bowl migration to the California fields largely displaced Asian and Mexican labor from the farm labor force. Steinbeck hailed this change: “Farm labor in California will be white labor, it will be American labor, and it will insist on a standard of living much higher than that which was accorded the foreign cheap labor.” A subsequent writer on the Okies, Gerald Haslam came to a different conclusion about the significance of the Dust Bowl migration for California agriculture: “The final effect of the Okies coming was to impede the unionization of farm labor.”
Steinbeck’s 1936 articles about the “Harvest Gypsies” were collected and published in 1938 as Their Blood is Strong. He stressed the racial superiority of the migrants, writing that “They have weathered the thing, and they can weather much more for their blood is strong.” He portrayed Okies as preindustrial and deeply democratic:
Having been brought up in the prairies where industrialization never penetrated, they have jumped with no transition from the old agrarian, self-containing farm where nearly everything used was raised or manufactured, to a system of agriculture so industrialized that the man who plants a crop does not often see, let alone harvest, the fruit of his planting, where the migrant has no contact with the growing cycle…And there is another difference between their old life and the new. They have come from the little farm districts where democracy was not only possible but also inevitable, where popular government, whether practiced in the Grange, in church organization or in local government, was the responsibility of every man.
But the Okies were hardly innocent of industrialization since the area of the Southwest where they came from had long been one vast oil field and refinery, along with cotton and wheat cash crops and mines. Even more romantic is Steinbeck’s portrayal of town-hall democracy. Dan Morgan described the reality of eastern Oklahoma in the early twentieth century: “a kind of third world republic, fabulously rich in resources, but corrupt, dangerous, and sorely lacking in well-functioning institutions.” It was characterized by “a reliance on foreign capital, volatile prices of the commodities in the ground or grown above it, a floating rural proletariat, wild land speculation, serious health problems related to industrial pollution, a scarcity of medical services, tremendous extremes of wealth and poverty, bouts of martial law, and death and terror squads of several political persuasions.”
Assessing the impact of The Grapes of Wrath at the time and on future generations is as difficult as with Gone With the Wind. The publication of The Grapes of Wrath was the biggest literary event of the decade: “No American novel published in this century has aroused such a storm…Viking shipped out 430,000 copies by the end of the year…Perhaps it spoke to the concern with how the parts of America fit into the whole.” In 1982, the New York Times reported that it was the second best-selling novel ever in paperback in the United States having sold nearly fifteen million copies. White supremacy was a major element in the wide appeal of The Grapes of Wrath and Okie mythology, both on the popular level—a sort of poor white Gone With the Wind—and on the left as a working class novel.
The Communist Party operated on a dual track in organizing poor whites and poor blacks, even for a time supporting the idea of a separate black nation in the South. The strategy of the Party was to bring black and white together in mutual respect and alliances for common goals. Woody Guthrie and his black counterpart, Huddie Ledbetter (Leadbelly), a Louisiana sharecropper and ex-con “discovered” by the Party, were the perfect bookends for this vision.
Leadbelly’s hits included “Goodnight Irene,” “Midnight Special,” and “The Rock Island Line” mostly in the form of covers by other singers. Pete Seeger and the Weavers’ “Goodnight Irene” broke all sales records when it was released in 1950. Three years later the singing group was blacklisted and impoverished. Okies loved the song and had no idea it had been written by a black man, much less recorded by reds—my father still does not believe it—yet no one phrase expresses the Okie philosophy as well as its refrain: “Sometimes I live in the country/Sometimes I live in the town;/Sometimes I get a great notion/To jump into the river an’ drown.” Ken Kesey took the title of his second novel, about Okie loggers in Oregon, Sometimes a Great Notion, from “Goodnight Irene.”
Yet the appearance of Communist-led Okie radicalism was deceptive. “Even as many Southwesterners continued to use a class-based terminology of the plain versus the powerful,” James Gregory writes, “more persuasive commitments to patriotism, racism, toughness, and independence were pointing towards the kind of conservative populism that George Wallace would articulate three decades later.”
How did a people so filled with a populist and socialist tradition come to form the most conservative constituencies in California, bringing characters like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan to state and eventually national power? “The patriotic fervor and uncompromising repression of the war and Red Scare years [after World War I] had begun the process,” Gregory argues. “Next came the nativist, fundamentalist, and moral reform crusades of the 1920s. The Ku Klux Klan attained for a time major influence in the region, taking power in Texas and Arkansas and coming close in Oklahoma.”
Of course, deep-seated and historic white supremacy permeates the culture and institutions of the United States. When the core group of native white Americans, the very foot soldiers of empire, began turning socialist, the government acted swiftly, viciously, and relentlessly to crush the movement. Also, powerful propaganda accompanied repression. The D. W. Griffith film extolling the Ku Klux Klan, The Birth of a Nation, appeared in 1915, and after the Russian and Mexican Revolutions of 1918, red scare propaganda flooded airwaves, newspapers, and sermons. Okies were left with a recollection of hard times and hatred for big government and the rich and powerful, and they fell back on the protection of their white supremacy.
Reading left writers from the 1930s, I am struck by how out of touch with the history of the United States they were, how caught up in its origin myth, how immersed in the culture of empire they were. Edward Said’s study, Culture and Imperialism makes a point about European imperial culture, which applies to the United States as well. Said argues that although the main battle of imperialism with its indigenous inhabitants was over land, in debates over land ownership, settlement, and plans for its future, narrative was crucial. “The power to narrate, or to block other narratives from forming and emerging, is very important to culture and imperialism, and constitutes one of the main connections between them.”
In the populist and left narratives of the 1930s, economic oppression and common cause were supposed automatically to erase white supremacy, but they did not and have not yet. And although the left in the United States has long since abandoned the Okies as an organizable group, it has continued to seek a progressive white base, something akin to the quest for “the great white wonder” in boxing and other sports. Legitimacy in the United States lies in whiteness. There is a widespread assumption in the United States, and particularly among leftists, that white supremacy is a “false ideology” when found among workers and that common struggle and familiarity can eradicate it. However, white supremacy appears to be much more than an ideology, or even a privilege that produces a measure of advantage; rather it manifests itself as a goal, as satisfying as material wealth, as nationalism obviously is in other contexts. White supremacy in the United States is backed by the largest imperial economy and military in human history, no small cause for “pride.” Rather than challenging the sources of white supremacy, that is, the very narrative of the origins of the United States, current multiculturalism tends toward attempting to include nonwhites in the traditional narrative without altering it substantially.
Although Okie visibility in California waned for more than two decades, it was revived in the late 1960s, for the Okies and their offspring had not forgotten their identity or experience. Okie culture has been memorialized and kept alive by a thriving country and western music industry built in Bakersfield by Okie artists and entrepreneurs, especially Buck Owen and Merle Haggard. Their “workingman’s blues” take on country music challenged the supremacy of Nashville as the country music capitol. During the 1970s, Gerald Haslam, James Houston, and other writers of southwestern descent began to form a literary subgenre within the literature of the western United States. During the late 1960s, at the height of the youth, antiwar, and Black Power movements, young white Appalachian migrants in Chicago and the children of Okie migrants in Oregon formed “The Young Patriots,” celebrating their working-class and populist roots.
Contradictory romantic myths about the westward trek exist side by side, both having been reconstructed during the “Revolutionary Decade” of the 1930s, and both reinforcing strands of the American origin myths. The Jeffersonian yeoman farmer, owning land and practicing grassroots democracy was favored by Steinbeck. Another was personified in Woody Guthrie’s “Hard Travelin’” image.
The late Wallace Stegner, in his final published book of essays, identifies the “American character” with trekking: “Insofar as the West was a civilization at all between the time of Lewis and Clark’s explorations and about 1870, it was largely a civilization in motion, driven by dreams. The people who composed and represented it were part of a true Folk-Wandering, credulous, hopeful, hardy, largely uninformed. The dreams are not dead even today, and the habit of mobility has only been reinforced by time.”
Just as the Okie migratory theme was losing basis in reality, as fewer and fewer Okies followed the crops, country music picked up the theme making truck drivers the new heroes of the west. Gregory observes:
Tough and independent, yet also part of a proud fraternity, the truck driver synchronized old values with a new context. Part loner, part team player, modern and yet still free to roam the wide spaces, these eighteen-wheel cowboys knew how to manage the machinery of modern life without losing their independence. It was a symbol that worked for both old audiences and new.
Nowhere is the popularity of the music more widespread than in the southern Central Valley, around the country music capitol of Bakersfield. Radio evangelists compete with country music stations, preachers with songsters, churches with honky-tonks.
By the time Woody Guthrie arrived in Los Angeles in 1937 he easily found a niche. Ironically, although Guthrie wrote songs almost exclusively about the misery and struggle of Dust Bowl Okies, his songs, other than the apolitical ones, were little known outside left and labor circles in New York, where he went in 1940. His music did inspire the future protest music of Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, but was hardly known in country music circles or to Okies in California or the Southwest. As Gerald Haslam writes of Woody Guthrie: “He remains far more celebrated in Berkeley’s salons than in Bakersfield’s saloons.” Haslam’s observation rings true; I never heard of Woody Guthrie while growing up in Oklahoma, nor had my parents who lived their entire lives not far from Guthrie’s hometown of Okemah. As a student at San Francisco State and UC Berkeley during the early 1960s folk revival, my friends found that hard to believe.
The dominant theme of Bakersfield country music was nostalgia for home such as, “Hillbilly Gal,” “Some Sweet Home,” “Deep in the Heart of Texas,” “By the Silv’ry Rio Grande,” “Red River Valley,” “Take Me Back to Tulsa.” Gregory maintains that the songs carried, and created, the oral tradition of the Okies, and served to maintain the subculture, especially the language, across generations.
At the height of the antiwar and student protest movement in 1969, “Okie from Muskogee” hit the airwaves and introduced Merle Haggard, already a star on the country waves, to crossover superstardom. Gregory writes that:
Conservatives loved it. Hailing its flag-waving slams at hippies, draft dodgers, and campus radicals, President Nixon sent him a letter of congratulations. George Wallace thought it captured perfectly the message he had been trying to send to Washington and asked Haggard to sign on for the governor’s ongoing presidential campaign. But the performer did not need politicians. The press was already proclaiming him a working-class hero, “the poet laureate of the hard hat.”
Haggard had already won the hearts of his fellow Okies with populist hits about prison and running from the law, such as “Mama Tried,” based on his own experience. But even before the fame of “Okie from Muskogee,” Haggard had become more openly right-wing, contrasting the “work ethic” with welfare in “I Take a Lot of Pride in What I Am” and “Working Man’s Blues.” “Okie from Muskogee” was followed by the mean-spirited patriotic ballad, “The Fighting Side of Me.”
At the same time Haggard had begun to write about his Okie heritage, raising issues and questions that had been out of the public eye for two decades. “Hungry Eyes”(1969) was the first of Haggard’s autobiographical Dust Bowl ballads: he sings about being raised in “A canvas-covered cabin, in a crowded labor camp,” where he soon learned that “another class of people put us somewhere just below—One more reason for my mama’s hungry eyes.”
Other Haggard songs pursued the theme: “California Cotton Fields,” “Tulare Dust,” “They’re Tearing the Labor Camps Down,” “The Roots of My Raising.” Haggard’s songs, Gregory argues, “broke open the reservoir of group pride and laid the foundation for a renaissance in group consciousness that became especially noticeable in the 1970s.” Newspaper and magazine articles on Dust Bowl Okies appeared. In the midst of demands for Ethnic Studies programs, some California Valley colleges experimented with Okie Studies.
Gerald Haslam was a part of the literary generation that emerged during the 1960s, writers of the U.S. West who began articulating a literary genre, owing much to Wallace Stegner’s Stanford writing workshop. Texan Larry McMurtry and Okie-Oregonian Ken Kesey were the most acclaimed among the new writers. But it is Gerald Haslam who has made the Okie explicit in his fiction and non-fiction. Haslam describes himself as “a fifth-generation Californian,” with a father from Texas and a native Californian mother. He sets many of his stories in his hometown of Oildale in Kern County near Bakersfield and home to the largest California Okie community.
Throughout his work, Haslam tackles, with the same maddening ambivalence I feel, the racism in the Okie community he so loves and admires. “I abhor the racism and xenophobia of my home area, and have said so in print often enough to have earned myself a few beefs when home…But I nonetheless prefer the frontal approach to life, the lack of trendiness, and the potential for effective change I find in Kern County.”
In a 1975 Nation article, Haslam wrote of a near lynching, by Okie young men, of black athletes at the local junior college in the nearly all-white, Okie populated, town of Taft, California. Haslam skirts the issue of white supremacy and violence: “Precisely because they had isolated themselves from nonwhites, many residents of Taft were poorly prepared for the rise in black pride and consciousness during the 1960s. Their ignorance of blacks easily festered into fear and hate.” Haslam concedes that “Taft has carried the cross of its Ku Klux Klan past even among its tainted neighbors.”
Okies and other Southwestern whites commonly address the question of racism in terms of “ignorance of blacks,” of “not knowing them.” But, a part of Haslam’s avoidance or justification for the Okie attraction to violence may be explained by his righteous sense of mission to correct the negative stereotypes about Okies that pervaded the Central Valley during the “starving time.” Discrimination against Okies was fierce throughout California. A common charge was that Okies were lawless. This grew in part because the newcomers refused to be pushed around, and were quick to throw punches if insulted. There had developed before the migration a Robin Hood syndrome that grew in part from the frontiersmen’s distrust of institutions and in part from the Anglo-Saxon tradition of honorable outlaws. Acting outside the law was one recourse otherwise powerless people had in the face of what they considered an unjust system. Haslam, although admirably anti-racist, consistently defends the Okies, challenging the negative stereotypes while perpetuating the positive myths.
Okies are the latter-day carriers of the national origin myth, a matrix of stories that justify conquest and settlement, transforming the white settler (explorer, hunter, pioneer, frontiersman, “the man who knows Indians”) into an indigenous people who believe they are the true natives of the continent, much as the Afrikaners regard themselves. Furthermore, this narrative must remain intact for the continuation of the particular ideology that supports and refuels white supremacy, American exceptionalism, and U.S. imperialism.
The promise of land or gold, oil, uranium strikes, and adventure provided the pull factor for the westward movement. Land foreclosures, failed crops, and later the takeover of acquired land by U.S. corporations provided the push factor. A few along the way, like Merle Haggard, did strike it rich. For the rest, white supremacy has been a bone to throw to the Okie dogs, their reward, also essential to maintenance of the system. White supremacy works internally mainly in relation to blacks and other minorities and immigrants in the United States, but also globally in relation to the third world. Militarism is necessary to maintain the corporate capitalist ruling class, so imperialism must be reproduced in a defensible popular form.
But the problem with understanding the mercurial Okies does not lie only with Steinbeck-to-Haslam literature, rather with U.S. storytelling in general, whether fiction or history. As William Appleman Williams noted, “We Americans…have produced very, very few anti-imperialists. Our idiom has been empire, and so the primary division was and remains between the soft and the hard.”
U.S. writers and historians would do well to look to South African Afrikaner writers, particularly Andre Brink’s An Act of Terror and Rian Malan’s My Traitor’s Heart, to better understand the culture of imperialism as preserved by the manipulation of its core settlers who have a big investment and stake in it—their entire identity as a people. Like Rian Malan telling the secrets of his kin, the Afrikaners, I feel like a traitor writing what I know about us, especially because the prejudice and discrimination against poor whites, like all poor people in the United States, continues unabated.
I cannot help but think of another time, a time when the people I come from almost became a revolutionary force, a time when white supremacy nearly was shed, and the KKK was considered to be a tool of the enemy, when militarism was reviled and internationalism embraced. The people I come from, who sacrificed and struggled to the death, supported Eugene Debs, who stated in 1915:
When I say I am opposed to war I mean ruling class war, for the ruling class is the only class that makes war…I would be shot for treason before I would enter such a war….I have no country to fight for; my country is the earth; I am a citizen of the world…I am opposed to every war but one; I am for that war with heart and soul, and that is the world- wide war of the social revolution. In that war I am prepared to fight in any way the ruling class may make necessary, even to the barricades.
I marvel that my own grandfather, a classic product of the westward trek and the national origin story, and so many others like him, voted, over a period of two decades, five times for Debs for president.