Title: American Exodus: The Dust Bowl Migration and Okie Culture in California
Author: James Gregory
Categories: Migration, American West, Dust Bowl, Great Depression, World War II, Culture, Demographics
Place: The American West
Time Period: 1930-1960
James Gregory writes about the migration of Southwesterners from Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, and Missouri to California during the 1930s and 1940s. He argues that their fostering of an "Okie subculture" tells a larger story of the massive internal migration of white Protestants from the South and Southwest into northern and western industrial centers, and their contribution to the development of an enduring sub-strand of American culture: individualist, conservative, evangelical, "plain-folk Americanism."
Gregory begins with the Dust Bowl-era migration during the 1930s. He points out that, contrary to the Steinbeck image of the downtrodden Joads, many Okies were not poverty-stricken dirt farmers, and very few of them ended up owning or living on their own farms in California. Instead, many were lured by the "pull" of California as much as the "push" of the Dust Bowl. There was also a fair degree of physical mobility between the two places (some returned as part of a broader "tumbleweed circuit" of migration), and many ended up living in urban Los Angeles and the Bay Area. Those that worked in the rural Central Valley most often found themselves as laborers in industrial agriculture. These Okies often faced hostility from native Californians, who viewed them as illiterate and impoverished sharecroppers - Gregory points out that a lot of the virulence stemmed not necessarily from regionalism, but from class disdain of poor rural Southerners. Conservative Republican politicians, meanwhile, feared their potential for political mobilization, while other Californians resented paying for welfare relief. Partially as a defense mechanism, Gregory notes that most Okies (mainly in rural areas) withdrew and disengaged from California communities to occupy their own separate sphere.
In separating themselves, Okies developed their own distinctive subculture. Gregory describes this as "plain-folk Americanism" that emphasized toughness and perseverance. In the political realm, this took the form of "neopopulist" political culture that combined an earlier generation of radical agrarianism and a soon-to-rise conservatism that emphasized anti-communism, racism, nativism, and individualism. They combined this with two enduring cultural influences: evangelical Protestantism and country music. Gregory traces the growth of more radical evangelical Protestantism, particularly Pentecostalism, as taking a deep hold in Okie communities and foreshadowing the rise of broader evangelicalism across the United States after the war. Country music, meanwhile, came to symbolize the "plain-folk Americanism" of Okie subculture through its emphasis on rugged individuality and conservatism. Finally, Gregory charts the prosperous 1940s, noting that many more Southwesterners migrated to California during this decade in pursuit of defense industry jobs than did during the Dust Bowl years. It was during these years that some of the older negative stereotypes began to fade, and Okie subculture became ascendant as a vibrant strand of wider Americanism.
Key Themes and Concepts
- Okie myth/stereotyp (The Joads) is not accurate - most weren't so poverty-striken, many settled in cities, many returned home
- Okies resisted assimilation and pursued disengagement within California rural communities
- Neopopulist tradition of Okies - "This was a political culture in transition, lodged somewhere between the agrarian radicalism of an earlier era and the flag-waving conservatism of the next." Makes it difficult for Labor to make inroads.
- Draws parallels between Southwesterners migration and both internal migrations of period out of South/Middle America into industrial urban America, and with trans-American migrations - argues that white Protestant flows out of the South is understudied by historians
- Evangelical Protestantism (particularly Pentecostals) and country music as two major lasting cultural legacies of Okies
U.S. History Qualifying Exams: Book Summaries
by Cameron Blevins
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