In two previous posts, “From Black To White” and “From Black To White To Red,” I discussed how the main characters, Clare and Irene use passing as a social space navigation affordance to move from the black social space and into the white one. The characters are empowered by entering this space, but moving into it also requires them to give up their abilities to express themselves and their black heritage. Paying this toll to gain entrance into the white space disempowers them. This empowering/disempowering relationship is, in my opinion, one of the central issues of passing as an affordance. By using it, the characters, Clare and Irene, are forced to negotiate their identities with their ability to pass. Also, the very fact that they have to negotiate how to use the affordance brings to light the troubling impacts of ideological race differences.
But, moving on. In this post I will explore how social spaces are created by using The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. The story takes place during the Dust Bowl era. During this time, there was a ten-year drought that greatly affected the southern states. The huge dust storms that came as a result of the drought made it next to impossible for farmers to make a living because the dust ruined their crops. Sadly, this drought also came during the Great Depression, which ended up causing a mass exodus of people from the affected areas to California. Here’s a video to give a bit more background on the severity of the drought:
In Grapes of Wrath, the migrants, or the Okies, as they’re called, create their own social spaces in the aftermath of their forced exodus from their homes. The social spaces, referred to as “worlds” (194) in the text and referred to as “traveling Okie spaces” by me, are created by the Okies to help them deal with the disempowering sudden changes to their old ways of life. Their feelings of disempowerment are described by the narrator, who frames the okies as bugs:
The cars of the migrant people crawled out of the side roads onto the great cross-country highway, and then took the migrant way to the West. In the daylight they scuttled like bugs to the westward; and as the dark caught them, they clustered like bugs near to shelter and to the water. And because they ere lonely and perplexed, because they had all come from a place of sadness and worry and defeat, and because they were all going to the new mysterious place, they huddled together; they talked together; they shared their lives, their food, and the things they hoped for in the new country. (193)
According to Rebecca Hilton, in their desperation to find a way to deal with the loss of their homes, the migrants revaluate their concepts of family. No longer are ties created solely through blood. Now they are also created through shared experience: “In short, the people on the road realize that in such precarious times, one’s family consists of all those in need” (Hilton 101).
What is to become the traveling Okie spaces are made up of groups of desperate people clinging to each other for comfort and assurance, just like family members. To give an example, before they start their journey, the Joads decide to treat Jim Casy as a part of their family and take him with them to California even though he isn’t biologically related to them (Steinbeck 103). In this way, he becomes a “nonbiological family member” (Hilton 101). The Joads also become close to the Wilsons, a couple who are also traveling to California. On the night that they meet, the Joads bury Granpa, the first member of their family to die (Steinbeck 143). The Wilsons are with the Joads through the process, sharing “in the intimate family ritual of Grandpa’s burial by supplying a quilt and a piece of paper” (Hilton 101). After that, the Joads and the Wilsons combine their families, planning to drive to California together in order to support each other along the way (Steinbeck 148).
As more migrants cluster together, the traveling Okie spaces begin to form, though only loosely. At night, several families come together, making one giant family, which generates the social spaces: “In the evening a strange thing happened: the twenty families became one family, the children were the children of all. The loss of home became one loss, and the golden time in the West was one dream…the twenty were one” (193). But in the morning, the social spaces lose cohesion and fall apart because the Okies separate:”Every night a world created, complete with furniture—friends made and enemies established; a world complete with braggarts and with cowards, with quiet men, with humble men, with kindly men. Every night relationships that make a world, established; and every morning the world torn down like a circus” (194). The traveling Okie spaces don’t really become stabilized until after parameters have been established. Like all social spaces, the ones that the Okies create have to have rules. In other words, they need to put ideologies in place in order to form matrixes so that the spaces can maintain their structures. According to the narrator, these rules are created through the implementation of rights, though I view these “rights” as ideologies:
Then leaders emerged, then laws were made, then codes came into being…The families learned what rights must be observed–the right of privacy in the tent; the right to keep the past black hidden int he heart; the right to talk and to listen; the right to refuse help or to accept, to offer help or to decline it; the right of son to court and daughter to be courted; the right of the hungry to be fed; the rights of the pregnant and the sick to transcend all other rights. (194)
Also, during the traveling Okie spaces’ stage of formation, any ideologies that contribute to the chaos that was present in the initial stage of the spaces’ creation are eliminated:
And the families learned, although no one told them, what rights are monstrous and must be destroyed: the right to intrude upon privacy, the right to be noisy while the camp slept, the right of seduction or rape, the right of adultery and theft and murder. These rights were crushed, because the little worlds could not exist for even a night with such rights alive. (194)
As these spaces stabilize, these “rights” become the rules, and these rules become laws: “It is unlawful to foul near the camp; it is unlawful in any way to foul the drinking water; it is unlawful to eat good rich food near one who is hungry, unless he is asked to share” (194). Those who do not wish to obey these rules are either die in a fight or are banished from the space (194). The last punishment is devastating to anyone who occupies the space because it means that “his name and face with with him, and he no place in any world, no matter where created” if he leaves it (194).
The most intriguing characteristic of these spaces for me is that they are mobile. When the Okies pack up their belongings to continue down the road, the traveling Okie spaces are packed up along with them. At night, they put up the spaces again. The spaces go with the Okies, keeping them safe and secure while they are on their journeys (195). They may have lost their homes, their memories, and most of their belongings, but by occupying the traveling Okie spaces, the Okies are able to gain a small measure of what they once had. Instead of being alone, cut off from everything that made them who they are, they are able to belong to a community once again. And this reconnection empowers the okies as they travel to California.
(This is the third post in my miniseries, “All-American Space Navigation.” Check back for the last one.)
Hilton, Rebecca. “Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.” The Explicator 56.2 (1998): 101-103. Humanities Full Text. Web. 6 April 2015.
N.a. “Okies_san_diego.” Photograph. Affordable Housing Institute, n.d. Web. 6 April. 2015
PBS. “The Dust Bowl Episode.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 13 Nov. 2012. Web. 6 April. 2015.
Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath. 1939. New York: Penguin, 1999. Print.