John Steinbeck, Freddie Gray and the Walls of Hate


John Steinbeck wrote Grapes of Wrath during the Great Depression. It is a tale of its times, but its lessons still resonate. Grapes of Wrath is one of the great novels of the twentieth century. In it, Steinbeck chronicles a wave of migrant sharecroppers and small farmers forced to flee the poverty, drought and dust in the southern plains of the 1930’s. From every direction they poured onto Highway 66 and headed for California and the promise of rain and work. Tom Joad and his family left Oklahoma and joined that mass migration. After the publication of the book, the Joad family became symbols of 300,000 people who fled to California during the Great Depression.

The family was victimized and persecuted at every step of their journey. They were called filthy, lazy and dishonest and by the N-word of the times, Okies. The Joad family was herded into camps, treated with contempt and hostility and exploited economically. Those were difficult and terrible times and Steinbeck faithfully captured the pain and ugliness. The book polarized the nation. On one hand, it was characterized as being true, a documentary of horrible conditions forced upon the migrants by greedy corporations and banks. On the other hand, it was characterized as out and out lies, union propaganda, anti-America filth that was written by a communist agitator. The debate might have raged on for years had not the rains and World War II changed the economy and national priorities.

Any societal upheaval is difficult and painful; the individual stories are usually tragedies. However, a generation or two later when the new order is in place, the pain and tragedy are usually gone. Sometimes even the memory of the pain is lost. Very few families have a narrative that stretches back more than two or three generations. The descendents of the Joad family and others, who like them, left farms and moved to cities, don’t remember the pain. They have new lives, goals and expectations built around the new way of living. They have been assimilated into the mainstream of American society. It is the way of history, most of the time; people move from the isolated fringes of the society and economy into the center of acceptance and potential.

As it was in Grapes of Wrath, while the Joad family lived in the margins of California’s society, they were surrounded by a wall of distrust, hate and prejudice. They struggled just to survive as the established society took what it wanted from them and denied them as much as was possible. The only interaction with the establishment came through law enforcement and armed forces. The police brought the hate, fear and prejudice into the camps with them. The stories of police brutality in the migrant camps of California shocked the nation. Eighty years later, it can be recognized as the same phenomenon as in the Jewish ghettos in Russia and Poland and in the Roma (Gypsy) camps in France and Romania. It was the same in the Christian sections of Rome two thousand years ago and in the Irish and Italian sections of New York in the 19th century. But in time, most managed to leave their ghettos and integrate into society.

But that isn’t always true. For example, the Roma in Europe find it impossible to be accepted into the mainstream economy. Race is visible and cannot be left behind; most large cities in this country have an inner city neighborhood composed mainly of African Americans. African Americans cannot slip unnoticed into the mainstream as the Irish, Italians and Okies did. It is one hundred and fifty years since the Civil War and the end of slavery and yet African Americans often remain marginalized. Those inner city neighborhoods are isolated and surrounded on all sides by walls of hate, fear and prejudice as any migrant camp in Steinbeck’s story. Like those migrant camps, the interactions with the outer world are often through the police and National Guard. And those are often violent, as they were recently in Baltimore, New York and Ferguson. Isolating, marginalizing and demonizing are the methods one group has used through human history to subjugate and control another group. It is not an historical tale. It is today’s reality; over and over, incidents of violence and discrimination have gained national attention. We don’t need another Grapes of Wrath to tell the story – we know it well. But we do know what to do. It is critical and urgent; we need to find a way out of this horrid, tragic and inhuman system we have created.

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