Stories, race, and the Dust Bowl

                The Dust Bowl migration of the 1930s plays an important and complicated role in the way Americans talk about the history of poverty and public policy in their country. For almost seventy years the story of white families from Oklahoma and neighboring states making their way to California in the midst of the Great Depression has been kept alive by journalists and filmmakers, college teachers and museum curators, songwriters and novelists, and of course historians. Although it was but one episode out of many struggles with poverty during the 1930s, the Dust Bowl migration became something of synecdoche, the single most common image that later generations would use to memorialize the hardships of that decade. The continuing fascination with the Dust Bowl saga also has something to do with the way race and poverty have interacted over the generations since the 1930s. Here is one of the last great stories depicting white Americans as victims of severe poverty and social prejudice. It is a story that many Americans have needed to tell, for many different reasons.

“The Dust Bowl Migration” Poverty Stories, Race Stories by James N. Gregory

In considering how stories shape our understanding of Eco-collapse as social Crisis, Timothy Egan’s non-fiction novel, The Worst Hard Time shows how past environmental problems has been a result of government and corporate forces working together to exploit race and landscape.  From the beginning of the novel, Egan tells his readers that the panhandle region consisting of the corner states of Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska had once been occupied by native tribes. He explains that Bison had given native tribes such as the Comanche, Kiowa, Kiowa-Apache “everything they needed: clothes, shelter, tools, and of course of protein source.”  He continues to explain, how they would also “supplement their diets with wild plums, grapes, and currents growing in spring-fed creases of the flatland, and antelope, sage grouse, wild turkeys, and prairie chickens.” Furthermore, he highlights how native cultures have survived in a desert landscape even in times of dramatic climate change. He then explains that the native’s sustainable relationship with landscape was then destroyed with the coming of “Anglo hunters who killed the bison by the millions.”

 Egan informs his readers that the government and corporate business relations had used advertising and free train rides to pursued poverty stricken Europeans to settle and farm the panhandle region.  Advertising took the form of fictional stories as they suggested that the panhandle region was an ideal location to start a farm. As farmers began using new technology, such as, the tractor replacing horse-drawn plows vast amount of grasses were being ripped up in short amounts of times. As farmers destroyed the roots of grasses that had held the sod into place, a grassland ecosystem which had supported both the Bison and Indian for centuries had been destroyed. In this manner, government and corporate forces had promoted the eraser of former inhabitants while also creating the environmental disaster of the Dust Bowl.     

                 Egan’s story, then, is different from the ones which James N. Gregory describes as “the last great stories depicting white Americans as victims of severe poverty and social prejudice.” Gregory’s argues that story tellers such as John Steinbeck and musicians such as Woody Guthrie have romanticized the ecological disaster of the Dust Bowl and its ensuing social crisis creating stories focused on people white in color while ignoring people of other races. Egan, rather, explains how government and corporate advertising for the settlement of Indian lands had encouraged Euro-Americans (escaping the poverty of Europe) to have racists attitudes towards no-whites.


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