American Exodus

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Gregory, James. American Exodus: The Dust Bowl Migration and Okie Culture in California. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.


In American Exodus, James Gregory traces the migrations of Southwesterners to California during the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s and during the war boom years of the 1940s to demonstrate how their experiences in California and their interactions with Californians helped remake a culture. Gregory writes that this “is the real legacy of the Dust Bowl migration," that "fifty years later, parts of California show signs of significant cultural change” (xvii).

Gregory organizes his book into two sections: (1) Migration and Resettlement and (2) The Okie Subculture. In the first half of his study, Gregory focuses primarily on those migrants who came to California during the Dust Bowl years (although, Dust Bowl migrant is a bit of an anomaly, according to Gregory, for the majority of Southwesterners came from drought-stricken areas in Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, and Missouri and not necessarily from the “Dust Bowl” region.) While California had attracted many Southwesterners during the first third of the century, the majority of these migrants were of the middle classes and settled in California’s cities. What distinguished the migrants who came in the 1930s from these earlier settlers was first and foremost their extreme poverty. In a time of Depression, these new Southwesterners provoked increased anxiety among Californians who feared the consequences of such an influx of poor migrants- i.e. increased taxes, heavy relief rolls, poverty and disease, and an overall change in the composition of California communities. Further, the Republican state feared that these new migrants would align with organized labor and the Democratic party to disrupt the prevailing political power structure- (a fear that would be realized with the election of a Democratic governor in 1938.) Middle-class Californians responded to this growing migrant population with prejudice and discrimination, biases that helped create a negative Okie stereotype. As Gregory argues, this stereotype of the uneducated, ignorant, dirty, dependent, and poor Okie was not powered by a regional prejudice but by a bias against an impoverished lower class. Though some migrants (especially those who ended up in California’s cities) responded to prejudice with efforts to assimilate, most adopted a strategy of disengagement and avoidance, a strategy that would aid the development of a distinctive Okie subculture. The further influx of migrants to California during the war years, spurred by an expanding defense sector, combined with improving economic conditions that worked to alleviate the state’s migration anxieties, would strengthen this subculture and push it outward.

Part II of Gregory’s study examines this subculture in more detail. While Okie was a simple designation of regional heritage for some Southwesterners, for others, it was a term connoting certain values, beliefs, and experiences. These shared values can be characterized as plain-folk Americanism, a philosophy espousing the ideals of hard work and plain living, a white Protestant heritage, anti-monopolization or anti-corporation, and independence. The Okie subculture also came to include an association with evangelical religion. Ignored by other religious organizations in California, Okies were increasingly drawn to Holiness and Pentecostal denominations; these sects were active in recruiting and preaching among Okies but the intensity of their services (to include healing and speaking in tongues) was more familiar to many Southwestern migrants. “Evangelicism reinforced the Okie subculture first by solidifying social networks in a climate of disesteem, later by offering validation and pride as the movement’s popularity and influence grew” (220). Hillbilly and country music, consistently portraying themes of family and place, similarly gained an association with the Okie subculture. Country music, like evangelical religion, helped to reinforce or reconstruct an Okie consciousness before it would spread outward, becoming “the favored medium of large numbers of lower middle-class Americans, almost entirely white, mostly blue-collar, and increasingly conservative” (241). According to Gregory, these elements -evangelical religion, country music, and the political outlooks of plain-folk Americanism- were “not merely projects of the Okie subculture, they are what has given the group continuity and influence over the years.” The Dust Bowl migration and the Okie subculture that emerged in its wake are significant because they “teach us about the ways American culture is transformed through population movement.” And “Nothing is more basic to our collective history” (246).


Beth Garcia, Spring 2015

In tracing the migration of hundreds of thousands of Southwestern migrants to California during the 1930s, Gregory dispels many of the myths that surround the Dust Bowl migration and those who participated in this mass movement. Gregory begins at the point of departure, clarifying that the majority of “Dust Bowl” migrants to California were not in fact emigrants from the Dust Bowl proper (comprising regions of Kansas, Colorado, and the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles) but emigrated from Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, and Missouri- states suffering from severe drought (Gregory blames this misconception on contemporary journalists who confused drought with dust.) Perhaps more importantly, Gregory argues that, although the 1930s flow was indeed “distinguished by its poverty and the strength of the expulsive forces at its rear,” the portrait of desperation has been exaggerated. Not a refugee situation, “the Dust Bowl migration was a tragedy in the rather privileged white American sense of the term” (10). Much of the Southwestern cotton belt had been taken out of production as a consequence of the New Deal’s AAA and unemployment rates were higher than in other rural sections, but not all migrants who ended up in California were impoverished farmers. As Gregory points out, many had blue-collar experience and hailed from Southwestern cities. Migrants tended to be younger and, on average, were better educated than those who stayed behind. They traveled in automobiles along route 66, generally making ordinary and uneventful trips westward. In tracing the movements of those who would come to California in the 1930s, Gregory helps to disrupt the Dust Bowl narrative that has long dominated, preserved in such iconic images as those produced by Dorothea Lange. Gregory depicts a more complex story of the Dust Bowl, one that captures its diversity, arguing that “without an awareness of the different backgrounds from which the migrants came, it is impossible to understand the varied resettlement strategies they would follow in California” (15).

Gregory also does well in deconstructing the “Okie” stereotype and in tracing the development of a distinctive Okie subculture in California. More than a regional identity, Okie referred to those who shared certain values and socio-political perspectives, what Gregory calls plain-folk Americanism. As discrimination against Southwestern migrants faded as the economic climate improved, elements of the Okie subculture began to shift outward from “Little Oklahomas” towards those [whites] who embraced similar values. The Okie subculture that Gregory describes has helped shape a lower-middle-class conservatism that has persisted over the years.

Having also read Devra Weber’s Dark Sweat, White Gold this week, a study similarly situated in 1930s California and on farm labor in particular (a prime focus in Gregory’s work as well), the absence of Mexican migrants in Gregory’s study is striking. Much of Gregory’s story is centered in the San Joaquin Valley, the site where Weber places her study of Mexican cotton workers, yet Gregory’s Southwesterners rarely encounter non-white persons; his study remains a class-based project. As Gregory is most interested in the migration and resettlement of Southwesterners to California, it might be argued that this is beyond the scope of his study. But, as Mexicans undoubtedly shared the same occupational and regional spaces with Dust Bowl migrants, it would be interesting to note how these inter-ethnic interactions or relationships shaped the development of a distinct Okie subculture (or vice versa.) However, regardless of this omission, Gregory’s American Exodus sheds new light on the Dust Bowl migration and on the migrants who would help transform a culture.

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