A destitute family with no prospects moves, hoping for a better life. The son, just back from prison for manslaughter, rejoins them. They meet up with other destitute families all in the same boat—poverty, starvation, bad luck. When police kill the son’s friend, he retaliates by killing a policeman. He goes on the lam, abetted by family and friends. His mother and father both die and his sister miscarriages. It all goes wrong and it will never be right.
I have just encapsulated John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” and the plight of Tom Joad and his white family out of the Dust Bowl and into oblivion. The book won a Pulitzer; the movie won Best Picture. Kern County, California, where the book ends—with Rose of Sharon, Tom’s sister, having miscarried, breastfeeding a dying stranger—was not at all happy with the story. “What’s good for General Bullmoose,” after all.
And I have just described the desperation that goes on in poor black St. Louis communities every single week. It plays into the white perception that crime is a black thing, that blacks kill blacks and no one cares. That whites must gate up their homes and live separately. For self-preservation.
The 1930 era must have been shocked by the Joads. Movie and television entertainment were all giggles, screwball comedies; the nation did not see or hear about the Okies, the families wiped out by the Dust Bowl. People loved the book and the film; politicians denounced it as a communist plot.
Imagine the greater shock if the Joad family had been black.
Imagine a 1930 book about the plight of blacks in the Jim Crow era. Would not have been published—if written. Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry et al, and now Ta-Nehisi Coates (“Between the World and Me”, a must-read) and contemporary black writers–would not have been published. At the time, their ancestors were being terrorized by whites—not just in the South: in my town of Alton, in Belleville, New York, in the USA. Perhaps the message is that the poor of all colors fight a class war. There is some truth to that. But poor blacks, without the inestimable benefits of white privilege, have little to no shot. Horatio Alger is the whitest of white myths.
Last week, I wrote a piece about an innocent black kid shot to death in his own yard. This week it’s about the shooter of that kid. He accidentally shot the kid (he was aiming for someone else—a tragedy in every way—stole some money, went on the lam, his aunt aided and abetted his escape, and now he’s in jail. Winner? Loser?
Now he’s in jail. Like the cop killer Tom Joad. Root for the fictional one and not the real one. The real one on the home team.