Growing Up Okie
(Verso)My grandfather was an oilman, head of the Land Department at the Texas Company. When he couldn't stand earning all that money for "the Texas" instead of himself, he became an independent, joining two others to buy or lease likely property for drilling. When he argued with his partners, they took all their deeds and leases, shuffled them, and dealt them out like a poker hand. Granddad always claimed he got a raw deal, though he seemed plenty prosperous when I knew him.
Though purchased for their mineral rights, many of the properties also supported tenant farms. One of them, the Lindsey farm near Bixby, Oklahoma, was a lot like the one Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz describes in Red Dirt, Growing Up Okie.
The Lindsey farm seemed like heaven to this overprotected city kid. That's where Millie Lindsey led me to their garden and told me to pull the lacy carrot top and --- a miracle --- a huge orange carrot appeared from the red earth! We washed it in the iron-cold well water and I can still remember how it tasted. The Lindsey farm had a houseful of kids and animals and old furniture and it surely seemed preferable to the overheated apartment I shared with my grandparents.
Like Dunbar-Ortiz' family, the Lindseys joined the Second wave of Okies, the "defense plant" Okies who moved to California in the 1940's. They probably forgot the fat little girl who wanted to come live with them.
Red Dirt is about the 360 days a year when I wasn't there. It's about poor rural whites, and why they feel the way they do about gun laws, and abortion, and school prayer. Much of my own character was formed to counter this prevailing Okie mind set.
This book showed me I could be proud of my native state, as well as ashamed. It is the shadow history of Oklahoma. The new state's powerful Socialist Party, the KKK who destroyed it, the Green Corn Rebellion in which Blacks, Native Americans and poor whites joined to defy the government, the murder of over thirty Black citizens in Tulsa's terrible race riot...facts unmentioned in official histories of Oklahoma.
Dunbar-Ortiz is an historian and she presents this hidden history as background to the story of her people's trek to Indian Territory, and the grinding poverty that awaited them there at the end of the American frontier. There's a hint of J. D. Salinger in this book: the child Roxie, invisible behind the veil of illness and her family's indifference, is the perfect observer, and the oral tradition of her people has shaped these vivid and sometimes violent stories into a beautifully written narrative of coming of age to post-depression Oklahoma.
Having destroyed the native culture to settle the land, these pioneers could hardly believe that they, too, could become obsolete. Yet it happened, and the Dust Bowl and the Depression happened. The proud Scots-Irish who first immigrated in the U.S. in the early 1700's continued to move West and tame the wild country, then came to the end of the dream in Oklahoma: America's dispossessed peasants, red necks, white trash, Okies.--- Cese McGowan