California History: A Topical Approach

By Gordon Morris Bakken | Go to book overview

CHAPTER EIGHT
Stigmatizing Okies

Nancy J. Taniguchi

“We weren't Okies.”—Woody Guthrie


OKIES IMAGINED

Today, Okie is not a dirty word, or so says $37,500 of California taxpayers' money. In 1991, Mary Lynn Rasmussen won a lawsuit to continue to advertise her “Okie Girl Restaurant” with a billboard alongside Interstate Highway 5 where it becomes “the Grapevine,” the nickname for the snaking section of blacktop that crosses the Tehachapi Mountains, the natural upthrust that separates California's lush, agricultural Central Valley from the city sprawl and orange groves of the southland. CalTrans officials, employees of California's Department of Transportation, had filed suit over her sign, claiming it was “in poor taste and offensive to some travelers,” thereby prohibited by law on an interstate highway. Rasmussen countered that the name was no longer a slur and, in winning, brought a legal, if not a visceral, conclusion to the stigmatization of the Okies.1

No one would deny, however, that Californians used Okie as an insult for most of the twentieth century. In America at large, this subculture is known largely through a series of artistic works dating from the Great Depression: the images of photographer Dorothea Lange (the best-known of which is “Migrant Mother,” shot in 1936); the scholarly studies of economist Paul Schuster Taylor and lawyer/historian/activist Carey McWilliams; folksinger Woody Guthrie's Dust Bowl Ballads (1940), and John Steinbeck's 1939 novel, The Grapes of Wrath, converted in 1940 into a feature-length film. These works portrayed Okies as poor, unlettered, earnest, and frequently hopeless, using a single negative stereotype to represent a much more complex group.2 Despite intervening decades, Americans continue to picture Okies based on The Grapes of Wrath. Its protagonists, the Joads, driven off their dried-up Oklahoma farm, pile their

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