The Origin of “Okies”
Dorothea Lange’s photographic series “Migrant Woman” is easily THE most recognised series of iconic images documenting/representing the misery of the Great Depression in Dustbowl Oklahoma – the people written about with great compassion by John Steinbeck in his novel The Grapes of Wrath.
What few realise, is that the woman in this series of photographs – Florence Leona Thompson (born Florence Christie) – was a woman with deep roots in multi-ethnic Southern Appalachia.
Long before Latino peoples became the archetypal source of migrant farm labour, America drew on its own inland underclass for a cheap migrant workforce.
Multi-ethnic American families have often been disparagingly, disgracefully, and inaccurately described as “white trash”. Some of these same people appear on stage later as “Okies”.
With extended kin communities in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, North Georgia, Arkansas, Southern Missouri, and Oklahoma, these people regularly dispersed into Ohio, Indiana, Michigan and elsewhere to supply bodies and numbers for the back-breaking labour of crop-picking.
The actual ethnic roots of women like Florence Christie are mostly forgotten, because most Americans today believe that one of two things befell indigenous Americans:
1) They simply disappeared or “went extinct” through disease and warfare
2) They all ended-up on federal “Indian Reservations”
The actual ethnic roots of women like Florence Christie are also mostly forgotten, because most Americans today believe that people who are NOT extinct, or NOT on a reservation, and are not “black” or not “Latino”, MUST be “white”.
These are the falsehoods, and this is the lack of understanding, at the heart of the American caste system.
Florence Christie was not “white”. Nor was she “black”, “red” or “mulatto”. She was Cherokee, Welsh, Irish, and more.
I call these people “Old Mix Americans“.
Most of all, she was a human being.
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