Last week I was absentmindedly reading friends’ Facebook posts and comments, when I came across one that not only made me do the cartoonish ahooga eye-pop; but put me in such a state, I wanted to smack something, or someone. I read and reread the comment; no question about it, the writer, in all his social superiority used a term I have battled for years. One that is a pejorative, and should never, ever be spoken or written, at least not when I am around.
A perusal of that word’s current definition on the internet provides us opinions ranging from G to X-rated. The general agreement being put out there is that once upon a time Okie was mean, nasty, demeaning, hateful, judgmental, and spoken from a place of deemed superiority, rightful disapproval. Today, however, it simply means one hails from Oklahoma, and if the word Okie is used as a descriptor, it is intended as a compliment, meant good-naturedly. Really? I dare anyone to go to any town in the State of California, walk up to someone, and say, “You look just like an Okie today”. I double dog dare you!
The point is, that word is not kind, good natured, nor complimentary. It was coined in the 1930’s in reference to the tens of thousands of individuals and families who migrated to California from Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, and any other Plains State impacted by the drought and dust storms of that decade. Picture how many people were affected and eventually displaced by drought and erosion that encompassed 100,000,000 acres of land. Those people lost everything due to weather, including an eight year drought and dust storms so freakish that the air was charged with such static it would knock a person to the ground if he touched someone else when the storm was blowing; and over fifty years of repeated, harmful farming practices that caused the topsoil to blow away.
For each of those people, the day finally came when there was no more hope. When that time arrived, they took what could be piled into and onto the family car, packed the children inside, pointed themselves and all they had to the West; leaving their homes and farms to start over in a place that had been advertised as the land of milk and honey, and opportunity.
Over 1,500 miles later, the reality set in, and courage became the necessary force to complete transition from the Dust Bowl to life in a hostile, prejudiced society suffering in its own way from the Great Depression. When they arrived in California, there were no promised jobs, no readily available housing, and no welcome mats rolled out to greet them after the long journey. What they found were tent camps; work harvesting fruit, vegetables, and cotton; and a population that resented their arrival and enduring presence.
On a good note, though, the new land was dust free, sunny and warm, with friends and extended family from the old home gathered in the same places, or at least nearby. They would make it there, because they had to. And they did. The same fortitude and faith that defined those who left the comfort and safety of Pennsylvania, Virginia, Delaware, and the Carolinas to move to Indiana, Ohio, Kansas Territory, and then participate in the Land Runs in Oklahoma Territory, working and changing hardscrabble farms into profitable pieces of property, all before statehood, compelled them to survive, overcome, and become trusted members of a community that initially looked upon them with unbridled scorn. Fortunately, they were brave and endured so a new life could be built once again for themselves and their families. It was not easy, but it was not insurmountable. And they never gave up.
Those folks were and are my people. They were my parents, grandparents, great grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. They are the we of me. I am who I am, because they were who they were. And of all the things I could attribute to them, call them, or remember about them; none is greater than they loved their family, their country, and their freedom. Without reservation or compromise.
In that light, if anyone is going to use the term Okie, it had better just be me, because I know what it means, what it cost to bear that name, and I speak it with respect and reverence. So, today I think I will dare the users of that word to stop, think, and put away once and for all a word that only serves to denigrate and disparage those who deserve just the complete opposite. Yes, that’s right. I double dog dare you!