I just finished reading John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. I had to pace myself, reading it slowly over the last few weeks, because it’s tough. It’s laced with anger, sorrow, disappointment, and indignation. I took breaks of days at a time because of its weight. In fact, I feel like I have been crying inside. If you’ve ever had the sense that America is fundamentally an unjust place, this book will lift up that idea with shining, tragic proof. The anguish the Joad family, and thousands of others, will stick to your skin. Their suffering is as painful as it is unnecessary.
Steinbeck presents the America no one wants to believe in. He shows us an America driven by the powerful, who do not care about the human consequences of their actions. He shows us an America where business interests, land ownership, and police power are always right. This is an America where those without those things slip further and further toward undignified death. This is an America no one wants to believe exists.
But of course, it did exist and it still exists. Where you are born can determine how long you will live. The circumstances of your birth dictate your health, your income, your education. If you are fortunate enough to be born into a stable family, with money, with land, you will likely live a healthy, educated, stable life. If you are born into an unstable family situation, your road will be much harder.
The suffering depicted in The Grapes of Wrath is entirely separate from the story of African American suffering. It’s never interesting to compare suffering, but this book looks solely at the displacement and crushing poverty caused by land owners in Oklahoma, Texas, and California.
Tom Joad, a son in the Joad family, becomes a haunting, revolutionary figure in this story. He is its lone light. Everyone else just suffers. He turns the gross injustices done to his family into a confrontation with the land owners and the bigoted police who do their bidding. We don’t know exactly how Tom’s life ends up, but we know he sees his life bound up with those who suffer. Near the book’s end, Tom promises Ma Joad, his mother, that he will be present every time someone stands up for human dignity. Tom muses that we don’t have individual souls, but that we are all part of a larger human soul. So that
Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there.
In today’s increasingly unequal America, this book matters. It’s hard to argue that the businesses who run the country in this story do not still run America today. Some have suggested recently that America is more an oligarchy than a democracy. I think there’s merit in that. How long has it been since the minimum wage was raised? Name a confrontation recently which American businesses have lost. Corporations in America get what they want. They don’t consider the human costs of their decisions because they don’t have to.
Consider these questions: When was the last time you heard a politician talking about poor people? If you phoned your senator, would he or she see you? If a corporate president made the same call, would he or she be seen?
I wonder if we’re recently beginning to discuss income inequality in America simply because those in the middle are slipping closer toward the poor. Consider the statistics you hear often these days noting the wealth of the top 5% and the lack of wealth in the lower 95%.
Unequal America is not just, sustainable, or safe. For a powerful immersion into American poverty and powerlessness, commit to a few weeks of reading this essential American story.