There’s a whole world you have to understand in order to understand Crooks, just as there is for Slim and for Curley’s Wife. Like the other characters in Of Mice and Men, Crooks is an archetype: he represents many other people like him. In particular, he represents blacks in America at this time. With all this, it’s important to remember he’s a man too! He’s not just a stereotype.
So… what was the situation?
We all know about slavery, right? It’s not a problem for us to get our heads around the fact that slavery was a large component of life in America around 300 years ago.
But just because slavery existed – and let’s get this straight – slavery has ALWAYS existed, as long as there were people of little value – it doesn’t mean everyone in America liked it. In fact, 25 ‘Union’ states in America in 1861 decided that they liked it so little, and 11 ‘confederate’ states liked it so much, that they went to war over it. Of course, the rich, industrialised Union states won four years later and slavery was abolished for all intents and purposes. If you want to read more about it, then the best fictional account from this time is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Another great account of life around this time is the absolutely epic Gone With The Wind.
Did it get any better for blacks in America after the civil war?
Not much. So they had ‘freedom’, but does Crooks have freedom? Is he any better treated than he would be were he a slave? It was freedom in name, if not in reality.
Plus, whilst in 1865, the 13th Amendment was adopted in the USA, prohibiting slavery and any forced labour (except as punishment), some 11 years later, the first of a series of laws was passed called the Jim Crow laws. The 11 confederate states started to pass laws that segregated blacks from whites. “Separate but equal”, the laws said. In 1950s America, the laws were still going on, and a certain Martin Luther King didn’t think separate meant equal.
Lots of things were segregated by law: schools, public places, toilets, restaurants and, of course, buses (which is what got MLK riled up, but we’ll get to that)
So the USA was a very divided place (and don’t get me wrong, there was racism against Italians and the Irish, the Chinese and Japanese as well as black Americans) so that it would be pretty typical to see a sign like this:
California was one of the states that had sided with the Abolitionist Anti-Slave movement and won the civil war, but it didn’t mean prejudice and hostility didn’t exist. Segregation like the Jim Crow laws didn’t exist to the same degree in California, but there were other influential factors.
Like the KKK.
I guess practically everyone has heard of the Ku Klux Klan, the white supremacist group who like to persecute, terrorise and even sanction murder of non-whites?
This growing movement was creating a kind of racial tension in the USA throughout the 1920s and 1930s, particularly in rural areas. Lynchings were common. A lynching, for those of you who don’t know, is where you take a person and you murder them by way of trial and judgement. You decide that for whatever reason, they need the death penalty. And you are the best person to hand out that death penalty. And if that means hanging them from the nearest tree, or torturing them, or skinning them alive, or setting them on fire, you’re the best person for the job.
Almost five thousand people were lynched in America in an 80-year period. About three-quarters were black.
I can think of some egregious and outrageous acts that people have committed on other people – holocausts and war crimes – but it never makes it right. This is just as distressing to me – I hope it is to you too.
And she’s right. It would have been insanely easy for her to get a lynch mob together. Look how easy Curley manages it for his wife, whom nobody except Slim and Lennie seem to like.
An absolutely great book to read to accompany this is To Kill A Mockingbird – which everybody should read anyway. If you can’t, at least watch the film. It’s told by a young white girl whose father is a lawyer. He comes to represent a black man on a rape charge and realises that there is no way on earth the man, Tom Robinson, could have done it. Watch the court scene and you’ll see for yourself.
Despite the fact it’s blatantly obvious Mayella made it up for a bit of attention and drama, Tom is not just accused but sentenced.
So you can see why there was a ‘great migration‘ of black people from the 11 slave states to the ‘free states’ from 1900 to 1930. Crooks no doubt is one of those migrants. Perhaps he had a dream himself, a dream of equality. It’s ironic to me that less than 30 years after the book was published, Martin Luther King was just beginning to have a dream of equality. At the time the novel was published in 1937, it’s inconceivable for Crooks to have a dream. He doesn’t even have a single hope of such a future. Of course, MLK probably never dreamed that 50 years after his speech, there could be a black president. Still, I guess it was something of a dream of freedom that drove so many people from the slave states represented in dark red and black here:
to the states represented in 1990 here:
I guess when they got to the state of California, they realised life there was much the same, despite the fact that California had been anti-slavery. Life certainly doesn’t seem much different for Crooks.
In the next post, I’ll tell you more about how this all relates to Crooks! Enjoy!