- Ain’t Got No Home: America’s Great Migrations and the Making of an Interracial Left by Erin Royston Battat
by Erin Royston Battat
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014. 252 pp. + 16 illus. Cloth $32.95
The purported goal of Ain’t Got No Home: America’s Great Migrations and the Making of an Interracial Left is to study the internal migrations that reshaped America in the twentieth century and the impact these migrations had on the political left. But another obvious aim of the book is to compare minority writers and artists with canonical figures who have received more attention. The most frequent of the latter is John Steinbeck. For decades, The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men have been heralded as exemplary works that shed light on the harrowing realities of migrant workers. But for Battat, these are timid works that barely question patriarchal dominance and the perceived racial superiority of whites. The introduction to Ain’t Got No Home sets the tone for her treatment of the renowned writers. Battat says she wants to “shift the focus away from towering figures like Steinbeck and Wright” in order to draw more attention to the lesser-known figures of the time. Yet these “towering figures” appear repeatedly and almost always as the object of her criticism for being insufficiently radical.
Chapter 1, “Race, Sex, and the Hobo,” deals with the role of the hobo in various forms in the works of Steinbeck and William Attaway. Battat suggests that Steinbeck’s use of the hobo figure in Of Mice and Men does not go far enough in breaking away from racial and class stereotypes. She contends that he fails to provide a strong critique of white patriarchal society and, perhaps unconsciously, reinforces the racial patriarchy in several scenes in the novel. This chapter also serves as the foundation for the other chapters, since it announces the themes of each: interracial issues, issues of sex and gender politics, and issues faced by people leaving their home for something better elsewhere.
In Chapter 2, “An Okie Is Me,” Battat compares the writing of Sanora Babb and Steinbeck in their treatment of migrant workers fleeing from the Dust Bowl to the West. She argues that The Grapes of Wrath, which had the good fortune of being published first, falls short of affecting any kind of real consciousness. She denounces Steinbeck’s characterization, his lack of diversity, and his lack [End Page 209] of sensationalism. Babb’s novel, Whose Names Are Unknown, which wasn’t published until 2004, receives high praise from Battat for creating a diverse set of characters as well as telling a sensational, unsentimental story about the migrant Okies.
Chapter 3, “Steel Mill Blues,” focuses on the conditions faced by minority migrant workers in moving from the South to the North. Battat discusses the hypocrisy of the unions and the struggle for workers of color to find fair and actual representation by the Left. Battat primarily uses the novel Blood on the Forge by Attaway to illustrate the working conditions and struggles for equality faced by these migrant workers.
Chapter 4, “Beyond the Migrant Mother,” attempts to dissect and re- create the image of the migrant mother. Using primarily visual sources, Battat explains the different roles migrant women took on as they were uprooted and relocated. She discusses the striking tableau at the conclusion of The Grapes of Wrath in which Rose of Sharon offers her breast to a dying man. This image of the migrant woman as being more than simply a mother serves to establish Battat’s claim that women had a profound impact on the creation of an interracial left.
The final chapter of the book, “Wartime Shipyard,” presents the struggles of migrant workers during World War II and shows that the war offered an opportunity for many displaced people to find work and hope. She also addresses the hypocrisy of many labor organizers and their followers as they fought for racial freedom overseas while ignoring the problems within their own units...