Racism in Of Mice and Men

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  • 0:01 A Black & White World
  • 0:31 Crooks: An Outsider
  • 1:09 Crooks' Segregation
  • 2:06 Crooks' Loneliness
  • 3:11 Crooks' Fear
  • 4:07 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Terri Beth Miller

Terri Beth has taught college writing and literature courses since 2005 and has a PhD in literature.

The theme of racism plays a powerful role in John Steinbeck's iconic 1937 novella, 'Of Mice and Men.' Though a secondary character, Crooks exemplifies the very real and powerful impact of racism in Depression-era California.

A Black and White World

John Steinbeck's iconic 1937 novella, Of Mice and Men, captures all of the desperation, suffering, and hopelessness of Depression-era America. But this story of two itinerant farm workers, George Milton and Lennie Small, is about far more than economic struggle.

In the character of Crooks, the black ranch hand, Steinbeck illustrates the constant, polluting presence of racism in America in the 1930s. He reveals its powerful and dangerous capacity to infect how we see ourselves and others.

Crooks: An Outsider

Of Mice and Men is a novel all about loneliness. Most of the workers on the ranch where George and Lennie find themselves travel alone. To combat their isolation, they drink, gamble, and chase women. The economic collapse of the Great Depression has separated these men from their families. Many have lost their homes. All have lost a sense of belonging, a sense of place and connection.

But no one is more alone than the novel's single black character, Crooks. The reality of racial discrimination in this era is a gulf that cannot be breached. It trumps even poverty, hopelessness, and despair. It defines and separates Crooks from the other men. It turns him into a double outcast, an outsider among outsiders.

Crooks' Segregation

Whereas the white ranch hands live together in the bunkhouse, Crooks lives alone in a makeshift shed. This physical segregation reflects his own separateness from the other ranch workers and also mirrors the legal segregation so common in this era, particularly in the many Jim Crow laws in effect in the South, which impacted everything from voting laws to the segregation of schools and other public institutions.

Steinbeck's novel, however, reveals that such race-based discrimination was not limited to the South. Even in California, Crooks was considered an 'other' due to his race. It was considered inappropriate and dangerous for a black man to room with white men.

Crooks' separateness is also suggested by a story told early in the novella. Candy, an elderly ranch hand, describes to George and Lennie the last Christmas party at the ranch, when the owner gave the workers liquor and one of the workers attacked Crooks for sport. The abuse Crooks suffered was a source of entertainment for the men. To them, he is little more than a spectacle.

Crooks' Loneliness

Unlike most of the other workers, Crooks had been at the ranch for years. He was not simply passing through. The spinal injury which earned him his name made him unable to travel or to do the kind of physical work that the itinerant workers did.

He surrounds himself with books and mementos, creating a personal space that becomes a sort of fortress to him, something representative of who he is outside of the prejudicial world that would define him.

When Lennie and the other workers wander into his room one night, it initially feels like a violation to Crooks. He is lonely, but he fears being misunderstood and further abused; he fears the outside world will infiltrate his one safe place.

Eventually, Crooks begins to enjoy a few moments of companionship. For a time as the men talk, it is as though no racial stigma separates them. He becomes simply a host entertaining guests in his home, modest though it may be.

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