How does Steinbeck use Crooks to explore ideas about racism in 1930s California?

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Crooks is the crippled black "stable buck" in John Steinbeck's 1930's novella Of Mice and Men set in the Salinas Valley of California. Racism and segregation ruled the day in depression era America. Blacks had only gained their freedom from slavery some 70 years before the writing of this book. The first government bans on discrimination were still a few years away and the American military remained segregated until 1948. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement were waiting in the wings but wouldn't hit high gear for another 30 years. Jackie Robinson was also more than ten years away from breaking the color barrier in professional baseball and it wouldn't be until the 1960's before sports would see black and white roommates when Chicago Bears running backs Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo teamed up.

The ranch where the two main characters, George and Lennie, come to work is no different than the rest of America in the 1930's. Being black, Crooks is segregated from the rest of the men and has his own private quarters in the barn. He is rarely allowed in the bunkhouse where the white workers live. The one time he is able to enter the bunkhouse on a holiday, a presumedly racist accelerated incident takes place. The old swamper Candy recounts:

"They let the nigger come in that night. Little skinner name of Smitty took after the nigger. Done pretty good, too. The guys wouldn’t let him use his feet, so the nigger got him. If he coulda used his feet, Smitty says he woulda killed the nigger. The guys said on account of the nigger’s got a crooked back, Smitty can’t use his feet.” 

As one might surmise from the preceding passage, the N word is used often in Steinbeck's account. But even though Steinbeck uses the derogatory term toward Crooks he is otherwise treated quite sympathetically by the author. He is just another character in the story who feels the pain of loneliness which permeates the novel. In fact, Crooks is really no different from Curley, Curley's Wife or Candy. They are all essentially lonely and segregated characters for different reasons. Crooks for the obvious reason of the color of his skin, Curley for his totally obnoxious and belligerent attitude, and Curley's wife because of her sex. 

Only the simple minded Lennie is able to break the pattern of racism when he enters Crooks' room in chapter four. At first Lennie is unwelcome. Crooks says:

"You go on get outa my room. I ain’t wanted in the bunk house, and you ain’t wanted in my room.” 

But since Lennie doesn't comprehend that Crooks is somehow different from the other men he is persistent in engaging Crooks and the black man is ultimately grateful for having someone to talk to:

"Crooks scowled, but Lennie’s disarming smile defeated him. “Come on in and set a while,” Crooks said. “’Long as you won’t get out and leave me alone, you might as well set down.” His tone was a little more friendly. “All the boys gone into town, huh?”

It is here that we learn more about Crooks. His family was one of the only black families in this part of California and when he was a child the children he played with, like Lennie, didn't recognize the color of his skin:

“I ain’t a southern Negro,” he said. “I was born right here in California. My old man had a chicken ranch, ‘bout ten acres. The white kids come to play at our place, an’ sometimes I went to play with them, and some of them was pretty nice. My ol’ man didn’t like that. I never knew till long later why he didn’t like that. But I know now.”

Later of course Crooks discovered what his father knew. Blacks had second class status in the world and he was not very often allowed into the white world. Lennie, and later Candy, help Crooks to forget the segregation and for a brief time in the novel there is a possibility that Crooks could come to the farm with George, Lennie and Candy as an equal worker. Crooks says:

“ . . . . If you . . . . guys would want a hand to work for nothing—just his keep, why I’d come an’ lend a hand. I ain’t so crippled I can’t work like a son-of-a-bitch if I want to.” 

But just as Crooks begins to feel like he might be part of something Curley's wife enters the barn and destroys the fraternal feeling that is beginning to exist between Crooks, Lennie and Candy. Curley's wife brutally reminds Crooks of his place in the world. She says,

“Listen, Nigger,” she said. “You know what I can do to you if you open your trap?” ... “Well, you keep your place then, Nigger. I could get you strung upon a tree so easy it ain’t even funny.”

After the exchange with Curley's wife Crooks again retreats into his shell and thoughts of being part of the dream is lost in a hail of racist remarks. Crooks addresses Candy:

“’Member what I said about hoein’ and doin’ odd jobs?”
“Yeah,” said Candy. “I remember.”
“Well, jus’ forget it,” said Crooks. “I didn’t mean it. Jus’ foolin’. I wouldn't want to go no place like that.”

Crooks' final lines are, of course, false, but Curley's wife startles him back into the realization that he could never be part of the white world, not, at least, in the world of 1930's America. 

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