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  • Writer's pictureTerry Pace

Red Dirt: Growing Up Okie

Red Dirt: Growing Up Okie (1997) by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz (1939). Dunbar-Ortiz is a native of Oklahoma growing up here in the 1940's and 50's. She is an American historian, writer and lecturer. This is a very personal and touching memoir about growing up in a poor white sharecropping family in central Oklahoma. I have often felt that the history and culture of Oklahoma is one of the most complex and interesting of all the United States. Oklahoma is Indian Country and was home to many tribes prior to Euro settlement. It was also basically unclaimed and unwanted land by the United States, that was so rough it had been passed over in the westward settlement of the USA. Thus, it became the place where the government forced resettlement of Indian tribes from all over the country. Oklahoma also has a very strong and distinctive African American history with many Freedmen settlements that became thriving Black towns, which were segregated and oppressed by white supremacists who also have played a sadly large role in Oklahoma history. The opening of the Indian lands to white settlement brought further destruction of the Indigenous peoples here. Then the discovery of oil further changed and destabilized the culture while the Great Depression and Dust Bowl forced many poor whites into deepened poverty or to migrate to California. To understand Oklahoma is to understand all of these influences and how they each merge into the fractured culture of the Oklahoma we know today. While Dunbar-Ortiz writes beautifully of the land she writes of the pain and humiliation that so many people here - Indians, poor whites and Blacks have known. She sees the term "Red Dirt" as representative of the land and the people here; the beauty of the land and the degradation or "dirtiness" that people here have been treated with and felt as a part of their lived experience, but also how these many forces have also created a strong sense of aloneness and independence in people here. If one really seeks to understand the place - Oklahoma, then this book is one of the must reads.

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