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¡§When the Okies left Oklahoma and moved to California, it raised the I

The Story of Racial Conflict                             Joseph Chai


David Wyatt is currently a professor of English at College Park residing in Charlottesville, Virginia.  A progressive historian, Wyatt received his undergraduate degree from Yale University.  As a native of California, Wyatt is the acclaimed author of many books, many of which specifically focus on California history.  His more notable books include, The Fall into Eden: Landscape and Imagination in California, Out of the Sixties: Storytelling and the Vietnam Generation, and of course his most recent, Five Fires: Race, Catastrophe, and the Shaping of California.



David Wyatt¡¦s Five Fires: Race, Catastrophe, and the Shaping of California, focuses on how California became the way it is today.  The book is written as a poem ¡V ¡§a poem with a central metaphor and a pattern of recurrence of fire.¡¨1 has as its motif and central metaphor fire.  It has been no secret that the playground for fires in the United States is California.  From the San Diego wild fires in the 1870¡¦s and 1880¡¦s to the recent 2007 wild fire that sparked the greatest evacuation in California, fires are a motif in every Californians¡¦ life.  However, the fires that Wyatt credit with creating present-day California are influential events that affected California in profound ways rather than those instigated by nature.

The first fire to sweep across California was an accident.  The Golden Oats that are today a common sight in California were brought inadvertently by the Spanish around the 1770¡¦s in the form of seeds hidden in the hay of their animals.  By 1850, only eighty years after its introduction, the Golden Oat dominated the vast grasslands of California.  California developed into the most cultivated region in the world, producing a plethora of fruit, grains, and trees.  However, the oats discussed by Wyatt had more than an agricultural affect on California.  The oats ¡§served as a marker of historical change¡¨; the rapid spread of the oats paralleled the violent decline of the Indians as the Spanish took over and then the decline of the Spanish as the Americans conquered California.2 Like the fires referred to in the title, Wyatt uses the golden oat as a metaphor for a powerful force capable of writing history.

The next chapter of history to transform California was the Gold Rush.  Unlike the golden oats that spread quietly and silently and created a tinderbox, ¡§the Gold Rush was the first full California blaze.¡¨3 The fire here was a metaphor for the suddenness of the event.  The Gold Rush created the most eclectic mix the United States had ever witnessed.  The desire for wealth attracted millions to California in the 1840¡¦s and 50¡¦s.  From 150,000 inhabitants in 1840, California population exploded to over 500,000 in 1860.  However, only 7% of the population was female, and the lack of woman created a generation of violent men ¡V violent against each other and against Mother Nature.  However, sex was not the only discrepancy in Gold Rush California ¡V there was also the issue of race.  Fires were a common sight in California during the Gold Rush; it was a means to destroy foreign settlements and to rid California of the foreign miners.

The only fire that nature produced was the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906.  Since its existences, California had coexisted with the imminence of a natural disaster.  In fact, California is the proven hotbed for fires and earthquakes in the United States due to its arid climate and hundreds of fault lines.  The fires sparked by the San Francisco earthquake burned for over 3 days, burning over 4.2 square miles, killing 435 and burning 514 city blocks.  Yet, rebuilding was immediate.  Outsiders who witnessed the rebuilding efforts were surprised by the ¡§the rapidity of order out of chaos¡¨ and the ¡§universal equanimity¡¨ with which Californians regarded each other.4 the fire was the precedence that allowed the building of modern San Francisco.  To remain sane after flirting with imminent danger, Californians learned to deal with disaster by distancing themselves from reality; more than a sense of loss, witnesses felt an admiration for the power of disaster California possessed.

World War II, the fourth fire, put California on the world stage.  Once the United States joined World War II, California became the United State¡¦s largest defense industries and warships and aircrafts manufacturer.  Like many of the fires before it, World War II, ¡§triggered a massive national immigration to California.¡¨5 In a single decade over 3.5 million flooded to California in hopes of economic success, and success was not scarce in California.  However, once the post war boom began to decline, California was a long shot from the seventh largest economy in the world it had previously been.  Suddenly there were too many people and not enough houses or jobs.  California soon experienced an economic recession, but no strangers to disaster, Californians quickly dug themselves out of the depression.

Despite naming race as California¡¦s fifth fire, Wyatt sees race as a dominant factor in all of the other four fires.  As a progressive historian, Wyatt felt that the history of California was created by social, gender, and economic forces and stressed the difference between competing groups, sections, classes, and sexes.  Such difference culminated in the 1992 Los Angeles and Korea town riots resulting from the Rodney king beating.  The riots left fifty-three dead, more than 16,000 arrested, and an estimated one billion dollars lost in the form of property damages.  California remains the place in the United States where ¡§Americans draw the battle lines over difference.¡¨6 Without racial strife, California would have developed much differently.

Wyatt is adamantly married to the idea that race played a determining role in California history even before the invasion of Americans into California.  Beginning with the Spanish, a systematic method to eliminate the natives was introduced.  The Spanish came to California for two reasons ¡V to find gold, and to convert the natives.  The Spanish established a string of twenty-one missions across California all connected by the El Camino Real.  Yet, instead of converting the natives, the Spanish exploited and destroyed them, exploiting those who survived the lethal smallpox disease in the missions, forcing them to in the hot sun for long hours; in fact, the missions can be considered the first sites of race slavery in present day United States.  Unable to communicate their anger to the Spanish, Native American resorted to violence to get their message across.  Uprising prior to the building of the mission and during its conversion missions was common; they were dealt with unnecessary brutality.  Once again, ¡§difference and incomprehension triggered a fire.¡¨7 In 1834, without support from the Spanish throne, the Spanish missions were secularized, and the lands were to be split among the decimated Native American population.  Once again, the Native Americans were lied to and the lands were instead added to already colossal ranchos. 

Racism proves to be a motif in California, as it continued to haunt the state even after the expulsion of the Spaniards.  Less than a year after becoming a property of the Unites States, California achieved national fame through the gold rush.  Millions from all four corners of the world flocked to California in hopes of striking it rich.  Yet, such an influx of different ethical groups would inevitably lead to racial conflict.  In addition to using fire as an expelling force, Americans resorted to politics to oppress minorities.  The Foreign Miners Act of 1850 required all foreign miners to ¡§pay twenty dollars a month to continue working their claims.¡¨8 In addition, white men could not be convicted on the words of a foreigner.  Such blatant racism provided the kindles to a roaring flame as foreigners fought to protect their rights. 

However, of all the peoples present in Gold Rush California, the Chinese were oppressed the most.  The Chinese represented the ¡§abiding issues of racial difference, the continuing struggle between capital and labor and the rights and status of women.¡¨9 The Chinese were discriminated against because they were able to work so hard for so little because they had no filial ties to worry about.  The Foreign Miner¡¦s tax, which brought in up to half of the revenue for the California government was targeted most directly at Chinese miners.  Soon, The Chinese began to dominate the railroad industry because the employers liked the work ethic and lack of complaint.  American miners began to fear an Asian invasion, and their imaginations ran wild with idea of Chinese threats.

In addition to a battle of races, the Gold Rush was a battle of the sexes.  In Gold Rush California, seven percent of the population was women, and of the seven percent, over ninety percent of the women were prostitutes.  The Gold Rush created what was known as the society of lonely men because those who traveled to California were almost exclusively male.  Unlike the Spanish, who had adhered to a policy of ¡§domestic unity that encouraged the immigration of intact families,¡¨ California paid no mind to the issues of sex present in the Gold Rush.10   The Spanish offered benefits to men who brought along their families.  In California, the immigration of young men unchecked by women influences created a rough, unrefined, outspoken culture prone to violence.  For the men who did have family back home, their marriages were greatly strained.  Spouses were up to three thousand miles away without any knowledge of what activities their loved ones were engaged in and letters took an average of five months to reach there destination, so any form of decent communication was impossible.

With the worst women to men percentage in Gold Rush California were the Chinese, whose population consisted of one percent woman.  The few Chinese women in California were brought over by the practice of picture marriages, in which the wife in China received the picture of a Chinese miner in California, and the miner receives a picture of the potential wife in China.  If both parties are satisfied, the woman is shipped to California to be his wife.  However, picture marriages were flawed for many reasons.  Once the woman landed in California, she had ¡§only picture to guide her in the untamed Gold Rush California.¡¨11 Many times, these vulnerable women were kidnapped and forced into sexual slavery.  Other times, the miners sent picture of themselves in their prime, when they were really in their seventies.  Either way, many of the women going to California from China ended up performing sexual labor and hard work. 

Even the San Francisco Earthquake and Fires created opportunities for race to mold Californian history.  The destruction of the earthquakes initially radically improved Chinese odds at achieving entry.  However, the government quickly intervened, specifically targeting to stop Chinese immigration.  Alcatraz, a national park, and Angel Island, a California state park, were converted to immigration check points where the Chinese were stored in barracks waiting in line to answer up to a thousand questions before being admitted to California as opposed to the ¡§average of twenty nine questions asked at Ellis Island in New York,¡¨12 Chinese who did not know how to speak English were forced to memorize the coaching information about heir family background and their answers they gave had to be corroborated by witnesses.  Many of the barracks that the Chinese occupied contain poems inscribed in the walls about longing to return to China and hoping for better days.

World War II was also sparked many racial issues.  California¡¦s war economy attracted an influx of Asians, blacks and Mexicans.  Willing to work longer and cheaper than Californians, the immigrants quickly aroused the Californians¡¦ ire.  Much racism during this time was targeted at the Mexicans who were prevented from successfully unionizing, forced to work long hours with little pay and no benefits.  Eager to rid themselves of the Mexicans, the government drafted Mexicans in huge numbers.  Even when Mexican men were ¡§subject to literacy tests they were bound to fail, yet they were drafted anyway.¡¨13 In response to the drafting, Zoot Suit Riots broke out.  Military personnel marched into the barrios and beat Mexicans wearing zoot suits, a symbol of the rejections of both official American and traditional Mexican heritage.  Race remains the catalyst of change that underlies the entire book.  Even today, race continued to help mold California¡¦s history.

However, there are many that disagree with Wyatt.  In her critique of Five Fires: Race, Catastrophe, and the Shaping of California Marry Cook-Jones felt that the book was, on top of difficult to read and hard to follow, inaccurate.  She found many of his arguments to be arbitrary, leading to far-fetched conclusions.  Most specifically, she disagreed with Wyatt¡¦s analysis of the Gold Rush ¡V that the Gold Rush was driven by the miners¡¦ ¡§desire to relive their adolescence and to escape the Victorian stranglehold of women upon their gender.¡¨14 Furthermore, Cook-Jones felt that the book¡¦s organization was less than spectacular as it was organized without regards to chronology, reason, or any other perceptible idea, seemingly thrown randomly into place by a blindfolded accountant.  Lastly, Cook-Jones was driven mad by the vocabulary that Wyatt used in his book ¡V words that ¡§[she] had never seen before and would most likely never again encounter.¡¨15 Cook Jones sentiments towards David Wyatt are conspicuously negative.

On the other hand, critics such as Matthew Bokovoy admire and agree with Wyatt¡¦s historiography.  Bokovoy feels that by using the personal diaries and memories of newcomers and natives to California, Wyatt allows the reader to ¡§feel our way into the heart of California's history and to exchange distance and judgment for recognition and empathy¡¨16 A fellow progressive historian, Bokovoy also feels that race is a decisive factor in California story.  Bokovoy admires Wyatt for his ability to hope that in the future, Mexicans, Chinese, Japanese, and indigenous peoples can enjoy the same rights and entitlements as their white neighbors.

Wyatt is adamant that race is the core of the California story.  As convincing as his argument is, and although it is true that race does play an integral role in shaping California history, there is more to history than merely race and gender struggles.  California¡¦s history has also been shaped by economics, politics, and psychological undertones.  Seemingly blind to that fact, Wyatt goes about creating a compelling argument that analyzes the influence of race and gender on the past.  His presentation of first hand accounts of witnesses provides a reliable source of information that persuades the reader that race is always the inciter of any event that may sway history.  He believes that the history of California is a tragedy, that the coming together of such multicultural groups would result in ¡§collision rather than community.¡¨17 Despite his effective argumentation, his book makes for a confusing read, as it organization seems random, and the topics a bit repetitious.  However, this cannot overshadow his book¡¦s accuracy; Wyatt does a tremendous job analyzing not how the California story came about, but rather how race affected the California Story.

As mentioned before, California has been not only by race, but also been shaped by events occurring outside of its boundaries.  Even Wyatt must confess that while ¡§race it as the core of the California story, it is by no means the whole of it.¡¨18   Since its very existence, California was always under influence from outside forces, forces that threatened to conquer.  First were the Spanish who conquered the Natives, and then the Americans who established what seems to be a permanent state after their victory in the Mexican American War.  World War II also had a tremendous affect on California, transforming the state into the seventh largest economy in the world, only to leave it in a depression after the post ¡Vwar boom subsided.

In spite of these external influences, California has developed distinctly from the rest of the country.  As the Unites States¡¦s most eclectic mix of races, California unavoidably matured with the influences of different races.  The Gold Rush gave California worldwide fame and World War II transformed California into a world power.  California grew wealthy from ¡§tourism, agriculture, real estate, oil, and ¡V especially ¡V the federal government also played a role in the dramatic expansion of the region.¡¨19 Unique to California, the filmmaking industry that developed after World War I made Hollywood the entertainment center of the world as well as attracting billions of dollar in revenue annually.

California¡¦s history proves to be fascinating; developing unlike the history of any other state in the world.  California¡¦s distinct history is thanks to the five major fires that roared though the land; the fifth fire ¡V ¡§the fire of race, is still burning.¡¨20 Without a doubt, race has been an ever present factor in California¡¦s history, refusing to remain at large when California¡¦s history is called into question.


1. Wyatt, David. Five Fires: Race, Catastrophe, and the Shaping of California. Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley Company, 1997. 1.

2. Wyatt, David 12.

3. Wyatt, David 50.

4. Wyatt, David 109.

5. Wyatt, David 158.

6. Wyatt, David 6.

7. Wyatt, David 46.

8. Wyatt, David 55.

9. Wyatt, David 86.

10. Wyatt, David 35.

11. Wyatt, David 79.

12. Wyatt, David 116.

13. Wyatt, David 169.

14. Cook-Jones, Mary. ¡§The Way We Were?¡¨ Amazon. 01 June 2008. <http://www.amazon.com/Five-Fires-Catastrophe-Shaping-California/dp/0195127412/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1212377797&sr=8-1>.

15. Cook-Jones, Mary.

16. Bokovoy, Matthew. ¡§Book Reviews¡¨ The Journal of San Diego History. 01 June 2008. <http://www.sandiegohistory.org/journal/99spring/ecology.htm>.

17. Wyatt, David 2.

18. Wyatt, David 7.

19. Wyatt, David 157.

20. Wyatt, David 2.