Professor Chris Foss
13 April 2021
Crooks: The Intersection of Race and Disability in Of Mice and Men
For decades, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men has held renown as an account of the hardships and tragedies of migrant workers during the Great Depression. Steinbeck illustrates the difficulties workers faced in finding stable jobs, building savings, or attempting to own property through the story of two friends, George and Lennie, as they travel the country looking for work. The novella also explores the ways people during this era formed and maintained relationships with others and the effect of social structures, such as classism and sexism, on these relationships. One social structure examined in Of Mice and Men is that of disability and ableism; Lennie, one of the main characters, has an intellectual disability, and two workers on the ranch have physical disabilities. Candy, an elderly swamper, has an amputated hand, and Crooks, the elderly stable buck, has a crooked back; both of these injuries were received on the job and affect their ability to work, but Crooks and Candy hold relatively permanent positions on the ranch. However, despite their physical similarities, their superiors and peers treat them very differently. While Candy sleeps in the bunkhouse with the other workers and holds social relationships with them, Crooks is banned from the bunkroom and maintains emotional distance from the others on the ranch. These differentiations in treatment stem from an important difference between the two men: Crooks is the only black man on the ranch.
While other disabled characters in the narrative face ableism and discrimination, they are able to maintain some level of basic respect from most of their peers. This is often because the ranchers are able to overlook their perceived deficiencies in certain contexts. However, as a visibly disabled black man in the postbellum era of segregation, Crooks is unable to distance himself from his oppressed identities. There are no contexts in which both of his “defects” are irrelevant as physical health and race both play important roles in determining the social order on the ranch. Crooks is not only black, not only disabled, but both, and it leaves him with little option but to accept his mistreatment and subjugation on the ranch, leading to his social detachment and bitterness. The intersection of race and disability in the character of Crooks creates a story of extreme dehumanization through racism, manipulation, and exploitation.
Crooks’ status on the ranch is evident as soon as he is introduced as a character. When George and Lennie arrive late, Candy describes to them that their boss was upset with their tardiness, finishing his story with, “he give the stable buck hell, too” (Steinbeck 20). This elicits confusion from George because, without knowledge of Crooks’ identity as a black, disabled man, George doesn’t understand the relationship between the boss’s anger and his treatment of the stable buck. Candy seems to understand why George is confused, explaining with the simple statement, “Ya see the stable buck’s a n*gger” (Steinbeck 20). This answer implies that if the stable buck was white, the behavior would be inappropriate, but because “the stable buck’s a n*gger,” he is the rational target for the boss to take out his anger. In his explanation, Candy positions Crooks’ race as the most important aspect of his identity in determining how he should be treated.
Candy goes on to describe Crooks as a “nice fella” and then immediately explains how he has “a crooked back where a horse kicked him” (Steinbeck 20). The description of Crooks as a “nice fella” directly contradicts many of the later descriptions of Crooks as aloof and antisocial. Therefore, it seems likely that Candy’s positing of Crooks as a “nice fella” is not an attempt at an accurate depiction, but rather to separate himself from his boss’s behavior and establish to George that he doesn’t hold inherent aggression towards black people. Candy’s next sentence further justifies Crooks’ position at the bottom of the social hierarchy by revealing his physical disability, yet another visible difference that separates Crooks from the rest of the workers. Candy’s conceptualization and explanation of Crooks reveals how he is viewed on the farm: first and foremost, he is the only black person and therefore he is treated poorly; if more justification for his mistreatment is needed, he is also visibly disabled.
As further proof of Crooks’ social position, Candy tells George a story about a special occasion where their boss had given them a gallon of alcohol and “they let the n*gger come in that night” (Steinbeck 21). The social inclusion of Crooks is portrayed as a rare, unique event. Even then, Candy describes how Crooks was still not fully included, but rather used as a source of entertainment when another worker began to fight him. The others placed restrictions on Crooks’ challenger in order to accommodate his disability, which only serves to increase aggression towards Crooks: “If he coulda used his feet, Smitty says he woulda killed the n*gger. The guys said on account of the n*gger’s got a crooked back, Smitty can’t use his feet” (Steinbeck 21). This treatment of Crooks’ disability is illustrative of the simultaneously protective and harmful effects it has on his life. Because the workers hold such a high emphasis on physical fitness and the ability to defend oneself, Crooks is given accommodations on the basis of his disability that allow him to partially combat the racial discrimination he receives. However, using these tools ultimately increases the animosity the white workers feel towards him. This creates a cycle where discrimination leads to accommodation, which then leads to more discrimination.
Despite the discrimination he faces, Crooks is a long-term worker on the ranch. This is not necessarily out of loyalty or love of the job, but instead due to a lack of options and fear of worse treatment elsewhere. Specifically, his disability is listed as a reason for the stability of his position: “being a stable buck and a cripple, he was more permanent than the other men” (Steinbeck 65). He shares this position with Candy, who says once he can’t work on the ranch he “won’t have no place to go, an’ [he] can’t get no more jobs” (Steinbeck 59) due to his disability and age. It is this sense of hopelessness that feeds the cycles of subjugation described above. If the employees who have work-related disabilities (Candy and Crooks) believe their current positions are their only option, they will withstand more poor treatment than they otherwise would. Curley and his father need only provide them with the most base level of respect and kindness in order to keep them in their positions, and for Candy, a white man, the base level of respect is far higher than it is for Crooks. Again, disability-based and race-based discrimination compound upon one another.
Crooks is completely isolated from the other members of the farm on the basis of his race physically, socially, and intellectually. Much of this isolation arises from the fact that Crooks is not allowed into the main bunkroom where the rest of the employees sleep and socialize. When the worker with an intellectual disability, Lennie, asks Crooks why he isn’t allowed in the bunkroom, Crooks responds, “‘cause I’m black… they say I stink” (Steinbeck 67). His exclusion from the main point of social contact is justified in precisely the same way another character justifies his request for Candy to keep his elderly dog out of the bunkroom. The same issue of odor is used to encourage Candy to allow his dog to be euthanized: “He don’t have no fun… and he stinks to beat hell. Tell you what. I’ll shoot him for you” (Steinbeck 47). These parallels show how the comfort of those higher in the social hierarchy is valued more than the quality of life (or life itself) of those deemed inferior. The parallels also illustrate how dehumanized Crooks has become in the eyes of his peers, as his social standing is disturbingly comparable to that of Candy’s dog: inherently beneath all others.
As seen in the expulsion of both Crooks and Candy’s dog from the bunkhouse, the comfort of the white, able-bodied workers takes precedence over the comfort of others. This is another contributing factor to Crooks’ alienation on the ranch. With the other disabled characters, disability is viewed as a deficiency that can, nevertheless, be overcome and consequently overlooked. When George introduces Lennie, he repeatedly tells the others, “He ain’t bright. Hell of a good worker, though” (Steinbeck 34). George attempts to keep the others as comfortable as possible with Lennie by simplifying his intellectual disability into a matter of “brightness” and immediately compensating for that deficiency with physical fitness and profitability. This explanation is more or less accepted by the others, and by preserving the comfort of those higher in the social hierarchy, Lennie is given access to the bunkhouse that Crooks isn’t afforded. Despite their disabilities, Lennie and Candy are protected by their whiteness, which immediately identifies them as similar to the other workers in at least one important way.
Contrastingly, Crooks is immediately identifiable as inherently different from the others through his skin color, which is almost universally deemed as inferior. So, as he must start at the bottom of the social pyramid, his disability is viewed as an additional defect, as opposed to a singular fault that can be more easily overcome. Instead of being an obstacle to physical and social success, Crooks’ disability solidifies his place at the bottom of the social hierarchy. When Crooks is talking to Lennie and realizes he isn’t listening, he says, “This is just a n*gger talkin’, an’ a busted-back n*gger. So it don’t mean nothing, see?” (Steinbeck 69). Again, his most important identifying feature is his race, which automatically discredits him, but the addition of his “busted back” merely confirms his inferiority. The fact that Crooks himself is the one saying this shows how much he has internalized this narrative due to its constant reinforcement by others.
In order to deal with this isolation, Crooks becomes a “proud, aloof man” who “kept his distance and demanded that other people keep theirs” (Steinbeck 66), even when it goes against what he truly wants. In order to endure abuse as painlessly as possible, Crooks has learned to rid himself of any outwards expression of desire, contempt, or emotion, in general, to avoid giving his abusers additional leverage. When Curley’s wife comes into Crooks’ room and sees the three disabled characters, Crooks, Lennie, and Candy, she refers to them respectively as “a n*gger an’ a dum-dum and a lousy ol’ sheep” (Steinbeck 77). Again, Crooks’ major deficiency is not his physical disability but his race, which therefore places Curley’s wife above him on the social hierarchy. Therefore, she feels free to abuse him in a manner she doesn’t attempt with either Lennie or Candy, who are disabled white men and therefore of fairly equal standing with her. When Candy yells at her, she merely laughs and teases in response, but when Crooks loses his temper and asks her to leave, she responds with a threat to have him lynched. In response, Crooks “drew into himself… seemed to grow smaller” and finally “had reduced himself to nothing” (Steinbeck 78-9). The practiced nature of this process and his history of taking the brunt of aggression on the farm show how consistently Crooks is exposed to this kind of abuse. His persona of “proud aloofness” is a coping mechanism for the long-term anguish of constant belittlement and threats.
Crooks is consistently and unequivocally placed at the very bottom of the social hierarchy on the ranch in Of Mice and Men. This is not totally because of his race nor his disability, but because of the combination of those two identities. His race causes him to automatically be deemed as inferior to the other white workers, but his disability creates a dependence on the system that oppresses and discriminates against him. Crooks’ personality as described in the novella- detached, rigid, unkind- is, therefore, a direct result of his treatment as a black disabled man.
I hereby declare upon my word of honor that I have neither given nor received unauthorized help on this work. -Elena Marshel
Steinbeck, John. Of Mice and Men. New York, N.Y., U.S.A: Penguin Books, 1994. Print.