Jean Baptiste, the protagonist of Oscar Micheaux's novel The Homesteader (1917), first appears in the narrative struggling against a howling blizzard on the plains of frontier South Dakota. (1) Micheaux's depiction of this storm, which transforms the plains into "one endless, unbroken sheet of white frost and ice," is both a realistic winter landscape description and an allegorical representation of Baptiste's social situation--a black individual who has left behind African American communities in the East to seek economic opportunity in a predominately white western frontier settlement (38). As Baptiste observes, there were "Germans from Germany" and "Swedes from Sweden" as well as Danes, Norwegians, "Poles, and Finns and Lithuanians and Russians," all homesteading in the area surrounding Gregory, South Dakota, "but of his race he was the only one" (64). This opening sequence of a solitary heroic black man advancing "resolutely forward" through snow, sometimes "directly against" the "fine grainy missiles that cut the face," effectively condenses into a single naturalistic image much of the action that follows as Baptiste struggles to succeed in an America dominated by white people (21).
This image may also figure Oscar Micheaux's own situation as a black writer working with the Western, a genre associated with white writers. The Western, the story of life on the American frontier, with its "imperial plot of valorizing white men" (Ammons 216), seems a particularly alien genre for the African American writer. How then does Oscar Micheaux negotiate the difficult task he has set for himself-to tell a story of specifically African American experience through a genre associated with advancing an ideology of white superiority and imperialism? (2)
On the one hand, Micheaux writes a Western that is perfectly in keeping with the ideology of the genre. In West of Everything (1992), Jane Tompkins points out that in the Western, the "West functions as a symbol of freedom, and of the opportunity for conquest" (4). (3) The Homesteader is just such a story of conquest, of transforming wild and savage land into civilized productive farmland. "Jean Baptiste had come West," Micheaux writes, "and staked his lot and future there, doing his part toward the building of that little empire out there in the hollow of God's hand" (107). In American myth, the West is the place of transformation and self-making, or, as Micheaux renders it, "the place for young manhood," where with "indefatigable will," a "firm determination," and a "great desire to make good," the unknown man who "had no heritage" except for his "French name" could find a level playing field "of virgin soil and undeveloped resources" and the opportunity to "work out his own destiny" and build his own little empire (Micheaux 24). (4) As in many white-authored frontier adventures, Jean Baptiste's story also justifies and celebrates the conquest and redistribution of Native American lands and territories--for such activities are necessary precursors to the building of empire and the bringing of civilization to a "savage" land. In The Homesteader, Micheaux neither condemns nor critiques the dominant culture myth of manifest destiny but rather claims a share of the spoils for the enterprising black man.
On the other hand, however, The Homesteader carefully revises the Western as Micheaux filters elements of the genre through his own experience as an African American, through his understanding and response to hegemonic cultural beliefs of his day, through his reading of African American literature generally, and through his specific knowledge of the writing and philosophies of W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington. Micheaux dedicated his first book to Washington; the thinly-veiled autobiography entitled The Conquest provides a blueprint for The Homesteader. As Pearl Bowser and Louise Spence note, Micheaux believed in "Booker T. Washington's ideal of pulling oneself up by one's own bootstraps," and he believed along with Washington that the majority of African Americans "needed models, heroes, to mold public opinion and for the elevation of public sentiment" (19-21). One such hero is Jean Baptiste, whose comments on racial uplift reveal that he shares his creator's beliefs: "If I could actually succeed, it would mean so much to the credit of a multitude of others.--Others who need the example" (109). (5) Micheaux's admiration for Washington and his belief in the goal of racial uplift inform and guide his revision of the Western.
The Homesteader is divided into four "epochs." Epoch one follows one year in Baptiste's life, from winter through spring planting to the fall harvest in which Baptiste reaps a successful crop and declares his love for Agnes Stewart, the (presumedly) white woman who saves him from freezing to death in the novel's opening sequence. Epoch two begins with Baptiste's decision to "sacrifice" his love for Agnes in the name of race loyalty. "Examples they needed," ruminates Baptiste, "and such he was glad he had become; but if he married now the one he loved, the example was lost" (147). Already in possession of 320 acres, Baptiste purchases still more land to expand his holdings: "If he or any other man of the black race could acquire one thousand acres of such land it would stand out with more credit to the Negro race than all the protestations of a world of agitators in so far as the individual was concerned" (132). In order to reach that number, he needs an African American fiancee on whose behalf he can make a claim. The story of Baptiste's courtship of and troubled marriage to Orlean McCarthy follows. This epoch ends with the death at birth of their first child, a coinciding drought that threatens to destroy Baptiste economically, and with Orlean's returning to Chicago with her father (Rev. Newton Justine McCarthy) as Baptiste helplessly watches. (6)
Epoch three describes Baptiste's fall from grace, his descent into bitterness, and his anger at his father-in-law's manipulative efforts to destroy his marriage. Nearly ruined financially and emotionally, he pulls himself up by his bootstraps in epoch four, and writes the story of his life, which he publishes, sells, and distributes himself. (7) The autobiography's return restores both his economic and his emotional health. He eventually triumphs over the McCarthy family, and the distraught Orlean murders her father and then kills herself, clearing the way for Baptiste to marry the woman he has loved from the beginning. When Agnes Stewart turns out to have African ancestry (as readers have long suspected), the barrier between the hero and his beloved is dissolved, and some 400 pages after his "sacrifice," Baptiste triumphs. At the novel's end, he brings in a successful harvest, pulls himself out of debt, and is able both to marry the woman he loves and to remain the "example" his race needs.
Baptiste's difficulties in the central sections of the book reflect Micheaux's troubles as a writer trying to create a fiction that adapts dominant culture mythology to African American experience. Baptiste's racial uplift goals, in fact, undermine his efforts to become a successful homesteader. The promises of freedom, conquest, empire, and transformation offered by the Western seem available to a black man only if he thoroughly assimilates whiteness and abandons any sense of responsibility to other blacks. Dan Moos argues that Micheaux chooses a "pioneer over [a] racial identity" and "subordinates almost all issues of race to those of a progressive and civilizing frontier" (358, 360). I want to suggest, however, that The Homesteader registers a great deal of ambivalence about that choice; rather than subordinating racial issues, Micheaux foregrounds the conflict engendered by Baptiste's efforts to be both an African American hero and a Western one.
In the pages that follow, I argue that The Homesteader is a generic hybrid, part Western, part racial uplift saga, that is filled with contradictions, doubles, and doppelgangers. I argue that Micheaux adapts the central structuring opposition of the Western--the essential difference between the civilized East and the wild West--to articulate Baptiste's sense of double-consciousness, his conflicting desires to maintain and to erase his racial identity, to remain connected to the African American East and at the same time to strike out on his own into the white world of the western frontier. At times, the novel seems to pull itself apart as Micheaux tries to bring both plots--of frontier conquest, of racial uplift--to successful completion. Only the melodramatic concluding events (the murder-suicide, the "surprise" revelation of racial ancestry) enable Baptiste's happy ending. This generic twoness is reflected by other incidents of doubling throughout the novel. For example, the virtues and behaviors that the book celebrates (practicality, determination, property ownership) and those it condemns (weakness, frivolity, vice) are personified through opposing characters. Micheaux uses contemporaneous notions of gender as a way of naturalizing positive and negative character qualities as manly or unmanly, womanly or unwomanly. The West is "the place for young manhood," while the East is the home of Baptiste's other and opposite, the Reverend McCarthy with his "womanish smile" (268).
1. The East and the West
To me it was like living back in ages gone, this way of meeting my friend, this choice of a stream so far and lonely that its very course upon the maps was wrongly traced. And to leave behind all noise and mechanisms, and set out at ease, slowly, with one packhorse, into the wilderness, made me feel that the ancient earth was indeed my mother and that I had found her again after being lost among houses, customs, and restraints. (Wister 323)
In the Western, Tompkins writes, the West is the symbolic place of freedom that offers "escape from the conditions of life in modern industrial society: from a mechanized existence, economic dead ends, social entanglements, unhappy personal relations, political injustice" (4). In the myth of the West, freed from the constraints of civilization, the individual returns to an Edenic state of existence--to natural ways of being and behaving. For the black pioneer, the West symbolizes escape from those "conditions of life" specific to African American existence in the East and the South (segregation, anti-black violence, Jim Crow laws). Baptiste's western freedom involves being a "man like any other man" unencumbered by race …