Oscar Micheaux is best known as one of America's first black film makers. In a highly productive career spanning 1913-1948, Micheaux published seven novels and directed and produced at least thirty-four all-black-cast films. Before starting down his controversial road to cinematic fame, Micheaux settled in South Dakota and penned some distinctly autobiographical novels built around his life as an African-American pioneer. In these books, Micheaux brings to the Great Plains the ideals of homesteading as cemented in the Homestead Act of 1862 (1) and the Frontier Thesis of Frederick Jackson Turner. Believing that the supposedly inherent opportunities of the open and unbroken Great Plains could help uplift African Americans as a whole, Micheaux also weaves into his pioneer narratives the principles of vocational industrial training championed by Booker T. Washington. In Micheaux's novels, this amalgamation of principles annuls the autobiographical character's race with reference to land ownership and agricultural development, though he consistently maintains race loyalty in his marriages. Turner's land of opportunity comes to the forefront of Micheaux's novels as he builds an occasionally successful farm under the guidance of Washington's admonition of hard work, thrift, and practical training. Looked at another way, Turner's West provides the raw materials for Micheaux's success; Washington provides the methodology. Micheaux becomes an Old West pioneer who, rather than bringing issues of race to the South Dakota frontier, subordinates his black identity in the West in favor of a transracial humanism based on financial success. Carrying Booker T. Washington's ideals to the Great Plains, Micheaux becomes a Black Turnerian.
In order to sketch the image of Micheaux as a Black Turnerian, I will first reiterate the basic principles of Turner's Frontier Thesis, a theory so rhetorically powerful that its ideology held sway as the defining logic of Western progress well into the late twentieth century. In 1893, Turner presented a paper entitled "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" to a tired and bored collection of historians at the World's Pan-Columbian Exposition in Chicago. His paper garnered neither questions from the audience nor much mention in the press. Turner's basic thesis connects American democracy and American exceptionalism to its historically peculiar Western frontier. For Turner, the frontier was the "meeting point between savagery and civilization. ... it lies at the hither edge of free land" (32-33). As white Americans flowed across the continent from east to west, they experienced "a return to primitive conditions on a continually advancing frontier line" (32). Traveling west from the Eastern seabo ard, one could pass by historical evolutionary phases in the country's development. Starting with established cities and towns in the East, one would travel first through permanent agricultural areas, then past pioneer farming settlements, and then past ranches. Further west, settlement of any kind disappeared, and one found hunters, then trappers, and, finally, moving into the realm of "savagery," only Indians and buffalo. Turner writes, "Thus American development has exhibited not merely advance along a single line, but a return to primitive conditions on a continually advancing frontier line" (32). Therefore, for Turner, the frontier, just at "the hither edge of free land," continues to move west over time, and the corresponding evolutionary phases creep westward accordingly, all driven by the "existence of an area of free land" (31).
Turner argued that the frontier was the single most definitive force shaping the American sensibility. Specifically, the frontier took the Eastern man, still replete with European "germs" or ideological kernels, and transformed him through a kind of frontier mill to form a new consciousness:
The wilderness masters the colonist. It finds him in European dress, industries, tools, modes of travel and thought. It takes him from the railroad car and puts him in the birch canoe. It strips off the garments of civilization and arrays him in the hunting shirt and moccasin... Before long he has gone to planting Indian corn and plowing with a sharp stick.... In short, at the frontier the environment is at first too strong for the man. He must accept the conditions which it furnishes, or perish. ... Little by little he transforms the wilderness, but the outcome is not the old Europe, not simply the development of Germanic germs. ... The fact is, that here is a new product that is American. (33-34)
Turner specifically alludes here to early Western exploration and trapping more so than agricultural development. But Turner develops phases, of which the stripping of "the garments of civilization" is merely the first. Attaining agricultural stability constitutes the last stage. Turner's sketch sets Native Americans at the front of his receding frontier line, laying the foundations for America's progress: "The buffalo trail became the Indian trail, and this became the trader's 'trace'; the trails widened into roads, and the roads into turnpikes, and these in turn were transformed into railroads" (40).
Micheaux sets himself squarely into the ideological matrix of Turner's Frontier Thesis through the improvement of "free land" (government purchased reservation land), the establishment of towns (as well as their attendant railroads), and the development of agriculture out of a wilderness. Micheaux arrived in South Dakota almost a decade after Turner's paper was delivered, though we might read both Micheaux's choice of pioneer over racial identity and Turner's theory of American exceptionalism through its westward expansion as evidence of an ideology of progress necessary for the development of a cohesive national consciousness. Three of Micheaux's seven novels recount his homesteading narrative by using a stand-in for the author as the main character. He also recounts his homesteading years directly in three films and touched on this apparently formative part of his life in a number of his other films and novels.
As the scholarship grows on this important figure in African-American history, we can better map out the ways in which various academic disciplines and intellectual circles reject or accept Micheaux's work. I initially became interested in Micheaux when I discovered that in 1994 the University of Nebraska Press had republished two of his novels. I initially assumed that this republication evidenced the drive to expand the canon of Western American literature to include more African-American voices, since scholars in the last two decades have sought to disprove the Hollywood images of the West and show the significant roles African Americans played in its development. Micheaux, rediscovered in the 1990s, appeared a prime candidate for aiding this history. But the content of Micheaux's narratives surprised me. As the multiculturally driven work of New Western History has become the dominant paradigm for thinking about the American West, Micheaux's resurgence might well, I reasoned, add fuel to its multicultural historical fire. (2) But a closer examination of Micheaux and all his work dealing with the American West proves otherwise. In fact, an analysis of Micheaux's Western motifs demonstrates his affinity with the myths of the Old West: boundless opportunity, self-definition, individualism, and freedom.
I frame my discussion of Micheaux by placing the scholarship into three separate but intertwined camps: film studies (particularly African-American and race film studies), pioneer narrative, and New Western History. Within film studies, Micheaux has received a great deal of attention in the last decade. His celebration comes from a growing concern for the excavation and canonization of early AfricanAmerican cinema, coupled with the discovery of a number of Micheaux's supposedly lost films. The majority of scholarship on Micheaux comes from film scholars, and this area presently has the most growth in terms of research and publication. Scholars such as Jane Gaines, Charlene Regester, Pearl Bowser, Louise Spence, and Ronald Green, among others, have devoted extensive research to Micheaux and have done remarkable work in uncovering, preserving, and promoting Micheaux's films. (3)
A second area of Micheaux scholarship places Micheaux within a fabric of Western American history and narratives of pioneer homesteading. Outside the relative abundance of scholarly articles on Micheaux's films, only a smattering of articles celebrate Micheaux's pioneer years on the Great Plains. These articles tend to expand Great Plains settlement history by adding Micheaux to its African-American component. They celebrate Micheaux under a pioneer motif and offer little analysis of the content of Micheaux's novels in favor of an exposition of the pioneer veracity contained therein. In fact, these articles on Micheaux-the-pioneer generally do not discuss his films, except to point out that Micheaux left his homesteading days to become America's premier black film maker of the early twentieth century. These articles often form a type of photographic negative to the film scholarship on Micheaux, in that film scholars tend to write little concerning Micheaux's South Dakota years, except to note that he tried fa rming before moving into film production. (4)
During the summer of 1999, I had the pleasure of attending the Fourth Annual Oscar Micheaux Film Festival in Gregory, South Dakota, an event that crossed the boundaries between these seemingly distinct fields of Micheaux scholarship. Scholars from around the U.S. attended this festival, but many of the forty or fifty attendees lived in Gregory or the surrounding areas and had come to celebrate Micheaux's pioneer heritage. They came not only to honor the pioneer history of this particular man, but to celebrate their own history as well. For many people the acclaim accorded Micheaux stood as a representation of their own heroic--and Turnerian--pioneer roots. Many recollections at the festival roundtables were punctuated with memories of someone's grandmother who knew "the black man outside of town." One presenter described Micheaux as "full of grit," declaring him really more "South Dakotan" than "African American" and more "rural Northerner" than "urban Easterner. Such claims peppered much of the discussion an d revealed the tensions between various scholars struggling for geographic predominance and identity. While scholarly work did change hands, many of the festival attendees attempted to produce what I might call "Our Micheaux," a celebration of the Turnerian homesteader who gallantly strode across the prairies, turning the land, and helping to bring civilization to the South Dakota frontier. In Gregory, Micheaux had become a venerated and larger-than-life town hero. (5)
"Our Micheaux" celebrates the pioneer heritage of the American West. For many people in Gregory, Micheaux's homesteading history, in both its successes and failures, symbolized their own family roots on the Great Plains (which we might read as a part of the American collective frontier memory). In fact, all aspects of Micheaux's persona and his legacy in Gregory fall under a pioneer leitmotif. (6) Micheaux's race simply strengthens the notion that the empty spaces and potential opportunities of the American West were a great economic and social leveler and that the West held an inherent potential for selfmade success. Under the rubric of Micheaux's history, the West becomes a race-blind environment where dedication to hard work and a "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" philosophy keeps all pioneers, regardless of race, heading toward a necessary prosperity.
Oddly enough, Micheaux does not figure prominently in the discussions of New Western Historians. This absence seems anomalous in that the rebirth of Micheaux's nove]s ought to shed more light on the history of African Americans in the West, particularly with reference to black homesteading. But the lack of Micheaux's presence in this field also appears merited because, as I will argue in this paper, Micheaux reconstructs himself within his novels as a classic Tumerian pioneer, an image at which most New Western Historians flinch when celebrated today. Also, New Western Historians may not embrace Micheaux simply because his stories operate outside the kinds of narratives that they are willing to study; that is, Micheaux writes strictly fiction, a speculative pursuit, rather than attempts at historical authenticity. Within literary study, though, Micheaux has also had a cold, or possibly indifferent, reception, excepting Joseph Young's highly critical book Black Novelist as White Racist, the only comprehensive study of any length on Micheaux's novels. (7)
The poly-vocal and multicultural logic of the narratives of New Western History precludes the celebration of a minority figure who embraces the dominant white rhetoric of Western expansion. As the scholarship on African Americans in the American West grows, scholars have focused on the ways in which the African-American experience in the West was defined racially, rather than geographically in the Turnerian sense. In all of his Western narratives, Micheaux chose to subordinate almost all issues of race to those of a progressive and civilizing frontier. In 1957, Walter Prescott Webb defined the West by a dearth of "water, timber, cities, industry, labor, and Negroes" (30); this formulation of the racial character of the American West is precisely what New Western Historians have worked to undo. As a Black Turnerian, Micheaux's presence in the grand narrative of New Western History would disrupt the idea of the West as a space defined more by the multiculturalism of its inhabitants than by the supposed transcen dence of Turner's theory of historical progress.
New Western Historians would like to challenge the veracity--and the tenacity--of the Turnerian myth by showing that whites were not the only actors on the frontier and that the myth itself swallowed up the identities of nonwhites in its narrative. Furthermore, they unveil the myth as fantasy and elaborate the political motivations and consequences of Turner's ideological endurance. But it is also important to trace the power of the Turnerian myth through the lives of Westerners--regardless of race or ethnicity. Micheaux's …