"Alias Jeremiah": Oscar Micheaux's Pathetic Preachers

Article excerpt

"I have become a laughingstock all day long, everyone mocks me." Jeremiah 20:7 *

"My heart is crushed within me, all my bones shake, I have become like a drunkard, like one overcome with wine."--Jeremiah 22:9

"Crushed--Body and Soul."--Isabelle, from Body and Soul

This paper will survey the portrayal of preachers in two of Oscar Micheaux's earliest novels, The Conquest (1913) and The Homesteader (1917), and two of his earliest films, Within Our Gates (1920) and Brat), and Soul (1925), first demonstrating how Micheaux's apparent revulsion for preachers is a function of a related pioneer aesthetic Naming reflects this connection The second part of the essay will explicate a Jeremiah motif in the films that is redemptive, climaxing in cinematic scenes of repentance, which unsettle notions of prophetic identity, proper guilt, and censure. In this second effort, I will discuss Biblical allusions to the Book of Jeremiah in Body and Soul. Within the growing body of Micheaux criticism, Micheaux' s subtle use of the Bible has hitherto not been substantially analyzed. My reading of Micheaux's preachers aims to demonstrate a way in which Micheaux undermines stereotypical representations of African American characters.

Preachers, Incest, and the East

Throughout Oscar Micheaux's early novels and films, preachers play a role which seems to perpetuate a negative stereotype Preachers are often portrayed as sexual predators, corrupt drunkards, betrayers of faith, and egotistical reactionaries averse to progress, perversely asserting an almost incestuous inbreeding through their misogyny and oppression. Their techniques include a sort of narcotic sorcery, coupled with dissemblance of their motives and identities. Micheaux's approach seems to be founded on his personal experiences with preachers of his youth, and with an oppressive father-in-law/preacher. Furthermore, these preachers symbolize the antithesis of Micheaux's aesthetic and social purposes, which promoted race-mixing as pioneerism and were part of a movement, in physical and metaphoric terms, to the West.

Oscar Micheaux published his autobiographical first novel, The Conquest, in 1913, shortly after marrying his first wife, Mildred, the daughter of a Chicago minister, in 1910 or 1912. (1) Mildred was forced to leave Micheaux at the behest of her father, and Micheaux turned the experience into his second novel, The Homesteader, but his opinion of preachers is already evident from the first pages of The Conquest, where Micheaux lays down the framework of his political and social vision for the mobilization and economic success of Blacks, and he shows how preachers work against this progress.

The novel begins with preachers who delude Blacks and keep them from achievement. "The excuse for the negro's lack of ambition was constantly dinned into my ears from the Kagle Corner loafer to the minister in the pulpit, and I became tired of it all." (2) The aforesaid excuse, which Micheaux rejects, is the evil of white people. He sees "'the vituperation of the sins of white people" as counterproductive and reactionary, and associates the attitude with persons "the larger part of which are African M.E. ministers" (252)

This theme is cinematically played out in the film, Within Our Gates, where the preacher Old Ned "keeps negroes in their place," in the words of the racist Geraldine Stratton, by exhorting a notion of black moral superiority "Behold blacks will be first and last. Our souls are pure we go to heaven," he tells his congregation. And he appeases his white benefactors by telling them, "This is a land for the white man and black folks gotta know their place. Let the white man go to hell with his politics, wealth and sins Give me Jesus." (3)

In both cases, Micheaux's impatience with reliance on the supernatural and with the notion of inherently evil whites as obstacles to black success is part of a larger racial theory, quintessentially integrationist, and yet not interested in revolutionary politics. …