"Try to Refrain from That Desire": Self-Control and Violent Passion in Oscar Micheaux's African American Western

Article excerpt

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). …