Reclaiming the Frontier: Oscar Micheaux as Black Turnerian

Article excerpt

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. …