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Reclaiming the Frontier: Oscar Micheaux as Black Turnerian.

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 creation of a Black Turnerian presents an intriguing case-study for this act of ideological tracking for, as Houston Baker, writes:

the legends of men conquering wild and virgin lands are not the legends of black America;... and tales of pioneers enduring the hardships of the West for the promise of immense wealth are not the tales of black America.... To black America, frontier is an alien word; for, in essence, all frontiers established by the white psyche have been closed to the black man. (2)

According to Baker, the Turnerian myth was never meant to apply to Micheaux; even the origins of the Frontier Thesis are alien to black America. Though the frontier process produced Turner's "new product that is American," the new American, this distinct character still mutated from "European germs" (Turner 32). Micheaux's origins, though, lie in the institution of Southern slavery, an institution that destroyed all sense of heritage and ancestry for many African Americans at the time.

While the reasons I have delineated above may explain why New Western History, or any progressive discourse outside of African-American film studies for that matter, has not embraced Micheaux, historians and literary critics would do well to pay attention to the resurgence of interest in this important African-American figure. As an African-American novelist and film maker who incorporates stories of the American West into his work, Micheaux challenges the dispossession offered by both Turnerian narratives ("Our Micheaux") and New Western History. Turnerian paradigms necessarily incorporate and erase ethnic identity in their reconstruction of history, thus annulling racial difference. Turner himself even goes so far as to say, "In the crucible of the frontier the [European] immigrants were Americanized, liberated, and fused into a mixed race, English in neither nationality nor characteristics" (47). But the narratives of New Western History tend to disallow the power of the Turnerian myth as a driving force f or both settlement and idealism, especially for people of color moving into this region. In either of these paradigms, Micheaux cannot be both black and a Turnerian at the same time, yet this ideal remains the model through which he constructs all of his Western narratives. In Turner's narrative, often called Triumphalist History, the growth, progress, and development of the West are evidence of the success of both this region and the new American ideology which the frontier spawned.

But to claim Micheaux as a Black Turnerian is not to say that Micheaux was necessarily a successful Western homesteader, for he was not. Rather, his claim to Turnerian ideals and privilege illustrates the power and desirability of the myth's promises. In the spirit of New Western History, reading Micheaux "colors" the West, but he also complicates the relationship between racial privilege and Western identity in both the oppressive and white-washing Old Western History and the liberatory and revisionist New Western History. Jayna Brown argues that Micheaux "was at once reactionary and potentially progressive" (146), and as this seemingly contradictory character of a Black Turnerian, Micheaux embraced the myth of an ever dynamic and enterprising West in an attempt to locate his identity within this progressive vision of American national culture, thus discounting race as a causal factor for failure or injustice.

Though Micheaux consistently presented himself, and his central characters, as a lone black man homesteading on the wilderness of the frontier plains, a look at the historical situations of his--and other African Americans'--settling helps to contextualize both his fictions and his ideals. There is no repository for Micheaux's papers, as Micheaux's widow held them and possibly destroyed them after his death (VanEpps-Taylor 142). Therefore, any attempt at biography holds a certain degree of speculation. Most biographical information must be gleaned from his novels, particularly his fictional autobiography The Conquest. (8)

Micheaux was born in 1884 near Metropolis in southern Illinois. After leaving home he held numerous jobs, the longest being as a train porter, based out of Chicago. In 1904, convinced that urban life had bred depravity, greed, sloth, and arrogance in late-nineteenth-century black Americans, Micheaux tried to acquire a quarter-section (160 acres) on the newly opened eastern portion of the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in South Dakota. Though he did not succeed in the land lottery, in which filers' names were drawn at random for allotments, he did purchase a relinquishment (a sale of a claim originally acquired through the land lottery) later that year and settled on it in 1905. (9) Micheaux remained in South Dakota, farming and growing his landholdings until 1918 when, after over a decade of homesteading, including two years of drought, three self-published novels, and a broken marriage, Micheaux turned his attention to film making and left South Dakota, apparently never to return. Twenty-two years later, the pion eer turned film maker who described himself as having "grown quite tall and rugged" in South Dakota (Conquest 69), was reported by the Sioux Falls Argus Leader as "liv[ing] in New York and driv[ing] to Chicago in a 16-cylinder car with a white chauffeur. He weighs over three hundred pounds" (qtd. in Herbert 65). Micheaux died of a heart attack in 1951 after three decades of dedication to African-American film production.

Micheaux chose to homestead in South Dakota because he had little money with which to purchase already improved farmland. He concluded that "one whose capital was under eight or ten thousand dollars...must go where the land was raw or new and undeveloped" (Con quest53). Paraphrasing Horace Greeley's pronouncement to "Go west, young man, and grow up with the country," Micheaux felt that anyone with so little capital should "begin with the beginning and develop with the development of the country" (Conquest 53). (10) South Dakota, with its newly opened reservation lands, fit precisely this ideal of "raw or new and undeveloped" land. The Rosebud country, as this region came to be known, was the beginning for Micheaux; here he could develop with the country. Following the dominant logic of westward expansion during the nineteenth century, Micheaux emigrated away from the apparent depravity of urban centers and westward toward a land of opportunity and easily acquired land. By 1904, little of this undeveloped land existed, and Micheaux moved to one of the last openings of public land in this country, the eastern edge of the Rosebud Sioux Reservation. (11)

Perhaps as a result of his pioneer philosophies, Micheaux wrote articles for the Chicago Defender in 1910 and 1911, chastising African Americans for excessive consumption and a weak work ethic, especially for an apparent lack of drive toward exploring new opportunities. He writes in his first article, "Where the Negro Fails":

I return from Chicago each trip I make more discouraged each year with the hopelessness of his [the young Negro's foresight. His inability to use common sense is discouraging.... The Negro leads in the consumption of produce, and especially meat, and then his fine clothes--he hasn't the least thought of where the wool grew that he wears. (1)

As a booster, though, Micheaux urges African Americans to follow in his footsteps and take up homesteading. He urges any black male with drive and a small nest egg to seek self-sufficiency through agriculture. Micheaux opens his article with an anecdote about a young man who had drawn a number at a recent land opening in South Dakota. When Micheaux questions him as to his plans, the young man responds ambivalently, claiming an engagement to a "young society girl...[who] would not think of going out in the wilderness like that" and a general lack of support from his Chicago friends. Micheaux curtly advises him, "I think you had better stay in Chicago. For any one with no more force had no business in South Dakota or any part of the northwest." Micheaux also advises this young man not to ask the opinion of "the average colored man," but rather to "ask the president of the St. Paul [rail]road or the president of the First National bank or any other great man and see what they say" (1). As the model of a self-suf ficient black man, Micheaux sets himself apart from urban African Americans and urges his readers to compare his success to that of other--likely white--"great" men.

In his second article for the Chicago Defender, "Colored Americans Too Slow," Micheaux more strongly urges African Americans to seek Western agriculture as a solution to economic and social inequalities that African Americans experienced in the East and in large cities. Micheaux, identified in the byline as "Government Crop Expert for Rosebud County," tells of the almost tenfold increase in land values since he arrived in South Dakota. He notes that, when he arrived in South Dakota, the land was "raw and undeveloped," but has since become "an improved county, including railroads, several good towns, rural free delivery, Bell Telephone company operates all the phones; in fact all the improvements you find in countries 100 years old" (1). While Micheaux seeks in these articles to increase the black agricultural population in the West and build help self-sufficiency among African Americans, his strategy relies primarily on attacking African Americans for their lack of entrepreneurial drive, especially with regar d to agrarian pursuits. For example, in this second article, Micheaux castigates a "presiding elder in the Methodist conference" who claimed he would register for a recent land opening but never followed through with the paperwork, thus leading Micheaux to declare that "it's not the individual, but the cause that follow[s] such pretensions that is detrimental to our young people" (1). While Micheaux's attack on this particular elder may be personally motivated, he again sets himself apart from urban African Americans who he claims cannot see the value of agricultural self-sufficiency.

Though Micheaux was quite possibly one of the only African Americans attempting to acquire an allotment from the Rosebud Sioux Reservation, African-American homesteading in the West was by no means a rarity. In fact, Micheaux's homesteading in South Dakota in 1905 was relatively late in the history of African-American settlement west of the Mississippi River. Though individual African Americans moved west throughout the nineteenth century, the two most significant Western settlements occurred in the 1880s and 1890s. With the end of Reconstruction and the subsequent narrowing of ex-slaves' civil liberties, many African Americans felt that they could find less oppression outside the South. In 1879, under the urging of Benjamin "Pap" Singleton, an ex-slave who established the Edgefield (Tennessee) Real Estate and Homestead Association, roughly 4,000 blacks migrated to Kansas to homestead in and around a number of all-black towns. Though black settlers steadily streamed into Kansas throughout the 1880s, the much publicized Exodus of 1879 brought the largest single influx of black Southerners into the state (Painter 146-47). Escaping the injustices of the post-Reconstruction South, many African Americans turned to the empty spaces of unsettled Kansas in hopes of creating a refuge from race hatred. In Kansas they built all-black towns, developed homesteads, and acquired land. But within a decade or two, many of the black towns had, to use Robert G. Athearn's words, "withered on the vine" (75), and black Kansans became atomistically absorbed into the State as dreams of black political power faded from view.

Though the Exodus to Kansas was highly publicized, the Indian Territory, to the south, also proved fertile ground for African Americans fleeing the post-Reconstruction South. Initially, many African Americans arrived there as slaves of the Indian tribes that were relocated from the South in the early part of the nineteenth century. After the end of the Civil War, the federal government negotiated treaties with three tribes, freeing the black slaves. In 1870, the U.S. Census reported 6,378 African Americans in the Indian Territory, or roughly 9.4 percent of the total population there (Taylor 104). By 1890, this count had at least tripled (see Taylor 135; and also Carney 148, whose figures are higher). Though the actual numbers of African Americans in the Indian Territory were lower than in Kansas, blacks in the Indian Territory and parts of the Oklahoma Territory founded more black settlements and more vociferously advocated for a black state. Between 1859 and 1907, the date of Oklahoma statehood, somewhere be tween twenty-nine and thirty-two all-black towns were born. In the late 1880s, parts of present-day Oklahoma, then entitled the Unassigned Lands (as the Sac, Fox, Apache, and other tribes had been relocated west to the Oklahoma Territory), opened to homesteading with the famous "land run" in April of 1889. By early 1891, seven all-black towns were firmly established in Oklahoma. During this period, E. P. McCabe, an active leader in the black town of Nicodemus, Kansas, in the 1880s, lobbied for the territorial governorship of the Oklahoma Territory from President Benjamin Harrison, thus hoping to tip the balance of political power toward the Twin Territory's African-American population. Though McCabe failed in his bid for territorial governor, he helped build the Oklahoma Territory's reputation as a land of opportunity for black Americans looking for new lives.

By the turn of the century, roughly 765,000 African Americans lived in the West, about 80 percent of them in Texas. (12) Of the other 20 percent, 52,000 lived in Kansas (36 percent of this group) and 55,700 lived in the Twin Territories (39 percent of this group). One of the states with the fewest African Americans was South Dakota, with only North Dakota, Idaho, and Nevada having fewer black residents. Of the nearly 144,300 blacks living in the West outside of Texas, only 465 (0.03 percent) resided in South Dakota in 1900, a full five years before Micheaux arrived there to try his pioneer luck with his savings to purchase a piece of the Western homesteading pie (all figures are from Taylor 135).

As many African Americans moved west, they focused on building all-black towns and colonies as collective enterprises. The two most famous black towns in the West were Nicodemus, Kansas, a town built initially by Exodusters, and Boley, Oklahoma. In one of his few comments on African-American settlement in the West, Booker T. Washington called Boley "the youngest, the most enterprising, and in many ways the most interesting of the Negro towns in the United States" ("Boley" 28). (13) Micheaux's tenure in South Dakota coincided with the presence of a number of all-black agricultural colonies in other areas of the Great Plains. Not far north of Micheaux's land lay the Sully Colony, founded in the late nineteenth century. At its peak population in 1920, Sully boasted 13 black families (VanEpps-Taylor 53; Bernson and Eggers 251-52). To the east, along the Missouri River lay the Yankton Colony. Though less of an agricultural establishment, the black population of Yankton in 1920 was 144, 17 percent of the entire bla ck population statewide (Bernson and Eggers 253). Less close to home, but still important to black Plains settlement were agricultural colonies such as Dewitty, which sprang up near Brownlee, Nebraska, and the town of Dearfield, Colorado. Both of these colonies focused on homesteading, agricultural improvement, and self-government. (14) Dewitty, Sully, and Dearfield all peaked in their success in the early 1920s and then slowly disintegrated as new generations moved to cities or found farming too difficult or too uncertain an occupation. (15)

Surely, as Betti Carol VanEpps-Taylor has speculated, Micheaux could not have been ignorant of these other African Americans' attempting similar projects of racial uplift and agricultural success (53). But Micheaux's novels paint him as a lone black man breaking the frontier prairie. Most of his comments concerning other African Americans he meets in the West tend toward criticisms of their passing or of interracial marriages, thus leaving Micheaux as the single righteous figure, paradoxically advocating for race pride as well as a raceless frontier. He makes no mention whatsoever of these various black settlements, even though Sully was less than 100 miles from his homestead.

Micheaux relies on the image of the solitary homesteader because it adheres most closely to Turnerian ideals of American exceptionalism and a nation mastered by the Western progress of individuals. The depiction of the lone black homesteader drives Micheaux's three autobiographical novels set in South Dakota: The Conquest (1913), The Homesteader (1917), and The Wind from Nowhere (1941), the first two written during Micheaux's homesteading years there. The central character in each novel is a thinly veiled stand-in for Micheaux, and though the names change, this character propels the same narrative in each retelling of Micheaux's story. Micheaux develops three almost identical characters to people these nearly autobiographical stories: Oscar Devereaux in The Conquest, Jean Baptiste in The Homesteader, and Martin Eden in The Wind from Nowhere. All three novels recount essentially the same story of a black man born in southern Illinois who moves to Chicago to work as a porter. Inspired by stories he hears from p assengers crossing the West, he saves his wages and moves to South Dakota to acquire land at the Rosebud opening. After purchasing a relinquishment, he settles into improving his property and begins searching for a suitable--that is, black--wife. Eventually, meeting and marrying a woman in Chicago, he amasses more property by having his wife homestead on a second section of Rosebud Reservation land that opened in 1908.

In each story, the imperious father-in-law, a well-known Methodist minister, disapproves of the homesteader's ideals, and the minister's interference eventually destroys the marriage. Also in each novel, before finding his wife, the homesteader falls in love with a white neighbor, but decides not to pursue his affections due to a sense of race loyalty. His affection for the white woman in each novel develops out of romantic regard and attraction, while his desire for a black wife principally fulfills the homesteader's need for black companionship, as well as his desire to acquire more land.

Micheaux's homesteader undoubtedly holds a great deal of affection for his wife, though Micheaux consistently depicts her as weak and easily swayed by her domineering father and disdainful sister. The Conquest closes with Devereaux's wife's decision to stay with her father in Chicago, thus rejecting her husband's homesteading ideals. In both The Homesteader and The Wind from Nowhere, Micheaux extends this narrative with the home-steader's attempts to win his wife back from the control of her father. Eventually, the homesteader's wife, torn between the two strong male figures who vie for her attention, kills her father and then commits suicide. With the death of the wife, Micheaux opens up the narrative for the return of the white woman, who in the last pages of both novels discovers that she, in fact, has a black heritage and thus can now consummate her relationship with the homesteader. Micheaux writes The Conquest as an autobiography of Oscar Devereaux and spends over half the novel discussing the politics of land openings and town building in South Dakota, particularly with reference to the possibilities of railroad extensions, while The Homesteader and The Wind from Nowhere read more like conventional novels, with more attention to the development and interactions of his characters. The essential plot-line of each of these narratives changes little, though only in The Homesteader and The Wind From Nowhere do the white lovers actually resurface with black blood.

Micheaux's focus in his South Dakota novels is twofold. Primarily he tells the story of an African-American pioneer who acquires land and becomes a successful farmer on the South Dakota plains. But Micheaux is also concerned with the general position of African Americans in turn-of-the-century America, believing that the "free land" of the West could provide the cure to racial ills in other parts of the country. Micheaux's initial concern is for the development and success of the homesteader. For example, he desires a wife during these early years on the plains for purely material reasons. In The Homesteader, Baptiste's marriage proposal becomes a formal business invitation: "'Now, to be frank, I have always regarded matrimony as a business proposition, and while sentiment is a very great deal in a way, business considerations should be the first expedient.... I am at present, on the high road to success, and, because of that, I want a wife, a dear kind girl as a mate'" (183-84). Micheaux's homesteader requir es this wife more than he desires her. His wife can file on land that he cannot, though only before the actual marriage. Through marriage, the homesteader can begin his project of racial uplift through Western self-sufficiency and land ownership.

For Micheaux, the first building block for this project must be a family, especially since Micheaux believed himself the only African American in his region of South Dakota. The only contact that he had with other African Americans in South Dakota was when "a show troupe or concert of some kind" would come to one of the local towns (Conquest 157). In The Conquest, Micheaux/Devereaux writes, "This was my fifth year and still there had not been a colored person on my land" (194). Soon after this fifth year, Devereaux's sister and grandmother move to relinquishments nearby. (Micheaux's sister Olivia and his grandmother Melvina [Micheaux] did exactly this around 1909; see VanEpps-Taylor 62-63). With the arrival of his sister and grandmother. Devereaux and his family acquire a comparatively large amount of land. Now with his wife an ostensible homesteader and his sister and grandmother settling on nearby land, Devereaux, as patriarch, not only increases his landholdings, but can begin his dream of African-American settlement on the High Plains. With the ownership of numerous quarter-sections in his family, Micheaux's homesteader secures the definitive marker of pioneer success.

Micheaux saw the opportunities to acquire land and farm in the West as a great antidote to the social ills confronting turn-of-the-century urban blacks. By directly improving undeveloped Western lands, African Americans could focus on bettering themselves individually, thus helping the race as a whole. Micheaux felt that African Americans became distracted by idle concerns by remaining in cities, especially by conspicuous consumption. Worst of all, Micheaux "found a certain class in large and small towns alike whose object in life was obviously nothing, but who dressed up and aped the white people" (Conquest 195). The empty plains demanded a focus on self-improvement, the alternative being imminent failure. But for Micheaux, only economic survival measured one's success. In fact, farming appeared to be the great race-leveler. He writes in The Homesteader, "Only in the pursuit of agriculture can the black man not complain that he is discriminated against on account of his color" (430). For Micheaux, the land d id not distinguish between its tillers, and the land determined fortune or failure.

Micheaux does not ignore his blackness; rather, he simply finds that it plays no role in his successes or failures in South Dakota. He constantly compares himself to his white neighbors, partially because he has no black ones, but also out of a sense of respect for their pioneer goals--goals that for Micheaux translate seamlessly across racial boundaries in the "raw or new and undeveloped" West: "Before I had any colored people to discourage me with their ignorance of business or what is required for success, I was stimulated to effort by the example of my white neighbors and friends[,] who were doing what I admired, building an empire" (Con quest 244).

Micheaux credits many of his beliefs in the possibilities of racial uplift in the West to Booker T. Washington; in fact, Micheaux dedicates The Conquest to the Tuskegee educator. Given the popular sense that the West was the place to make one's fortune or start a new life in the second half of the nineteenth century-and many African Americans did just that-Washington, rather oddly, wrote almost nothing about the West. Washington's 1908 article in The Outlook on Boley, Oklahoma, is one of very few of his published statements on the possibilities of the West for African Americans. Washington writes of Boley that "behind all other attractions of the new colony is the belief that here negroes would find greater opportunities and more freedom of action than they would have been able to find in the older communities North or South" (31). Primarily, though, Washington presents Boley as a black town not unlike many others; his consideration of its Western locale seems only useful in producing a few colorful stories a bout this town "where, it is said, no white man has ever let the sun go down upon him" (30). His only other comments about the West are rather harsh words concerning the Exodus to Kansas, which he calls "an uprising" against "real or fancied oppression" that ultimately "created such embarrassment among the planters in the region from which the emigration took place" (Story of the Negro 1:185-86).

A few specific Western personalities do crop up in Washhington's writing, namely the Arkansas judge Mifflin Wistar Gibbs and Junius P. Groves, the "Potato King" (see The Negro in Business 218-21 and 29-37). Washington lauds both these figures for their success in business, thus evidencing the value of his principles of industrial education, but he says little of them as Western figures. Before moving to Arkansas, Gibbs opened a successful shoe store in San Francisco in the 1850s; soon thereafter he traveled to Victoria, British Columbia, to open the first coal mine on the Pacific coast. Groves was an extremely successful potato grower in Kansas who came there in the Exodus of 1879 with but ninety cents. Through thrift, hard work, and prudent business practices, Groves bought land and grew his potato farm to more than 500 acres. By 1906, Groves was considered the most successful African American in Kansas, if not the entire West.16 But Washington does not discuss the possibilities that the West specifically ma y have provided for each of these men. (17) The West, even at the turn of the century, still represented a land of opportunity in the public imagination, but Washington refuses to support the mythology of Western promise. Washington's few comments on the West reveal a belief that the region provided no special opportunities for African-American advancement. He generally advocated that African Americans, especially in the South, remain where they were and improve their conditions locally. (18)

Despite Washington's relative silence on the West, Micheaux transfers Washington's belief in the importance of thrift, hard work, and vocational values over intellectual values into the narrative of development of the South Dakota plains through each of his homesteaders. Washington advocates the "dignity of labor" and "self-reliance" (Up From Slavery 69, 70. for example), which Micheaux then translates into "common sense" (Wind 161). In Up From Slavery, Washington admonishes supposedly frivolous intellectual pursuits such as French grammar, cube roots, or "banking and discounting" (94-95) and instead locates the possibilities for racial uplift in purely economic pursuits. Washington even considers the idea that increased business acumen or a singular focus on economic production could substantially offset the loss of various civil rights:

A large part of the work which Tuskegee Institute did in those early years...has been to show the masses of our people that in agriculture, in the industries, in commerce, and in the struggle for economic success, there were compensations for the losses they had suffered in other directions. In doing this, we did not seek to give the people the idea that political rights were not valuable or necessary, but rather to impress upon them that economic efficiency was the foundation for every kind of success. (Story of the Negro 2:192)

Success for blacks came through economic self-sufficiency, particularly through the acquisition of capital, and most notably cash: "There is a little green ballot that he can vote through the teller's window 313 days in every year and no one will throw it out or refuse to count it" (Washington, Booker 43). According to Washington's principles, Micheaux's success as an African-American pioneer would best be judged by the size of his bank account. (19) Micheaux's South Dakota novels present a way in which Washington's philosophy of racial uplift can be translated onto the apparently blank tableau of Turner's frontier. Through Micheaux, Washington's ideals set to work on the Great Plains become more a race-blind call for pioneer self-sufficiency and self-definition.

Micheaux believed in the boundless possibilities of the American West, "the land of raw material, which my dreams had pictured to me as the land of real beginning" (Conquest 47). But after 1918, Micheaux gave up farming altogether, and some local lore contends that Micheaux left South Dakota with numerous outstanding debts to people around Gregory (Herbert 65). But what should we make of Micheaux's almost obsessive need to tell his homesteading story again and again? The West was a fetish for Micheaux, and though he left there a failed homesteader, he maintained his unflagging belief in the opportunities supposedly innate to that vast region. Besides the three novels that relate his South Dakota experiences, Micheaux would return to the symbol of the West in numerous other productions, both written and cinematic, throughout his career.

Beyond his three autobiographical homesteaders, Micheaux also created Sidney Wyeth in his second novel, The Forged Note (1915), as another stand-in for himself. Wyeth is a black farmer from South Dakota who sells his autobiographical novel about homesteading door-to-door in the South. In both The Story of Dorothy Stan field (1946) and The Case of Mrs. Win gate (1945), Wyeth again appears, but this time as a famous "pioneer Negro Motion Picture producer" living in Harlem (Case 73). In these novels, Wyeth is a misunderstood but celebrated artist who, after a heyday of activity in the pervious two decades, has fallen from popularity and makes the bulk of his living writing novels. Distinctive of this later version of Wyeth is his earlier life homesteading on the Great Plains, which adds to the reverence and historical weight bestowed upon him by others in the novels.

The Forged Note represents Wyeth's entrance onto Micheaux's stage as a traveling bookseller fresh from the Dakota plains, pushing his novel to stores and individuals in Atlanta and Birmingham. Early in the novel, Wyeth's wife-to-be, Mildred, recounts Wyeth's description of South Dakota from his autobiographical novel The Tempest

The story opens up on the banks of the river, near this city.... It concerns a young man, restless and discontented, who regarded the world as a great opportunity. So he set forth to seek his fortune.... Thus it began, but shortly, it led through a maze of adventures, to a land in the west. It is, perhaps, the land of the future; a land in which opportunity awaits for courageous youths, strong men, and good women.... This land is called The Rosebud Indian Reservation. It lays in southern South Dakota, and slopes back from the banks of the "Big Muddy," stretching for many miles into the interior beyond. It is a prairie country. No trees, stumps, rocks or stones mar the progress of civilization. So the white men and only a few blacks unloaded at a town on or near the frontier. I think it is called Bonesteel. And then the mighty herd of human beings flocked and settled over all that broad expanse, claiming it by the right of conquest.

Among these many, conspicuous at the front, was the hero of this narrative. He came into a share, a creditable share, and, although far removed from the haunts of his own, and surrounded on all sides by a white race, he was duly inoculated with that spirit which makes men successful.

Time went on, and in a few years there was no more reservation, but it became The Rosebud Country, the land of the optimist. (61-62)

But drought often proved more powerful than optimism, and Micheaux, along with many others, lost his crops during severe droughts in 1910 and 1911. In "the land of the optimist" no rain meant worthless property and conclusive poverty. By the time Micheaux lauded the golden opportunities of the Great Plains in The Forged Note, he had already given up homesteading. He was financially overextended; he had lost his wife's allotment to an unscrupulous banker, and his marriage had failed. Micheaux focused instead on writing and selling his books door-to-door, just as Wyeth does in The Forged Note. By 1917, Micheaux began keeping an apartment in Sioux City, South Dakota, and decisively turned his back on "the land of the future" in favor of the more lucrative land of novels and film production. Now, no longer just a book salesman, Micheaux traveled door-to-door to raise capital for his first motion picture venture, a film of The Homesteader (see Bowser and Spence 10-14)

Micheaux also used the theme of the regenerative Western wilderness-- "the land of the optimist"--as the basis for a number of his films. In The Homesteader (1918), Micheaux retells his story of a black homesteader's hardships on the South Dakota prairie. Like the novel upon which it was based, the story closes with the revelation that the homesteader's white lover actually has black ancestry. In 1931, Micheaux directed The Exile, his first talkie, in which a young black man in Chicago leaves his fiancee to farm on the plains of South Dakota after becoming distressed over her debauched lifestyle, a product of her urban environment. In South Dakota, the hero meets and falls in love with a white woman who eventually discovers that she has black blood. The last retelling of Micheaux's homesteading narrative comes as his last film, The Betrayal, a production of his novel The Wind From Nowhere (1941). Little is known of this film, as no print survives and the film flopped at the box office. (20) In other films, Mi cheaux used the "frontier" as a ground for solace or economic rejuvenation. In The Symbol of the Unconquered (1920), a film that condemns the racism of D. W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation, Micheaux constructs a hero who finds riches on Western oil-bearing land and defeats Ku Klux Klan terrorism for his right to this lucrative property. In The Virgin of the Seminole (1922), a young black man, through his pluck and determination, becomes a Canadian Mountie and buys a large ranch that earns him great financial success. In The Dungeon, also from 1922, a despairing lover heads to an Alaskan mining claim, where he strikes it rich before returning to his lover and righteously winning her over from her crooked husband--by killing him. And in 1927 Micheaux created a "Wild Bill of the Pampas" in The Millionaire, a black cowboy who finds success and wealth on the plains of South America before returning home for the typical underworld intrigue found in many of Micheaux's films. (21)

Micheaux's vision of the West in all his narratives except the first clashed with Western realities, especially for African Americans. About the time that Micheaux's films and later books extolled the inspiration and prosperousness of the West for African Americans, the numerous all-black towns throughout the West had begun to crumble both socially and economically. On the largest scale, African Americans in Oklahoma suffered radical institutional changes in their lives when the legislature of the newly formed State passed various Jim Crow laws, including segregation codes and statutes which disenfranchised all black voters. The establishment of Oklahoma as a state in 1907, just one year before Washington visited Boley and about the same time as Micheaux began his homesteading venture further north, inaugurated the slow disassociation of Oklahoma's all-black towns. By the 1930s all of the black agricultural settlements on the Great Plains had failed or entered into significant economic downslides. Dewitty, Ne braska, began depopulating in the 1920s. The Sully Colony in South Dakota had only eighteen members in it by 1940 (Bernson and Eggers 254). In 1946, Dearfield's total population consisted of its founder, Oliver T. Jackson, now quite elderly, and his niece (Taylor 155). As Micheaux extolled the Great Plains as a space of boundless possibilities and success for the hardworking African American, the very collectives that tried to enact these Western ideals had begun to fragment or had disappeared altogether.

But Micheaux resolutely refutes the realities of the West for African Americans, particularly in the last retelling of his now familiar homesteading narrative. Though Micheaux makes no mention of the nearby African-American settlements in either The Conquest or The Homesteader, The Wind From Nowhere concludes with the establishment of an all-black agricultural colony on the plains, where his hero has homesteaded. In many ways, The Wind From Nowhere best exemplifies Micheaux's formulation of the Black Turnerian through Martin Eden, Micheaux's last--and most interesting--construction of himself. (22) But this persona, also an Illinois-born ex-porter turned homesteader who builds a successful agricultural enterprise on the newly opened South Dakota plains, more clearly articulates Micheaux's desires for race loyalty and African-American improvement on the Great Plains, while simultaneously pursuing the Turnerian dream.

The Wind From Nowhere opens with Eden as an already successful homesteader and rancher. Finally purchasing his last parcel of land to complete his whole 640-acre section, Eden is preparing to send" a couple of car loads of cattle and one of hogs" to Chicago for sale (27). He envisions building an agricultural "estate" on the South Dakota plains, beginning with the acquisition of more recently available land. Eden, like his counterparts Devereaux and Baptiste, begins his accumulations with his own quarter-section relinquishment. He then adds to his holdings through the home-steading of his sister and grandmother and through purchases of land already developed by others. In many ways, the hardscrabble beginnings of the greenhorn pioneer, best exemplified by Oscar Devereaux in The Conquest, lie behind Martin Eden at the opening of The Wind From Nowhere. As a now established figure on the South Dakota landscape, Eden turns his attentions toward his concerns for the racial uplift of other African Americans.

Martin Eden's story is essentially the same as the narratives of the earlier permutations of his character. As in The Conquest and The Homesteader, Micheaux builds a drama of pioneer life, but adds more plot twists and intensifies his main character's relationships with his white neighbors. Primarily, The Wind From Nowhere is a story of the interweaving of love and property in Martin Eden's mission to tame the Western wilderness. Settling in South Dakota, Martin Eden initially focuses on transforming the prairie into productive farmland. With these goals accomplished, Eden begins a search for a wife. Though he finds himself attracted to Deborah Stewart, the daughter of a white neighbor, he refuses her affections in favor of maintaining race loyalty in his marriage. Like his earlier narrative counterparts, Eden eventually finds a suitable partner in Chicago in Linda Lee, the daughter of a well-known black minister. Linda moves to South Dakota to help Eden acquire another quarter-section of newly opened Reserva tion land before they marry, much to the disapproval of her father, who believes that Eden only proposes to Linda to increase his landholdings. Eden and Linda lead a happy life for the first months together in South Dakota until Linda finds she is pregnant. Linda's sister Terry advises that Linda" 'get rid of it'" (210) since, from Terry's urban perspective, the wilds of South Dakota seem domestically unsuitable for child rearing. Ignoring her overbearing sister's advice, Linda has the child and names him Martin Junior (in both The Conquest and The Homesteader, the baby is stillborn). Soon after Martin Junior's birth, which occurs while Eden is away moving "loads and stock" for his claims, Reverend Lee and Terry race to South Dakota and begin to dismantle Eden and Linda's marriage by plying Linda with disparaging and deceitful attacks on Eden's character. Eventually, Reverend Lee and Terry kidnap Linda and take her back to Chicago, where they turn her altogether against her husband. Eden feels that he has los t his wife entirely through the designs of his father-in-law, and in a fit of rage he travels to Chicago to bring Linda back to South Dakota, vowing to kill Reverend Lee if he should stand in his way. In a physical struggle, Linda accidentally shoots Eden with his own gun, wounding him in the arm, upon which Eden decides that his marriage has failed and returns to South Dakota to "try to start all over again" (323).

As Eden tries to rebuild his shattered love life, a corrupt--and failed-- banker named Eugene Crook continues his longstanding contest of Linda's ownership of the quarter-section that she homesteaded immediately before her marriage to Eden. Crook claims that Linda cannot continue to hold the title to the property on the grounds of "insufficient residence" (200). Though Linda eventually wins the contest, Crook visits Chicago to buy the property from Linda's father after Crook learns that this land holds an immense manganese deposit. The Reverend Lee accepts Crook's offer of 500 dollars without knowing that the courts had voted against Crook's earlier contestations of Linda's right to the land--and without knowledge of the mineral wealth that lay beneath its hills. At the same time as Crook bargains with Reverend Lee, Deborah, Eden's white love, ventures to Chicago and learns of her African-American lineage. She overhears Crook's plans while on the train to Chicago and only barely misses informing Linda of the banker's intentions before he closes the deal with her father. Furious at Linda for her shortsightedness and weak will toward her overbearing family, Deborah reveals to Linda her father's arrogance and her grievous mistake in selling Crook her land. She angrily berates Linda and her family for their treatment of Eden. In a frenzy of grief and anguish, Linda attacks and kills her father with a knife. Then, still distraught and confused, Linda leaves her house searching for Deborah to tell her to marry Eden, but in her delirium, she wanders into the street and is struck and killed by a limousine. With Linda now dead, Deborah learns that, if she can prove residency on Linda's claim before Crook can file his purchase of the relinquishment, she will be awarded the property under the rights of prior residence. She races Cook back to South Dakota, beating him to the property only because her horse can swim a swollen creek that his car cannot cross. The land office upholds her claim of residency, and through the dete rmination of her African-American heritage, Eden's wilderness becomes complete with the addition to his life of both his original love and some distinctly profitable property. Concluding the narrative, Deborah and Eden marry and begin the establishment of black industry and agriculture on the South Dakota plains funded by mining the manganese on Linda's property. While's Eden's narrative mirrors Micheaux's earlier autobiographical characters, Micheaux more carefully delineates Eden's dedication to both racial uplift and the development of the frontier prairie in The Wind From Nowhere than in his other novels.

With respect to Micheaux's racial politics, scholars have taken various sides. On one extreme, Joseph Young claims that Micheaux "yearned to become the oppressor" (xi), while, on the other, bell hooks argues that Micheaux's work (in particular, his film Ten Minutes to Live [1932]) "is a call for a celebration of blackness in all its diversity and complexity" (143). Micheaux's configuration of Martin Eden presents a dichotomy of racial prejudice based upon geography, particularly rural environs versus urban ones. According to Eden, urban environments, where the majority of Northern African Americans lived during the first part of the twentieth century, bred a kind of economic sloth and frivolous showiness. Eden believes that most African Americans sought only to prosper socially by acquiring the trappings of white civilization, the gravest infraction being marriage to a white woman. Eden criticizes most urban blacks: "As a group, his race had little--almost no--conception of what it took to succeed; to acquire , to have, or to hold. Free and easy going, they did not impress him as ever thinking anything out deeply enough to get anywhere" (17-18). In fact, more problematic than Eden's condemnation of urban blacks is his valorization of rural whites. He immediately follows the censure of blacks quoted above with accolades for his Great Plains neighbors: "All around him ... were Germans, Russians, Poles, Bohemians, Moravians, Slovaks-Scandinavians-- in short, almost all kinds of Northern Europeans, all struggling to a common end--success! Practical success and security--but Negroes, they didn't even seem to think of it--much less starting to try to make it work" (18). Eden lumps himself in with his Northern European neighbors and their collective project to subdue the plains, believing that if only more African Americans could throw off the confinement and trifles of urban life, they might succeed as he has in this vast, opportunistic land. If his practical-minded white neighbors could succeed, so could Eden's black b rethren.

Micheaux's central character has an obvious parallel with the vaguely autobiographical protagonist of Jack London's Martin Eden. Like the Martin Eden of Micheaux's The Wind From Nowhere, London's Eden is an autodidact, rising from the ranks of his working-class cohorts to become a world famous novelist. London's Eden struggles with the demons of his prose not unlike Micheaux's Eden struggles with the prairie. Undoubtedly, Micheaux saw a bit of London's Martin Eden in himself, the self-made man fighting to present the public his vision of the world. From a rough and tumble world, both Micheaux himself and London's Eden, "tall and rugged" (Conquest 69) and "spilling over with rugged health and strength" (London 356), persevere through various hardships to meet their self-assigned goals as writers (or as a film maker). Even with this ideological affinity, the Martin Eden of The Wind From Nowhere insists on the necessity of agricultural success, an almost predetermined condition of the frontier myth, while London 's Eden commits suicide, a final act of will and determination that caps off his Nietzschean character. The failure of London's Eden is not possible in Micheaux's more hopeful tableaux.

Micheaux's racial configurations lead him to produce in Eden a kind of Exceptional Negro. Only Eden seems to be able to build a black enterprise alone on the prairie, employing the Washingtonian principles of hard work and self-sufficiency. The use of white principles, such as following the developmental logic of Turner's historical formulations, provides for success, but the sexual intermingling with white society and any reliance on urban African Americans remains a suspect and crude attempt at social advancement. There are no other worthy African Americans in Eden's story. The few who surround him near his homestead include a black man married to a German woman who will not invite Eden to meet his daughters because they want to pass as white and marry white men. Recounting his meeting with this man, Eden mutters, "'Dirty old sonofabitch!'" (20). At another point in the narrative, Eden remembers drinking in a saloon when he sees a black man pass by on the street. Eager to talk to someone of his own race, he starts to engage this man but is stopped by a friend in the bar who tells Eden, "'He is one of the Woodsons.... He's colored all right, but they don't own to being colored.... He'd snub you if you offered to speak to him.... they hate colored people'" (127). The only blacks whom Eden does not vilify are a couple who teach at the nearby Indian Day School, but he says little about these people at all.

In the cities, Eden appears bewildered at the masses of black humanity. Eden watches subway stations in Harlem swallow and belch out people hurrying to work. "'Niggah work, cheap jobs--portering downtown; cooking in Brooklyn; runnin' elevatahs in the Bronx,'" a policeman tells him (64). Watching all these faceless people scurrying to make a living, Eden, the Exceptional Negro, sighs, "'My people, my people,'" pondering his own position as "a lone wolf out there in South Dakota" (66). In Chicago, besides criticizing Reverend Leeds vanity and Linda's sister's contentious hatefulness (at one point she calls Eden "'The niggah--yes, I want to call him the lowest and worst name I can think of" [278]), Eden remains sympathetic to Reverend Lee's mistress, Mrs. Dewey, who effectively has disowned her son for marrying a white woman. This marriage, of course, tracks the son into a dead-end life as "just a porter in a barber shop on the West Side" (161). Eden appears alone in this novel as a successful and righteous Afri can American. In fact, even the successful African Americans he believes are intermingled in the Harlem subway crowds-"the doctors, the preachers, some lawyers"--he characterizes as likely" 'hincty' and 'dicty' "--that is, snobbish folk who put on airs to remove themselves from the black public that scrapes to make a living in a white-dominated world (61).

Eden believes in the potential for the economic improvement of African Americans, but he sees no concrete representatives of this uplift besides himself, and possibly Booker T. Washington. His vision of this potential group seems abstracted, with only ideal members, though he believes this new group could grow through a change in environments. Specifically, Eden asserts that if African Americans can transform the West, they can transform themselves. Late in the novel, Deborah tells Linda of Eden's dream of bringing other African Americans to the South Dakota plains: "'What Martin Eden would do for a thousand Negroes families on relief today, would mean almost a new race of the same people, twenty years hence'" (371). Eden again separates himself from the rest of his race, believing that others following his lead will automatically meet with the same success.

While Eden searches for a suitable wife to homestead with him, he contemplates the effects of the Western environment on his potential spouse (he considers three different admirers). For example, contemplating a proposal to his first love, Jessie Binga, Eden realizes that Jessie comes from an family environment rife with gambling and bad debts. Jessie had apparently strayed from a path of righteousness and upstanding behavior in her community, as she had recently suffered from an "inflammation of the ovaries" (72). Eden concludes, though, that marriage and establishment in the West would bring her onto the course of racial improvement by learning economic self-sufficiency. Eden believes that the vast opportunities lying uncultivated in the West would provide the environment for positive changes for African Americans within American society as a whole. Eden muses, "He had succeeded in lifting himself by his bootstraps, he hadn't expected Jessie, or any other girl, to do likewise.... she had to make the most of her limited opportunities" (79). But the West could provide equal--and unlimited--opportunities, if only African Americans could rise to the challenge.

Micheaux considered himself a "race man," and he regularly characterized himself as such through the character of Sidney Wyeth in his other novels. Eden, in The Wind From Nowhere, believes that he has the best interests of all African Americans in mind, regardless of his criticisms of particular individuals. Eden is devoted to his race, even to the extent that he will not marry Deborah Stewart, whom he deeply loves, because she is white. Eden (and Micheaux) is highly critical of interracial romances, for he sees them as crude attempts at social advancement, especially for African-American men. Yet he believes that his love for Deborah is exceptional, without disguised social desires. His refusal to follow his affections for Deborah stems from a sense of race loyalty and race purity for his progeny, not to mention that miscegenation was illegal in South Dakota at the time (initially passed in 1909, the South Dakota miscegenation laws were repealed in 1957). Deborah is willing to cross the color line to marry t he man she loves, but Eden will not. He will not forsake his race, even for love. At the close of the novel, Deborah visits her grandfather in Chicago, whom she has never met but has corresponded with for years, only to discover, much to her astonishment, that he is black. This new twist then allows her to marry the now widowed Eden, for Deborah's whiteness has been washed away. Eden will not marry a white woman, until she is black. Now, by marrying Deborah, Eden crosses no color lines and his children can maintain their racial heritage with pride.

Eden asserts his devotion to uplifting African Americans throughout the novel, but the Turnerian ideals of civilizing the American West lead to Eden's vision. In South Dakota, the last area of "free land" in the United States, Turner's history and Washington's principles together bring African Americans prosperity by using the materials from the supposedly unoccupied and untouched West along with the principles of "common sense," hard work, thrift, and practicality. Eden sets himself apart from other African Americans through his belief in the civilizing work he has undertaken in the West. He says to Linda," 'My whole life is bound up with the development of the wilderness' " (105). Believing that he is part of a kind of historical inevitability, Eden also historicizes his "development of the wilderness" within a Turnerian mold: "The life of a settler is not an easy lot. ... Yet somebody must make conquest of these undeveloped portions of the West; somebody tore up all the great prairies that once embraced th e whole states of Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Iowa and so on down. This was what Martin Eden would think of when confronted with these raw conditions" (211).

Micheaux embodies the problematic image of a Black Turnerian. His formulation of Martin Eden in The Wind From Nowhere presents the fictional construction of this apparent impossibility. As Micheaux moved further from his life on the prairie, his fiction idealized the possibilities of its wide open spaces. Micheaux's final retelling of his homesteading years ends with the marriage to his original love, the white woman with black blood. After Deborah wins Linda's quarter-section from Crook by jumping the claim, she and Eden develop the land and begin extracting manganese from "Mount Eden," the 1000-foot tall hill at the center of the property. This initial investment nets Eden and Deborah enough capital to purchase "more than one hundred thousand acres of Rosebud land" (422). At this point, Micheaux's narrative jars harshly with the history of African-American settlement in the West. The mix of "Black" and "Turnerian" in all of his novels unravels at the end of The Wind From Nowhere as Micheaux's story collides with his own history and the histories of other black communities in the West. Eden's story closes as follows:

They manned mighty tractors, equal to compound locomotive power and had the lands deeply plowed.... Crop failures were no more. All plant life flourished and crops were ever abundant. Huge yields were harvested from the fields, year after year.

When this had been well established, the farms were divided into ten acre tracts. A modern village was erected in the center of every four square miles, with a school and a church, a small theatre and other needed buildings, including neat little project houses with enough room for all the families who were buying ten acre tracts.

Then Deborah and Martin went East, where unfortunate families of their race had been forced on relief. They selected from them the worthy and industrious ones, brought them hither and permitted each to buy and pay for out of his earnings, ten acres of rich, deep plowed land. And with each purchase, they supplied a cow, a horse, chickens, and pigs. Each family grew its own food. The women were able to make their pin money from eggs and chickens and milk; the men were given work in huge food product factories and manganese alloy plants that were built, where they were given a few days work each month.

Twenty five years hence, a great Negro colony will call the Rosebud Country home and be contented, prosperous and happy. (422-23)

Micheaux wrote The Wind From Nowhere in 1941 and set his homesteading story later than in either The Conquest or The Homesteader, probably in the 1930s. If we follow Micheaux's projections for a great Negro colony "twenty-five years hence," this should place his fantasy into the middle 1950s. A projection based on the health of the existing colonies in 1941 would probably place them in extinction by the 1950s, which effectively was what happened. As Micheaux moved further from his life on the prairie, he developed a need to reconstruct the narrative of his life there in order to reinforce the beliefs that he originally took to that land. Where Devereaux, in The Conquest, leaves the story with a broken marriage and withered fields, Eden becomes the founder of a successful agricultural/manufacturing colony. Micheaux's Black Turnerian, what he believed himself to be, turns out to be only an historical phantasm that closes this novel of hopeful racial rejuvenation.

Possibly Micheaux's construction of a Black Turnerian, an African-American pioneer dedicated to the ideals of Western individualism, self-sufficiency, and the inevitable westward progress of the nation, allowed him to situate both himself and his narratives within tropes acceptable in the official culture of the early twentieth century. As Jayna Brown argues, "For Micheaux, participation in America's westward expansion embodies a black man's claim to national belonging. By moving West and struggling to tame its soil . . . he asserts his right to be considered a founding father of the frontier" (146). Though Micheaux refuses to deracinate himself he does valorize pioneer mythology over racial realities in the West. Indeed, as a literary entrepreneur, Micheaux possibly sought to minimize Western racism in his first novel as its production was primarily funded through subscriptions from his white neighbors. If, as historians such as Theodore Roosevelt and Frederick Jackson Turner argue, the West becomes the prim ary signifier of Americanness and its particularity, then Micheaux's novels and films that deal with his homesteading experiences propose an avenue for African-American social equality, albeit a murky, insecure, and potentially disappointing course when played out in reality.

In closing, we might ask why Micheaux, a man deeply concerned with the uplift of his race, needs to offer such a fantasy of the rural American West--a region that had recently proven a failure for many African Americans? Why does Micheaux present both his own history and the history of a region in such a glowing light? Possibly he became infected with the kind of nostalgia that so influenced figures like Owen Wister, Frederick Remington, Charles Russell, and even Theodore Roosevelt. In fact, Micheaux's initial vision of the West may have been modeled, at least partially, upon Wister's The Virginian. Micheaux apparently had read Wister's book since he has Devereaux, as a porter, recognize the Medicine Bow Mountains as the place "Wister lays the beginning scenes of the 'Virginian'" (Conquest 43). As Wister, Remington, and Russell on their own visits there had repainted the West in tones they believed existed, Micheaux follows in their steps a full fifty years later to rebuild a similar, mythic West that never w as. But unlike Wister's stories and Remington's paintings, Micheaux's early novels present a history of failure and trouble. Whereas Wister staunchly believed in the boundless opportunities for individual fortune in the West, Micheaux's attempts at homesteading proved otherwise for him.

Micheaux apparently still felt a need to reproduce the myths so entrenched by the Wisters, Remingtons, and Roosevelts of the West, so each retelling of his narrative moves closer to an African-American version of the great, opportunistic West. In fact, the ending of The Wind From Nowhere echoes the end of Wister's Virginian. Wister's novel closes with the Virginian settling on a parcel of land rich in coal, which makes him a wealthy man due to the incoming railroad. The Virginian is a capitalist; he makes his fortune from the next form of exploitation of the West's natural resources. The closing pages of The Wind From Nowhere parallel The Virginian in that Martin Eden, like Wister's hero, finds land rich with mineral deposits and profits from its exploitation, but the two books also evidence a significant difference. Eden's resources allow him to begin an agricultural venture that should guarantee financial and social security for a collective of African Americans whom Eden deems "worthy and industrious." The Virginian's coal and his "strong grip on many various enterprises" (Wister 364), on the other hand, simply secure the future for his immediate family. The Virginian mutates from cowboy to capitalist, while Martin Eden has grown from homesteader (the enemy of Wister's cattlemen) to agricultural philanthropist and developer.

Micheaux rewrites and revises his real-life failures as Baptiste's and Eden's (and Sydney Wyeth's) financial and personal successes. Micheaux believed that if any place could level economic differences based on race, the West, with its essential drama of human struggle against the land, could give all people the same advantages--and the same hardships. The established economic and social structures of the East stacked the deck against African Americans; the codification of Jim Crow conventions made black life in parts of the East, especially the South, not only unpleasant and dangerous but also compromising to African-American citizenship. The West did not become the mythic place Micheaux originally believed it to be, and he found himself incapable of winning his struggle against the land. But Micheaux did not simply abandon the Western myths of inevitable progress and self-definition; rather, he abandoned his own experiences. The further he moved away from his homesteading experiences, the more "mythic" his tales became. Perhaps the next "frontier" for Micheaux was in film making, itself a new arena for whites as well as blacks. Like the West, film offered Micheaux control over production in a relatively "free" space. And, unlike his Western experiences, film offered Micheaux control that he could not have over agriculture.

Perhaps we remember Micheaux not only because he was America's first auteur film maker but also because we, too, have accepted Micheaux's struggles to redefine himself as a success rather than as a failure, itself the ideal of Western drama. Perhaps Micheaux's use of the West in his narratives has taken a back seat to his racial issues simply because we have brushed off his repetitive use of a well-known and stock Western trope. But what solace did the West hold for African Americans by 1948? The Betrayal, Micheaux's last effort at using the West as a proving ground for race relations, was generally seen as one of Micheaux's worst pictures--the Chicago Defender, in a review entitled "'Betrayal', Severely Criticized, A Bore," called it "flimsy and without purpose. . . . A preposterous, tasteless bore" (28). Possibly the West was not ideologically important to many Eastern African Americans by the midpoint of the century, but it did exist as a mythic place for Micheaux personally. Just as Micheaux moved closer to the myth of the West the further he moved away from his experiences there, he expanded this same myth as he lost popularity and critical acclaim as a film maker. The West became for Micheaux, as it had for thousands of other Americans, black and white, a repository for fantasy and a space for the indulgence of idealism.


(1.) The Homestead Act allowed for settlers to acquire up to 160 acres of surveyed land through agricultural improvements and establishment of a house or barn; after five years of residency, the settlers could gain title to the property with a $10 fee. After six months, the land could also be bought at $1.25 per acre, thus providing mortgage opportunities for further improvements.

(2.) New Western History denotes the subfield of History defined by scholars who, since the mid-1980s, have worked to undo Turner's longstanding narrative of inevitable Western conquest. Primary examples of New Western History include Limerick, Legacy and Something; Limerick, Milner, and Rankin; White; Cronon, Miles, and Gitlin; Milner 29-55.

(3.) A cursory list of scholarship on Micheaux's cinema includes Thomas Cripps's Slow Fade to Black, esp. 183-202, one of the earliest books to discuss Micheaux in any significant fashion; see also Green, esp. 41-56, for a criticism of Cripps; Gaines; Regester; Musser; Bowser and Spence; Bowser, Gaines, and Musser.

(4.) See Herbert, who calls Micheaux "a unique homesteader" (62); Elder; Fontenot.

(5.) The Micheaux Film Festival draws people to Gregory at least once a year and provides a kind of temporary tourist industry to this small Northern Plains agricultural community.

(6.) A mural on Gregory's Main Street commemorating the centennial of Gregory County depicts the towns history, complete with images of covered wagons, buffalo, Micheaux's homestead site, and a perspective drawing of a steam train looming out from the center toward the viewer.

(7.) The only essay on Micheaux that leans consciously toward New Western History is M. K. Johnson's "'Stranger in a Strange Land.' " While Johnson deals specifically with Micheaux's relationship with the ideology of the frontier, he focuses his analysis closely on Micheaux's "hero's inability . . . to achieve his desired masculine identity, his inability to completely adopt 'Anglo-Saxon myths'" (232). Thus, by interrogating Micheaux's relationship with frontier ideology, Johnson reinscribes a necessary masculinity onto the space of the West, claiming that Micheaux's hero fails with respect to his vision of the frontier project. See also Jayna Brown's "Black Patriarch on the Prairie," the only other essay that deals solely with Micheaux's novels.

(8.) Correspondence concerning some of his early motion picture productions can be found in the George P. Johnson Negro Film Collection, Department of Special Collections, U of California, Los Angeles; also some correspondence with Charles Chestnutt concerning Micheaux's desire to purchase the film rights to Chestnutt's The Conjure Woman and The House Behind the Cedars lies in the Charles Waddell Chestnutt Papers, Western Reserve Historical Society, Cleveland, Ohio. Presently, the only biography of Micheaux is that of Betti Van Epps-Taylor, a comprehensive, though often uncomplicated, hagiography.

(9.) Micheaux claims the odds in the lottery were 1:44 for 24,000 claims, see Conquest 57-58; see also Schell 254.

(10.) Micheaux uses Greeley's words as a chapter title in The Conquest (48; see also 47); the Chicago Defender also uses Greeley's words in the header to Micheaux's 1910 article "Where the Negro Fails."

(11.) In 1904 the federal government arranged a treaty by which the eastern edge of the Rosebud Sioux Reservation would come open to non-Native-American homesteading in exchange for a cash settlement with the tribe. After the settlement, all land acquired by the U.S. government would open up to settlement through a lottery system in which potential homesteaders' names were pulled from a jar to determine his or her allotted quarter-section, if any. For Micheaux, the Rosebud Reservation land was practically free as long as he could get a title to a section through this lottery.

(12.) The states and territories included in this count include or are all west of the hundredth meridian.

(13.) Boley had a reputation as "real" Western town and was even the site for some black Westerns, notably the Norman Company's The Crimson Skull (1921) and The Bull-Dogger (1923), both featuring the renowned black cowboy Bill Pickett.

(14.) On the site near Brownlee, see Taylor 153. On the more well-known Dearfield Colony, see Taylor, 153-55; Norris; Frederick P. Johnson.

(15.) All-black towns also sprang up in other parts of the West during the early twentieth century. For example, near the turn into the twentieth century, Francis Boyer and Dan Keyes, two AfricanAmerican men from Georgia, founded Blackdom sixteen miles south of Roswell, New Mexico. At its height around 1915, Blackdom was home to about twenty-five families. In 1908, Colonel Allen Allensworth founded the town of Allensworth, California, thirty miles north of Bakersfield. Allensworth attempted to build a "Tuskegee of the West," but failed to win the confidence of the State legislature, which needed to pass a bill to form the school. By 1914, thirty-five families resided in Allensworth, which then covered 900 acres. But with the death of Colonel Allensworth in September of 1914, Allensworth's population began to decline. By World War II, the town was almost empty; in 1966, arsenic was discovered in the water and the town folded for good. See Gibson; Bunch. For a comprehensive listing of all-black towns throughout the United States, see http:/

(16.) For more on Groves, besides Washington's chapter on him in The Sto,y of the Negro, see Hawkins.

(17.) Gibbs's autobiography sheds light on the connections between Gibbs's life and Washington's beliefs, though Gibbs consciously presents the West as a peculiar region that provided prospects not found elsewhere. Washington wrote a short introduction to Gibbs's autobiography. In the world of Micheaux's fiction, Baptiste visits Groves and his family to lament his bad decision in not marrying the "Potato King's" daughter (see The Homesteader 409-35).

(18.) In 1913 Washington wrote a series of articles for the Chicago Defender sketching his observations of African-American life in certain Western states during his "extensive tour of the Northwest." He finds that, since the Western African-American population is significantly less than in other parts of the country, "racial solidarity, racial oneness" is missing ("Booker T. Washington Tells About Conditions" 1). Washington postulates that the West holds vast opportunities for African Americans who will take up pursuits tied to the land (as does Micheaux), but in general most Western African Americans work in service positions. The subtext of Washington's articles establishes the American West as a white locale, with African Americans barred from Western trade unions, discriminated against in education past grade school, and segregated or barred from various public establishments. Washington writes as his final assessment, "I am more convinced than ever that the Negro in the South is doing better than any gr oup of colored people that I have found in this part of the world, and I am still further convinced that the Negro in the South has a better future in the South than in any part of the world that I have yet visited" ('Negro in South" 2). For Washington, the frontier was surely not color-blind. See "Booker T. Washington Tells About Conditions of Negro in Northwest," Chicago Defender20 Mar. 1913:1+; "Intelligent and Cultured," Chicago Defender 3 Apr. 1913: 1+; "Negro In South Has Brightest Future," Chicago Defender 10 Apr. 1913:2; "There Are Colored Mormons Out in Utah," Chicago Defender 17 Apr. 1913:1+; and "Creed of Mormon Church," Chicago Defender 24 Apr. 1913: 2.

(19.) With reference to Washington's definition of success, it is worth noting here the title of a memoir by the black Nebraskan homesteader Robert Ball Anderson: From Slavery to Affluence. Born a slave in 1843, Anderson homesteaded in Nebraska in the 1880s. By the early twentieth century he had become the largest black landowner in the State, though he was forced to mortgage much of his property in his later years.

(20.) Though no print of The Betrayal exists today, the script for the film can be found in the New York State Archives (Motion Picture Scripts Collection), Albany.

(21.) Almost all of the films discussed here have been lost, so the narratives have been gleaned from reviews, posters, and screenplays where available. For the lost films, I have taken synopses from Sampson; also see Richards. The Symbol of the Unconquered was recently located in Belgium; a copy of The Exile remains in the Library of Congress (though a video copy has circulated recently on

(22.) Bowser and Spence argue in their Writing Himself into History that Micheaux consciously reworks his own persona in novels and films. Micheaux becomes a oonstruct in much the same way as do Oscar Devereaux, Jean Baptiste, Martin Eden, Sydney Wyeth, or even Hugh Van Allen, the homesteading protagonist of Symbol of the Unconquered (for which the working title was The Wilderness Trait, see Bowser and Spence 175). Acoording to Bowser and Spence, Micheaux boldly presented an image of himself significantly larger than life. They write, "Writing himself into history, [Micheaux] used his own life in his films and novels (a selection of actual and imaginary events), which gave credibility to his role as an entrepreneur and pioneer" (5). Just as Micheaux created reflections of himself in his productions, these phantasms, in turn, mediated their maker.

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Dan Moos teaches English at Rhode Island College.
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Author:Moos, Dan
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Date:Sep 22, 2002
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