During some research for a longer project, I was reading Broken Hoops and Plains People, part of the ongoing mini-library I’ve amassed of books on bits of Nebraska history (there are always useful things in these books). The subtitle of the book is A Catalogue of Ethnic Resources in the Humanities: Nebraska and Thereabouts (I particularly enjoy the “thereabouts” bit). Apparently you can purchase a used copy from Amazon.com if you’re interested. Each chapter covers the general history of an ethnic group in Nebraska, mostly written by different professors from the University of Nebraska or other surrounding institutes/areas (including a couple of my former literature professors).
Anyway, I’ve long been fascinated by a small and generally forgotten bit of Nebraska history: African-American homesteaders. So it was with Lillian Anthony-Welch’s chapter on the African-American experience in Nebraska (and thereabouts, of course) that I stumbled upon a reference to Oscar Micheaux, a black novelist (and more notably, filmmaker) of the early 20th century, who wrote on that exact topic.
Oscar Micheaux homesteaded mostly in South Dakota, but published his novels through the Woodruff Press and Western Book in Lincoln, Nebraska.He was born in 1884 in Illinois (nearly a hundred years to the day before me), lived for some time in Chicago, working all kinds of small and brutal jobs. He also worked for the Pullman Company as a Pullman Porter, but eventually moved to South Dakota on his own initiative.
Interested, I sought out some of Micheaux’s fiction. So, through the magic of the Internet, I downloaded a Kindle copy of Micheaux’s first book, The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer, published in 1913. The Conquest is autobiographical, following a character with a French last name who grew up in the same circumstances as Micheaux, worked in Chicago, and eventually homesteads in South Dakota. He faces difficulties with farming and with his father-in-law, who has a very different idea about the future of African-Americans in the United States. As Anthony-Welch writes:
Micheaux’s theme in the first novel is the necessity that black people become self reliant, avoid intermarriage with the white community, and create a great black “immigrant” empire in the northwestern United States in the still unoccupied territories.
These are ideas that have (obviously) fallen out of favor, and reading The Conquest made me want to go back through Ellison’s Invisible Man again, a book that really knocked me flat during my first (and only) reading in college (and that is of course more or less a counterargument to the Micheaux type of thinking).
Micheaux’s work can make for dry reading; he often gets bogged down in explaining the details of land auctions, homesteading, and small-town politics, and not enough time on characterization. But when he does, he’s quite good at it, and the book is striking for how modern it feels in places (for example, the protagonist is ostracized for his lack of religious belief in a very real and very Midwestern manner). Much of this can probably be chalked up to a young writer just embarking on his fiction career. If you are, as I am, particularly interested in this historical period, then this novel of Micheaux’s gives you some interesting context. If you’re not, don’t turn to him for any page-turning affairs. Nevertheless, and despite our current views toward Micheaux’s politics, it’s sad that such a pioneer (in more ways that one) is largely forgotten these days.