Friday, April 22, 2011

Homesteader: Oscar Micheaux

Oscar Micheaux is a well known historical figure in the world of cinema. He was the first African American to produce and direct a feature length film. The title of that film was The Homesteader and it was released in theaters in 1919. Coincidentally, this was the first feature film to have homestead as the primary theme. I initially began to research the film out of curiosity in that it was about the Homestead Act. It quickly became apparent that the man who directed the film, Oscar Micheaux, the driving force behind this production, had based the picture on his own life experiences.

Oscar Micheaux came from humble southern Illinois beginnings. Both his parents were children of slaves and they were trying to navigate what it meant to be African American in the post-Civil War United States. Oscar’s mother believed deeply in education and was committed to affording her children the opportunity to receive formal schooling. It was in these early years that Oscar slowly became aware of what it was like to be black in the late 19th century. He recalls that southern Illinois had a high population of former slave catchers, a profession popular in northern states that bordered the Mason Dixon Line. Oscar, at first, was labeled a trouble maker; “a negro with worldly ideas.” This label often isolated him from his peers, but it motivated him to prove the status quo wrong and rise above what society seemed to have predetermined for him. At this time, Oscar also began to understand the delicate nature of race relations, lessons that would serve him well in the future.

In his teens Oscar moved to Chicago to be with his brother. He began working a laborious job in the infamous stockyards; however, finding this work particularly gruesome, he left the stockyards to open his own shoeshine stand. Here he began to talk with his white patrons, and being an astute student of human behavior, started learning about white society. He began to develop an interest in the untamed West many of his white customers talked about. The fascination led Oscar to a job as a Pullman Porter. The Pullman Porter’s job was to ensure that train travelers were accommodated and that all of their needs were met when they were riding the rails to their destinations. As a Porter, Oscar would spend days getting to know the white travelers that he was assigned to, many of which were heading to the western United States to acquire free land from the government through a program called the Homestead Act.

Oscar’s interest in the West drew him to Gregory County in southern South Dakota. Here Oscar found a piece of ground and, with little farming experience, began the arduous task of plowing the ground. He remembers his (all white) neighbors standing about watching and laughing as his plow “hopped, skipped, and jumped all the way across the prairie.” The ridicule burned like a fuel in Oscar who was determined to overcome his inexperience and prove that he could succeed. Oscar was in his field rain or shine, yielding only to frozen ground, plowing up 120 acres in his first year. His determination soon turned his neighbors laughter to a “grudging respect, then to acceptance, and finally to admiration, when they realized that he had broken many more acres of prairie than most of them.”

This admiration left Oscar feeling tentatively welcome in an area where he was the lone African American. Being the lone African American also isolated him. Knowing the delicate nature of race relations, Oscar new that a romantic relationship with a white woman would not be tolerated, even though Oscar had strong feelings for a local white woman and those feelings appear to have been reciprocated by the woman, Oscar would not cross those boundaries. This was an issue that Oscar would revisit many times in his future films.

Oscar set to the arduous task of improving his claim. He successfully proved up his homestead just as the region entered a severe drought. Oscar was forced to try and make ends meet by hiring himself to other farmers in the region, but other farmers were suffering and work was inconsistent. He began writing down his experiences as a homesteader as a way to cope with the hardships he was enduring. His writings were a mix of fiction and biography meant to tell his story of struggle with, and conquest of, the land. He soon had created a full length book that he appropriately titled The Conquest. He began traveling throughout the region selling the book to his friends and neighbors. This new enterprise soon led to a second novel titled The Homesteader. His self published novels were moderately successful, but more importantly they caught the attention of a production company that wanted to turn them into a movie.

Oscar attended a meeting in Lincoln, Nebraska to listen to the production company’s offer to make the movie. He was extremely interested in the idea and said that he would allow the company to make the movie, but he wanted to direct the film. The production company refused and pulled out of the deal, but the seed had been planted in Oscar’s mind and he became determined to self-produce and direct the film, and that is exactly what he did. In doing so, Oscar Micheaux became the first African American to produce and direct a feature length film, and he called it The Homesteader. Unfortunately, there are no surviving copies of the film The Homesteader, which is a great lost to both the world of history and cinema.

The African American homesteading experience is still, in large part, lacking in that scholarship, outside of the Kansas Exodusters, but it has been sporadic at best. Oscar Micheaux’s novels offer an invaluable glimpse into the African American experience in early 20th century South Dakota, but it also stands as a reminder to how little information exists on African American homesteaders.

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