- Imagining the African American West
Often ignored in the traditional mythology of the American West, African Americans have played and continue to play a prominent role in the development of the region. Recent histories have begun to include their contributions; Quintard Taylor's In Search of the Racial Frontier, for example, is a groundbreaking survey of black Westerners. In many ways, Taylor's text answers the call by New Western historians to chronicle a more inclusive West that dismisses notions of white cultural hegemony. These historians also present interpretations of a region that has a continuous and vital presence in the nation's history; despite popular national thought, the American West did not end when the last gunslinger rode out of Dodge.
While new histories of the West often contradict the region's mythology, cultural productions reify popular stereotypes. The formulaic Western, in both literature and film, is especially culpable of these erroneous interpretations, and their homogenous portrayals leave little room for racial minorities. As an academic field, western American literature has suffered most from the region's popularity, but as in other disciplines, scholars have begun to reevaluate that literature's place in the canon. Increased scholarly attention has also led to rediscoveries of western texts created by the region's oft-ignored nonwhite inhabitants. And while Asian American writers like Sui Sin Far have found a place in American literary survey courses, the contributions of western African American authors have yet to be properly recognized. Blake Allmendinger's Imagining the African American West is devoted to correcting that deficiency.
In the introduction, Allmendinger claims that his text is "the first comprehensive study of African American literature about the American West." And while he acknowledges Michael K. Johnson's Black Masculinity and the Frontier Myth in American Literature, Allmendinger dismisses it for its focus on black masculinity and proclivity for "writings by African American men." Allmendinger touts his text's exploration of "issues that pertain to African American women and men, on the early frontier and in the urban American West" (xix). From an analytical perspective, Johnson's text is far superior to Allmendinger's, but read as a "comprehensive study," the latter provides readers with an excellent sample of the artistic endeavors by black Westerners.
The first three chapters of Imagining the African American West focus on individual authors writing in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, while the final five chapters cover black Western literature in the last hundred years. These last chapters, which also [End Page 614] include analyses of cinematic and musical productions, represent Allmendinger's best work, and they leave little doubt about the need for continued scholarship in this field. Readers who accept the limitations of Allmendinger's project and who know little about the cultural productions of black Westerners will find this book illuminating; for those who prefer the kind of extended analysis offered by Johnson, the text will prove less useful. Chapter one, for example, offers a cursory analysis of James P. Beckwourth's autobiography, "the first work in American literature to relay the story of an African American on the western frontier" (1). The preceding claim certainly establishes the work's importance, but Allmendinger offers readers little more than an extended summary. And while he does spend time discussing Beckwourth's refusal to address "his heritage," the concentrated focus on the frontiersman's need to pass as white is less useful than a more thorough and challenging interpretation of Beckwourth's autobiography (8).
Allmendinger's analysis of Oscar Micheaux's novels proves much more intriguing, and this second chapter is one of the text's strongest. Known primarily as "a pioneer in early African American cinema," Micheaux was also an accomplished author whose novels often chronicled his experiences as a farmer in South Dakota (13). University of Nebraska's reprints of The Conquest and The Homesteader have made Micheaux's novels readily available, and Allmendinger believes that they deserve the "reassessment . . . [offered to] Micheaux's cinematic canon." These writings "have been simplistically treated," but a reinterpretation of Micheaux's South...