Stranger in a Strange Land: An African American Response to the Frontier Tradition in Oscar Micheaux’s The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer
- Western American Literature
- The Western Literature Association
- Volume 33, Number 3, Fall 1998
- pp. 228-252
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OSCAR MICHEAUX (1884-1951). Black and white photograph. Courtesy African Diaspora Images Collection. “S t r a n g e r in a S t r a n g e L a n d ”: A n A f r ic a n A m e ric a n R e s p o n s e t o t h e F r o n t ie r T r a d it io n in O s c a r M ich e a u x ’s Th e C o n q u e s t : T h e S t o r y o f a N e g r o P io n e e r M. K. JOHNSON The Myth of the Frontier is our oldest and most charac teristic myth. . . . According to this myth-historiography, the conquest of the wilderness and the subjugation or displace ment of the Native Americans who originally inhabited it have been the means to our achievement of a national iden tity, a democratic polity, an ever-expanding economy, and a phenomenally dynamic and “progressive” civilization. — Richard Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America (1992) A t the constitutional conventions of almost every west ern state, the single most pressing question was the admis sion or status of the black population. . . . Both proslavery and anti-slavery delegates vied with each other in [insisting] . . . that equality was entirely unacceptable to white residents of the states. — William Loren Katz, The Black West (1987) Horace Greeley, the reformer who urged Americans to “go West, young man,” also insisted that the territories “shall be reserved for the benefit of the white Caucasian race.” — William Loren Katz, The Black West (1987) In Long Black Song: Essays in Black American Literature and Culture, Houston Baker Jr. comments that “when the black American reads Frederick Jackson Turner’s The Frontier in American History, he feels no regret over the end of the Western frontier” (2). The availability of “free land” in the West encouraged immigration to those areas, 230 WAL 33(3) FALL 1998 Turner argues in his important 1893 essay, and the subsequent meet ing of “civilization” and “savagery” on the frontier transformed the pioneer of European descent into “a new product that is American” (34)- David Leverenz points out that Turner represents the frontier “as a natural factory for manufacturing American manhood,” as the place where the white male pioneer achieves a masculine identity by transforming unproductive wilderness into profitable farm land (32). According to Baker, such “tales of pioneers enduring the hardships of the West for the promise of immense wealth are not the tales of black America” (2). Because the black man has been “denied his part in the frontier and his share of the nation’s wealth” (4), frontier is “an alien word” to African Americans, “for, in essence, all frontiers established by the white psyche have been closed to the black man” (2). If the black man has been denied the frontier, he has also been denied one of the nation’s dominant narratives of the development of masculine subjectivity, a narrative based indeed on the opportu nity to “share the nation’s wealth,” the opportunity to exploit the availability of land in the West. If the myths, legends, and narratives of pioneers conquering the West are the exclusive province of the white psyche, and if the frontier myth in its most traditional form provides a narrative of manmaking, and a narrative explicitly of making “white manhood,” what, we might ask, happens when an African American male writer engages with this “mythic narrative”? Those few African American males who have written about their western experiences express diverse responses to the frontier. Nat Love, in his The Life and Adventures of Nat Love, Better Known in the Cattle Country as “Deadwood Dick” (1907), tells of a boyhood in slav ery and an impoverished postemancipation adolescence that he leaves behind to journey westward, where he “became known throughout the country as a good all around cow boy and a splendid hand in a stampede” (43). According to Love, the frontier was a place where “a man’s work...