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When James Fenimore Cooper complained about the novel he was reading, his wife told him to put up or shut up, to just go ahead and write a better one himself. That tiff launched Cooper’s career, a novelist sometimes considered America’s first. His output was huge, even though Mark Twain once claimed, “His English is a crime against the language.” That’s an unsettling review.
Oscar Micheaux did the same thing, just figured he could write a better novel than what he was reading, so he did. Micheaux was born in a Mississippi River town in 1884, son of slaves. When he was 17, he picked up and moved to Chicago, where a significant chunk of his first novel, The Conquest: the Story of a Negro Pioneer, is set.
But a whole section of that novel comes alive in South Dakota, not all that far from here really, where Oscar Micheaux homesteaded—or tried to. If you have trouble thinking of African-American homesteaders, so did I—but there were more than a few, Oscar Micheaux among ‘em. Micheaux put down roots just outside of Gregory, and started into farming. (That was his land, up top.)
Thousands of African-Americans tried their luck at “proving up” Great Plains homesteads; but most failed, just like most white families did, my own among ’em. It takes some wherewithal to weather the seasonal blows of Great Plains misfortunes.
Oscar Mischeaux’s novel, The Conquest, feels autobiographical because it is. Oscar Devereaux Micheaux’s hero is a man named Oscar Devereaux–that didn’t take much editing. Both Oscars homesteaded. Both Oscars wrote novels to make some cash. Both Oscars failed at first marriages.
Conquest: the Story of a Negro Pioneer likely wouldn’t be remembered at all if it weren’t for the oddity of a black man breaking Great Plains ground just west of the Missouri, a black man surrounded by rural white ethnics and displaced Yankees all trying their hand at making a life on what seemed to be free land (no one asked the Lakotas).
Conquest is not a great novel, but it offers a look at turn-of-the-century African-American life, at Black culture of the time, a world that had its own issues, even bigotry and racism. The cursed villain of the tale is a snake-oil preacher-man, lionized by his meek disciples and an out-and-out sociopath daughter. Conquest often feels like melodrama.
But novels tell us who we are even if they don’t try. If we believe the tale, Micheaux wrote The Conquest to make some bucks. But the novel’s gift is a glimpse of time and place very few others explored and/or remembered. Micheaux’s homesteading was unique. Thus, so is the tale.
Besides, Oscar Devereaux Micheaux himself is a wonder, an African-American homesteader, the son of slaves, a man who made it out here on the open prairie, a South Dakota novelist who became—get this!–a film-maker. How many people you know fit that profile?
When a Hollywood director wanted to make Conquest into a movie, Micheaux agreed, then pulled out when the director didn’t want him to have a say in how the story was told. In a snit, Micheaux quit the company, said he could do it better, and set about starting his own film and publishing company in Sioux City–that’s right, Sioux City, Iowa.
He didn’t stay here long because he had his eyes on bigger things. In the early years of the 20th century, he went around from town to town with his trunk full of his films, peddling them wherever he could. Once he’d pushed enough out there, he left for Hollywood, where he got busy writing, directing, and producing “race films” intended to play to black folks, who could get into only those theaters open to African-Americans. If you’re wondering, most of those who know Oscar Micheaux would say he was better at making films than he was at writing novels.
I dare say nobody will ever lug The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Homesteader along to the beach. But I liked it, and I liked visiting the ground the man worked, out east of Gregory. I liked thinking about him out there on the Plains, about him writing a novel and starting his own film company right here in Sioux City, Iowa. And I like the star with his name on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Maybe now, Black History Month, Oscar Micheaux, homesteader, son of slaves, should be remembered by more of us. He wrote novels and made movies for his people.
Okay, as literature, maybe The Conquest doesn’t rank with Moby Dick. No matter. All told, it’s still a great, great story, and it belongs to all of us.