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Writing Himself Into History is an eagerly anticipated analysis of the career and artistry surrounding the legendary Black filmmaker Oscar Micheaux. With the exception of Spike Lee, Micheaux is the most famous—and prolific—African American film director. Between 1918 and 1948 he made more than 40 “race pictures,” movies made for and about African Americans. A man of immense creativity, he also wrote seven novels.
Pearl Bowser and Louise Spence concentrate here on the first decade of Micheaux’s career, when Micheaux produced and directed more than twenty silent features and built a reputation as a controversial and maverick entrepreneur. Placing his work firmly within his social and cultural milieu, they also examine Micheaeux’s family and life. The authors provide a close textual analysis of his surviving films (including The Symbol of the Unconquered, Within Our Gates, and Body and Soul), and highlight the rivalry between studios, dilemmas of assimilation versus separatism, gender issues, and class. In Search of Oscar Micheaux also analyzes Micheaux’s career as a novelist in relation to his work as a filmmaker.
This is a much-awaited book that is especially timely as interest in Micheaux’s work increases.
Writing Himself into History
[W]e need today more than ever,—the training of deft hands, quick eyes and ears, and above all the broader, deeper, higher culture of gifted minds and pure hearts. The power of the ballot we need in sheer self-defence,—else what shall save us from a second slavery? Freedom, too, the long-sought, we still seek,—the freedom of life and limb, the freedom to work and think, the freedom to love and aspire.
—W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, 1903
"In an increasing degree we must be an optimistic race. There is no hope for a despairing individual or a despairing race."
—Booker T. Washington, speech to the National Negro Business League, 1909
It is claimed the touch of the romance woven in The Homesteader is coincident with the author's own life but this is still a matter of conjecture.
—The Half-Century Magazine, April 1919
IN THE WINTER of 1910, a young Black man, surrounded by the vast expanse of prairie horizon, wrote to the Chicago Defender, a nationally circulated Black weekly, about his life as a "resident, pioneer and landowner" in Gregory County, South Dakota. Oscar Micheaux began the March 19 article with a story about an indecisive young Negro railway employee who was engaged to a Chicago society woman and considering whether to acquire land on the Cheyenne River and Standing Rock Indian Reservation. He related, with a patronizingly superior air, how he had discouraged the wavering novice fromsettling in the Northwest. The story, however, must certainly have been a rhetorical device, as he went on to praise the monetary gain possible in Northwest agriculture, and declared, "Any energetic young man with as little as $1000 and up and willing to give all his time and attention to the upbuilding of the future can go into Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, get a homestead ... which costs from $25 to $45 per acre ... and in ten years time be independent."
Micheaux, a young man still in his twenties, a former railway worker himself, believed strongly in the unique opportunities offered by the opening of the land in the Northwest. A couple of years later, after losing most of his land to foreclosure and bitterly disappointed that his wife had abandoned him to return to Chicago, Micheaux created the fictional character, Oscar Devereaux, a lone Black settler in Megory, South Dakota, writing in longhand the details of his life in a composition notebook. This manuscript, The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer, written "by the Pioneer," was published by Micheaux himself in 1913. Here he reflects on his eight years in South Dakota as a homesteader and includes significant incidents affecting the changing character of the landscape, the towns, and the lives of the settlers. Writing in the first person, Micheaux seems to have been a keen observer of the events he witnessed and of the lives of the people whose paths he crossed. Barely disguising his own name and the identity of places, Micheaux situated his hero Devereaux's particular history—an unfolding tale of adventure, intrigue, and forbidden romance—at the center of stories of the people and the events he came to know in Gregory County. Once involved in an agrarian enterprise and failing, he was now marketing that romantic past. The idea of an essential proving ground, which he once adventurously pursued, was now being adventurously reenacted as commercial entertainment for the same people whom he had been unable to attract to the Great Plains wilderness in that early Defender article. Today The Conquest has become part of the local folklore and history of what some consider to be one of the last great land offerings: the U.S. government's appropriation of Indian territories, the Rosebud Reservation, for settlement in the early part of this century. In a career that spanned thirty years, Oscar Micheaux, besides writing seven novels, made approximately forty films, with approximately half of his total output produced in the first decade (1918-1929). His personal vision, the narrative and business strategies he chose to articulate that vision, and the historical and cultural context of his work intertwine in a dialectical relation to one another and tell us much about the construct "Oscar Micheaux." The three silent films now extant (Within Our Gates , The Symbol of the Unconquered , and Body and Soul ), his novels, promotional materials, and correspondence illuminate the degree to which Micheaux used his "biographical legend" (his socially constructed identity, political point of view, and status as Negro entrepreneur) to create, promote, and shape the reception of his works. Writing himself into history, he used his own life in his films and novels (a selection of actual and imaginary events), which gave credibility to his role as an entrepreneur and pioneer.
During this first decade, Micheaux developed the public persona of an aggressive and successful businessman and a controversial and confident maverick producer—an image that was to sustain him for the next twenty years, although little of his creative work after his first sound picture, The Exile (1931), would seem to justify it. But let's look at how Micheaux built and used this biographical legend and some of the many contradictions in his attempt to be true to his vision of himself and entrepreneurial at the same time. We start with The Conquest.
Oscar Devereaux, Micheaux's self in the narrative, tells us about his humble but secure beginnings on the family farm on the Ohio River about forty miles north of Cairo, Illinois. His father (i.e., Calvin Swan Micheaux) had been born in slavery and his father's father sold off to a slave owner in Texas. The continuity of the family name, which went hack three generations, was a source of pride for the young Oscar; he made frequent references to the uniqueness of the name and his own feelings of being special. A bookish, inquisitive youngster, he had a preference for verbal communication over work in the fields. The portrait Oscar paints of himself is that of a young man eager for challenge, with a thirst for knowledge and adventure. Micheaux writes of this early stage in his life as though he had already determined to become someone notable, "a personage of much importance" (p. 68).
In The Conquest, Micheaux, the product of a generation of African American migrants who left the land in search of "the freedom of life and limb, the freedom to work and think, the freedom to love and aspire," tells of Oscar's family migrating from rural southern Illinois to the nearby town of Metropolis (population 3,573 [630 "colored"]), for better educational opportunities for the children (p. 12). Oscar, the fifth child of eleven, recalled his mother (i.e., Bell Willingham Micheaux) declaring "emphatically" that she wanted none of her sons "to become lackeys" (p. 13).
After his elder sister graduated high school and moved to Carbondale to teach, two of his elder brothers enlisted in the army, and the third left for a job as a waiter, Oscar, at the age of seventeen, left Metropolis in search of a career. Working his way North to his sister home to finish his education, and then to Chicago, he supported himself at odd jobs, shining shoes, bailing water in a coal mine, laboring in a factory, the steel mills, the stockyards, and finally, on the railroad as a Pullman porter.
Railroads were important in the African American community, a people "conscious of their [new] power to move freely throughout the country where they may improve their condition," not only as symbols of freedom, but also as vehicles of mobility. For the restless Micheaux, eager to make his mark, the railroads held a certain mystique. He writes about them as conveyers of knowledge, carrying entrepreneurs in pursuit of investment and profits and conquering new territories. He chose a way of life that put him on the road, where he could converse with strangers, learn new things, see places he had read about; a way of life that offered him a measure of independence and freedom.
Micheaux wrote in some detail of Devereaux's participation, while working as a Pullman porter, in a widespread scheme to pocket some of the money collected by the conductors from customers paying cash for their sleeping accommodations. On runs off the mainline (through Idaho and Oregon, for instance) where station agents might not be available, the white conductors collected fares for berth tickets and "had for many years mixed the company's money with their own" and shared a portion of it with the Colored porters (p. 42). With the relish of a muckraker, he wrote an elaborate justification for this practice of "knocking down" the company. "In justice to the many thousands of P[ullman] porters, as well as many conductors, who were in the habit of retaining the company's money, let it be said that they are not the hungry thieves and dishonest rogues the general public might think them to be, dishonest as their conduct may seem to be. They were victims of a vicious system built up and winked at by the company itself" (p. 48). "The greedy and inhuman attitude of this monopoly toward its colored employees ... is demoralizing indeed. Thousands of black porters continue to give their services in return for starvation wages and are compelled to graft the company and the people for a living" (p. 50). He provided details of the company's capitalization, dividends, and the profits gained from the labor of its eight thousand porters working in "near-slave conditions" at twenty-five to forty dollars a month out of which they were forced to buy their own caps and uniforms, and pay for lodging, laundry, and board. "As for myself, the reader has seen how I made it `pay' and I have no apologies or regrets to offer" (pp. 50-51). Devereaux was ultimately turned in to the company by a conductor annoyed by his insolence when he demanded a more equitable share of the cut.
In The Conquest, by the time Oscar Devereaux finally left the railroad at the age of twenty-one, he had saved enough money to make his first investment in land (p. 61), and in the fall of 1904, he purchased a homestead, a 160-acre relinquishment, on the Rosebud Indian Reservation near Winner, South Dakota (pp. 64-65). In a second article Micheaux wrote for the Chicago Defender, he identified himself as a "government crop expert" and claimed to have been successful at wheat and flax farming. He again urged his readers to take advantage of the opportunities in the unsettled territories of the Northwest and was clearly proud of his own accomplishments. Declaring that he had paid seven dollars per acre and eighteen months later the land was worth twenty dollars an acre, he announced, "I have confidence that when our people are properly guided that they will have as much courage and ambition as our white brothers."
His early writings suggest that, like many of his immigrant neighbors who made land purchases based on the prospects of the railroad extending westward, Micheaux hoped to turn a profit on the value of his holdings. However, in order to secure title to the land, it was necessary to establish residence and cultivate the soil. In The Conquest, he wrote that as a boy he preferred selling the family crop to working in the fields and that he knew little about farming (pp. 14-15). Undeterred by lack of experience, armed with government pamphlets, almanacs, and the challenge to conquer the untamed land and reap the rewards of that first harvest, he taught himself the rudiments of Great Plains agriculture, a process he described in painful detail, including purchasing mules, getting the right equipment to "break the prairie," and turning the sod over day after day (pp. 74-85). He also reflected on the need, as the only "colored man" engaged in agriculture in Gregory County, to demonstrate to his white neighbors that he was an honest, hardworking Negro determined to succeed (p. 145). Bent on disproving the widely held belief that "the Negro," when faced with hardships of homesteading, would opt for the "ease and comfort" of the city, Micheaux claimed to have "broken-out" three times as many acres as his neighbors.
Working hard for several years, Micheaux had amassed more than five hundred acres by the time he was twenty-five. He had borrowed money on his original allotment to take advantage of the opening of new lands in the territory. Quickly selecting a wife in order to meet the deadline of the next lottery, in 1909 he purchased claims in the name of his sister Olive, his grandmother Melvina Michaux [sic], and his wife-to-be, Orlean McCracken (p. 205). He placed Orlean on a site in Tripp County near where the railroad was expected to build its western terminus. Because residency was required to establish a claim, the couple were forced to live apart for much of the time, with Oscar shuttling between the sites to work the land.
Micheaux approached homesteading with the same philosophy he was later to apply to his book and movie businesses: he was independent, persistent, and willing to take risks when a small investment had potentially large returns. One chapter of The Conquest digresses to report the history of two towns, detailing the townsfolk's speculation on the route of the railroad's expansion. Although the "objective reporting" of the details and key players obviously attempts to distance the author from those speculators, it is given such prominence in an otherwise "personal" chronicle that one cannot help but wonder what role he had in the scheme. Indeed, the image of Micheaux as land speculator seems more in tune with Micheaux-the-entrepreneur than with Micheaux-the-farmer. As he writes in his semi-autobiographical third novel, The Homesteader (1917), "[he] was possessed with a business turn of mind." For example, the hero of that novel, Jean Baptiste, boasts about how, after handwriting "his own story" in a tablet and having a publisher reject it, he financed the book himself. With borrowed money for a suit and a trip to Nebraska, he struck a deal with a printer there and then raised money for the first payment through advance sales to his neighbors in South Dakota (pp. 401-411).
Although Micheaux acquired a large holding, he lost land to foreclosures in 1912, 1913, and 1914. In the early Defender articles, he had neglected to mention—or perhaps was unaware of—the hazards involved in such land investment, in particular the necessity to accrue cash profits from crop yields to meet mortgage payments. But in The Conquest, he tells of liens on Devereaux's homesteads and the hero's struggling to pay interest and taxes so he would not lose his land. Many other homesteaders who had settled with great optimism were forced to abandon their claims because of prolonged droughts. As he writes in The Homesteader, foreclosures were so common, they "occasioned no comment" (pp. 400-401).
While The Conquest leaves it unclear whether his alter ego lost title to his land, or sold the property, or stopped working it to devote all of his time to writing, in The Homesteader Micheaux does write of the hero being unable to pay his mortgage and relates, with some anger, how the homestead he had purchased in his wife's name was lost when she left him and returned to her father's house in Chicago (p. 400).
By the time Micheaux wrote his second novel, The Forged Note (1915), he was nostalgic about returning to the Rosebud Reservation. The central character of the story, a writer on the road selling his book door-to-door, once again resembles the author's own persona. Written either during or after an extended period traveling in the South, the novel suggests the author took a hiatus from the homestead—"his beloved Rosebud"—and was embarking in earnest upon a career as a writer. By 1916 Micheaux had returned to the West, moving to Sioux City, Iowa, where he published The Homesteader and sold his two earlier works through his new firm, the Western Book Supply Company.
As a writer, Micheaux was self-taught. An avid reader (of such diverse literature as dime Westerns, Ida Tarbell's The History of the Standard Oil Company, Owen Wister's The Virginian, Jack London's Martin Eden, and Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington), he learned to write by "devouring books, studying each detail of construction, and learning a great deal as to style and effect" (The Homesteader, p. 407). Once he made the decision to write, he tackled the job with the same enthusiasm and determination that he had displayed as a homesteader. Within five years he had three novels, which he aggressively distributed himself.
* * *
IN 1918 GEORGE P. JOHNSON, general booking manager of the Lincoln Motion Picture Company of Los Angeles, who had by then already released three films, initiated a correspondence with Oscar Micheaux, now an author publishing and marketing his own books. Johnson wrote to the Western Book Supply Company about his discovery of The Homesteader in a Defender advertisement and inquired about the film rights to the book. His brother and founder of the company, the actor Noble M. Johnson, later reviewed the novel and proposed that parts of it—the romance between the Black homesteader and his white neighbor, most likely—were too controversial for them to deal with, adding, "It is a little too advanced on certain subjects for us yet and unless we would change [it] so decidedly that it would hardly be recognizable, we could not expect much support from white houses."
There followed a rapid exchange of correspondence over three months between Micheaux and George P. Johnson. Johnson tried to convince Micheaux that he had more expertise in "the picture game," and promised that he could mold the book "into a first-class feature." And Micheaux, just as he had learned to farm by interrogating farmers, probed for information from the Lincoln Company, at the same time asserting rather grandiosely that his five-hundred-page novel warranted a big picture, at least six reels, not the Johnsons' usual two- or three-reel product. He was also apparently convinced that, far from being a liability, the controversial nature of such themes as interracial marriage would be a very good selling device and should be exploited: "Nothing would make more people as anxious to see a picture than a litho reading: SHALL THE RACES INTERMARRY?"
With no movie experience at all, Micheaux ultimately decided to produce The Homesteader himself, incorporating under the name of the Micheaux Book and Film Company. Even before he had completed the scenario of his first photoplay, he wrote to George P. Johnson, "Although Sioux City is mentioned as the office city, that is only because I expect to sell most of the stock to Sioux City people and in that vicinity and do not feel that they would appreciate the main office being so far from where they live. But as soon as the subscribed stock has been paid up, incorporation completed, etc., I expect to establish the main office in the business district of Chicago, get a Dodge Roadster, and make my home and main office there, since it is obvious that that is the proper place for the main office for such a proposition." On the letterhead, he listed himself as president and boldly added the line, "Special Features Only—Micheaux Pictures—New York, Chicago, Sioux City."
A Race man at the beginning of a new career, full of energy, enthusiasm, and optimism, but with no film experience, he was able to persuade many small investors in Iowa, Illinois, South Dakota, and Nebraska to buy shares in his newly incorporated company to make the first Negro feature photoplay. His stock prospectus stated: "Aside from the general public, who themselves having never seen a picture in which the Negro race and a Negro hero is so portrayed, ... twelve million Negro people will have their first opportunity to see their race in stellar role [sic]. Their patronage, which can be expected in immense numbers, will mean in itself alone a fortune." The offering budgeted $15,000 for the total cost of the film, including four prints, overhead, and advertising lithos. Interestingly, this was minimum amount suggested for a feature in 1917 articles in the fan magazine Motion Picture Classic and the trade paper The Dramatic Mirror.
Bragging to Lincoln that he was able to raise $5,000 in less than two weeks, with most of the stock sold in the Midwest, Micheaux went on to produce an eight-reeler, the longest African American film at that time. He advertised it as "Oscar Micheaux's Mammoth Photoplay," premiered it in Chicago's Eighth Regiment Armory, February 20, 1919, and declared that it was "destined to mark a new epoch in the achievements of the Darker Races." The program included a patriotic short on the homecoming of "the `Black Devils' who sent the Kaiser into oblivion," as well as a musical selection from Aida by the tenor George R. Garner, Jr., and the Byron Brothers Symphony Orchestra playing music written by Dave Peyton.
His first ad, a half page in the Chicago Defender, included his own photo along with those of the main performers and solicited support: "Every Race man and woman should cast aside their skepticism regarding the Negro's ability as a motion picture star, and go and see, not only for the absorbing interest obtaining herein, but as an appreciation of those finer arts which no race can ignore and hope to obtain a higher plane of thought and action." Such promotional material tells us a bit about the persona with which Micheaux confronted the world. Through his self-assurance and powers of persuasion, he won the confidence of noted author C. W. Chesnutt, for instance, who granted him the right to film his 1900 novel, The House Behind the Cedars, as well as that of Robert S. Abbott, owner, publisher, and editor of the Chicago Defender, who printed two of this unknown writer's articles on the front page of his newspaper.
Perhaps Abbott was persuaded because, as something of a visionary himself, he shared a number of Micheaux's aspirations. Certainly when Micheaux made the decision to write his first novel and talked his neighbors into purchasing advance copies, he had to be convincing. Maybe he made them feel it was about their dreams and ambitions. "Why not as a change from the usual run of Magazine stories and novels by white authors ... try this book?" extolled Micheaux in a later advertising piece for his novel The Homesteader, addressing a Black reader. "Consider it in the light of a gift to relatives or dear friends and let your order be for more than one copy." In a pitch to convey the uniqueness of his endeavor, he included the race of the author and the race of the book's illustrator, the Chicago painter and teacher W. M. Farrow, claiming it was the first "instance where a Negro artist has been offered the opportunity of illustrating an American novel."
After The Homesteader's Armory premiere, the movie was scheduled for a theatrical release a week later at the Vendome Theater on State Street, the main business and entertainment thoroughfare for Blacks in Chicago. However, three ministers, objecting to the representation of a clergyman in the film (the villain, Reverend N.J. McCarthy, a thinly disguised portrayal of Micheaux's father-in-law, Chicago's Reverend N.J. McCracken), appealed to the censor board to halt the screening. Responding to their appeal, the censor board invited a group of prominent citizens, including such notables as Mr. and Mrs. Robert S. Abbott, journalist Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Councilman Oscar DePriest, Bishop S. T. Fallows, Colonel John R. Marshall, and Defender entertainment columnist Tony Langston, to review the film. Enthusiastic about the picture, the group overrode the objections of the ministers and a permit was granted. What better approval rating could Micheaux have achieved than the endorsement of these prestigious figures!
The theatrical debut at the Vendome was advertised as "passed by the Censor Board despite the protests of three Chicago ministers who claimed that it was based upon the supposed hypocritical actions of a prominent colored preacher of this city!" and many subsequent ads included mention of the ministers' protest and trouble with the censors. Already indulging his inclination for exploiting controversy, Micheaux wrote in the Half-Century Magazine of "certain race men" trying to prevent the showing of The Homesteader because, "they claimed, I had chosen to portray one of their ministers in a hypocritical role." Some of the ads quoted Bishop Fallows—described as one of those called by the Chicago censors to "sit in judgement"—as saying, "I can see no just cause for the personal objection to this [photo]play. Every race has its hypocrites. Frequently they are found in the churches."
Oscar Micheaux's self-promotion prompted the Half-Century to declare him "the most popular author in the city," in a 1919 article on Negro life in Chicago. They also praised The Homesteader as "the best motion picture yet written, acted and staged by a Colored man" and suggested, "When ... The Homesteader played to big crowds at the Eighth Regiment Armory the `know-ails' predicted it had run its course in Chicago. Quite to the contrary, it has filled fourteen other engagements on the South Side and the show houses are clamoring for its return." The magazine declared forcefully, "It deserves all the loyal support the race has given it." Micheaux placed an ad in same issue. Addressing both moviegoers and theater owners, he proclaimed the picture, "The First Great Photoplay to Feature an All Star Negro Cast." With the release of his first picture, Micheaux joined the growing number of small companies producing Black-cast films for African American audiences. By the end of 1920, he had moved to New York (still maintaining an office in Chicago) and had four features in circulation.
The correspondence between Lincoln Motion Picture Company and Micheaux's company (from 1918 to 1923) about the possibility of doing business together is a rich area of archival research. The letter writers debated such issues as the relative profitability of shorts versus features, adaptations of novels versus original screenplays, war movies versus domestic fiction, and, importantly, representations of racial progress versus more combative racial themes. Their exchanges dealing with "Race propaganda" provide some insights into the social construction of racial identity, notions of an appropriate Race agenda, and the ways Micheaux acted to facilitate the acceptance of potentially contentious racial material.
In Micheaux's silent films based on his own novels, his original scripts, and his adaptations of stories by C. W. Chesnutt, T. S. Stribling, Henry Francis Downing, and others, he endeavored to represent African American life as he saw it (his moral vision of the world) and to raise his audience's consciousness about social injustice. These films were then known as "Race pictures," a term of pride that identified them as products generated by and for the community. Although "the community" may never have been as homogeneous as the discourses of the time implied, Race consciousness and identification were cohesive and binding forces and these movies were an articulation of self that challenged the dominant culture's ordering of reality.
An examination of Micheaux's films, letters, ads, and press coverage suggests that, in his silent movies, he persistently chose themes that were explosive in their time. By addressing such contemporary social issues as rape, concubinage, miscegenation, peonage, and lynching, he created a textured and expressive response to the social crises that circumscribed Negro life. Within Our Gates, for example, strips away the anonymity of the mob, exposing its members as ordinary townsfolk: men, women, and even children who participate in hunting down and lynching a Black family. The Symbol of the Unconquered reveals the economic underpinnings of the Ku Klux Klan. In The Gunsaulus Mystery (1921), a reworking of the Leo M. Frank case, a Black man is wrongfully accused in the murder of a white woman. Promotion for The Dungeon (1922) touted the film as dealing with the then-pending Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill, and The Brute (1920) condemned racketeering and the abuse of women. Crossing the color line is the central theme of The House Behind the Cedars (1925); Body and Soul (1925) confronts hypocrisy and duplicity in the church; and racially restrictive real estate covenants are challenged in Birthright (1924).
These films generated heated debate and were subject to censorship by official censor boards, community groups, and individuals such as local sheriffs and theater owners. For instance, one southern police official ordered a Race theater to discontinue showing Within Our Gates because, in his estimation, the lynching scenes would incite a riot. The Virginia State Board of Motion Picture Censors rejected the full version of The House Behind the Cedars for "presenting the grievances of the negro in very unpleasant terms and even touching on dangerous ground, inter-marriage between the races."
Micheaux sometimes defied censor boards by showing a film before submitting it for a license or without eliminating passages deemed "offensive" by a censor board; on occasion, he would use the controversy over a picture in one town to promote it—and himself—in other locations. For one run of Within Our Gates in Omaha, for example, an article in a local newspaper announced the forthcoming showing as "the Race film production that created a sensation in Chicago, [and which] required two solid months to get by the censor board." For the four-day run in February 1920 at Chicago's Atlas Theater, Micheaux advertised that he had restored the cuts to Within Our Gates: "Race People of Chicago—Please Note! The Photoplay WITHIN OUR GATES, was passed by the Censor, but owing to a wave of agitation on the part of certain Race people (who had not even seen it) 1200 feet was eliminated during its first engagement. This 1200 feet has been restored and the picture will positively be shown from now on as originally produced and released—no cut-outs.—Oscar Micheaux." Three weeks later, at the States Theater in Chicago, Micheaux issued a press release announcing that the film "will be shown without the cuts that were made before its initial presentation, so patrons ... will see it in its entirety, exactly as the famous producer intended." In his 1923 film, Deceit, Micheaux fictionalized the censoring of Within Our Gates, again keeping his encounters with censors in the public eye. His fictional filmmaker, Alfred Du Bois, confronts the people who condemned his film, aptly titled The Hypocrite.
Oscar Micheaux was first and foremost a businessman. Generally, he would not submit a film for licensing until he had a booking; then he would try to pressure the censor board to make a timely decision in order for him to meet his obligation. An assertive and enterprising salesman, Micheaux promoted himself to censor boards the same way he promoted himself to theater owners. In the letters that accompanied his applications for a license, he often tried to cajole the boards to move favorably on his submission and to impress them with the importance of his business. His letterhead during this period listed all the films he had in distribution and described his firm as "Producers and Distributors of High Class Negro Feature Photoplays."
As a Black filmmaker, Micheaux was constantly in conflict with the ruling hierarchy. The state censor board forced him to cut four of the nine reels of Body and Soul in order to show the film in liberal New York State. When he presented Birthright to the Maryland State Board of Motion Picture Censors, the board demanded twenty-three eliminations. Even though the film was based on a popular novel by T. S. Stribling, a white southerner, the board members found objectionable scenes and inter-titles in all but two of the ten reels. They were particularly offended by suggestions of miscegenation, the questioning of white authority, and the depiction of racist attitudes of whites in the everyday interactions between the races. When Micheaux showed the film in Baltimore without making all the cuts, the print was confiscated.
In Virginia, he deliberately ignored the jurisdiction of the state censor board and affixed a bogus seal from another picture on a print of Birthright. The movie played at the Attucks Theatre in Norfolk, the Idle Hour in Petersburg, the Dixie in Newport News (and perhaps other theaters) before the censor board found out. This set off a flurry of activity around the state, with the board corresponding with mayors, chiefs of police, and theater owners, as well as a network of informants, to prevent future screenings. Although the members of the board had not examined the film, they sent letters saying that Birthright was "a photoplay released by a negro concern which touches most offensively on the relations existing between whites and blacks."
Since local authorities in states without formal censorship often honored the seal of neighboring states with boards, the censor board had the power to cut off access to colored theaters in the entire region. After eight months, with a booking at the Attucks Theatre for his new film, A Son of Satan (1925), and an ad already placed in the Norfolk Journal and Guide, Micheaux responded to the board with a letter of apology that also included a request for a license for his new release. His tardy reply illuminates how he manipulated the system to make it work to his advantage, while avoiding the undesirable consequences of his own misdemeanors. Setting the scene for a melodrama, and playing the role of the trickster, he struck a note of "contrition," saying he had been traveling in cinder-infested Jim Crow cars throughout the South all summer and "was just so tired and distracted half the time" that he never felt composed enough "to set down and explain the why of." Playing to the paternalism of the board, he pleaded poverty and reminded them that his films were only shown to Negro audiences, anyway. The state settled for a twenty-five-dollar fine, the minimum penalty.
To survive in this business, Micheaux drew upon all his considerable resourcefulness. He acted shrewdly, often with guile and not infrequently with subterfuge. Trading on white fears and fantasies—and mocking them—he implanted himself squarely in the center of the Virginia censor board's racist typecasting to beat it at its own game. His use of calculated flattery and psychological trickery to outwit his foes is reminiscent of certain Black folktales. Consider, for example, wily Br'er Rabbit, who gleefully snatches victory from the forces trying to overwhelm him; or High John the Conqueror, pandering to his master's assumptions about the slave's loyalty and lack of intelligence, who successfully juggles the situation in which he finds himself and proceeds to extract more than what is being offered. As Julius Lester puts it in his version of the High John story, "He was what you call a man." Micheaux could have been singing Bert Williams's song, "I may be crazy, but I ain't no fool."
Four months after fining Micheaux, following their first viewing of The House Behind the Cedars, the Virginia censors found the film "liable to cause friction between the races." When they called together an outside committee of "intelligent men and women" to guide them in their final decision, Micheaux tactfully asked if they had included any "representative colored citizens." "If you regard the colored Tax payers and leaders of being capable of thought, which I am sure you do, I could more fully appreciate your effort. For I can recall an incident of this kind in Texas, one in Louisiana, two in Georgia and other points both North and South, where objections were raised. In every instance, however, representative Colored people were called in to express their opinion. And, as you know, over all the Southland inter-racial congresses are in vogue now to determine ... the welfare of the colored folk." In order to get a seal of approval, Micheaux had to agree to eliminate the entire second reel and several other sections, but not without questioning the validity of the board's decision and, by implication, the authority of the board itself, because of its racial composition. He also chastised the board members for being "unduly alarmed as to how my race is likely to take even the discussion in the second reel. There has been but one picture that incited the colored people to riot, and that still does, that picture is The Birth of a Nation [which the board had recently licensed]." Displaying a cunning realism about how he could maneuver within the constraints placed upon a Black man in the South, he was not simply accommodating the censor board, but challenging the very system.
Micheaux strove—with a sense of daring, optimism, and resolve—in a field filled with many roadblocks. He pursued areas and opportunities that were assumed to be closed to Negroes, and he was determined to succeed. One reason for our fascination with Micheaux today is that, in spite of his less than privileged position and without having the protections of post—New Deal and Civil Rights movement entitlements, he stood up to institutional barriers. He struggled not only for the advancement of the Race, but for changes within the system to make it more equitable. Like the "bruised speculator" Thomas W. Lawson, whose book, Frenzied Finance, Micheaux praised in his first novel, Micheaux wanted to reform the system to make it work for him.
Although our research suggests that there was a social distinction between Micheaux and the intellectuals of the Harlem Renaissance—Micheaux and his popular melodramas were either ignored or not taken seriously—he apparently felt a strong kinship with these artists. Sharing their belief that the Negro would gain acceptance once reasonable men saw that they were people of culture, strivers, and activists, he envisioned himself among those who worked for a better understanding between the races. He saw himself as progressive, as an "active citizen" who embraced Booker T. Washington's ideal of pulling oneself up by one's own bootstraps. Such an ideal could serve as a concrete policy for "the uplift of the Negro" (what we would now call a proactive stance), in contrast to the more "reactionary" stance of "[that] class of the negro race that desires ease, privilege, freedom, position, and luxury without any great material effort on their part to acquire it" (The Conquest, p. 250).
Rather than holding on to "the time-worn cry of `no opportunity,'" he urged Negroes to accept personal responsibility. For Micheaux, placing the blame on discrimination robbed people of the impetus, inspiration, and motivation to better themselves. In The Conquest, he complained that the notion of racial bigotry preventing the Race's progress had been used by some as an excuse for "the negro's lack of ambition" (p. 17). And in the The Forged Note, he cautioned, "Dwell[ing] upon the white man's prejudice, we will surely become pessimists. Who is not aware of it? But it is the purpose of the practical Negro to forget that condition as much as possible. To allow our minds to dwell upon it, and predict what is likely to happen, is only to prepare ourselves for eternal misery. So far as I believe, it is my opinion that the white man will always hate the Negro. It may be argued that it is un-Christian-like, which is true; but the fact to be reckoned with, and which remains, is that the white man dislikes Negroes. But, when we have our own welfare to consider first and last, it is logical that we turn our energies to a more momentary purpose" (p. 461). One of his greatest tasks in life, he explained, was "to convince a certain class of my racial acquaintances that a colored man can be anything."
|Foreword by Thulani Davis||ix|
|PART ONE OSCAR MICHEAUX|
|1 Writing Himself into History||3|
|PART TWO HIS SPECTATORS|
|2 In Search of an Audience, Part I||51|
|3 In Search of an Audience, Part II||89|
|PART THREE HIS TEXTS|
|4 Within Whose Gates? The Symbolic and Political|
|Complexity of Racial Discourses||123|
|5 The Symbol of the Unconquered and the Terror of the|
|6 Body and Soul and the Burden of Representation||176|