The Self-Education of Oscar Micheaux
From oddball indie author to pioneer feature filmmaker
Posted Feb 18, 2012
What many people are not aware of, however, is that his name belongs alongside that of Thomas Edison, Frederick Douglass, Jane Goodall, and many others as having been largely self-taught.
From Oddball to Stranger in a Strange Land
In Oscar Micheaux: The Great and Only, Patrick McGilligan writes that Oscar knew he was different from a young age. His peers regarded him as slow and gave him the nickname "Oddball," while adults were suspicious of him, in Micheaux's words, as "worldly, a free thinker, and a dangerous associate for young Christian folks." His remembered that his teachers recognized his quick learning but criticized his talkativeness and inquisitiveness.
At age sixteen, without having finished high school and with a seemingly limitless curiosity and confidence that would follow him in a variety of careers, he hopped on a train headed for Chicago. For a few years he worked as a Pullman porter, which he described as "an opportunity to see the country and make money at the same time." Micheaux used his Pullman years as a form of self-education. While well aware of the "greedy and inhuman" aspects of the company for which he worked, he at the same time used the opportunity to read whatever was left behind on the trains or given to him by passengers, from Shakespeare to Owen Wister's newly published The Virginian. He met and interacted with a variety of people, honing his interpersonal skills, and visited numerous historical landmarks, theatrical productions, and universities such as Harvard and M.I.T. The money he saved during this time he would later use to buy a relinquished homestead claim on the South Dakota Rosebud Indian Reservation after he was unlucky in the 1904 land lottery.
As a farmer, Micheaux continued to be the oddball and to learn and grow. He would later write in The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer, a thinly disguised fictional account of his homesteading years, "The fact that I was a stranger in a strange land, inhabited wholly by people not my own race, did not tend to cheer my gloomy spirits." Yet Micheaux plowed ahead, literally and figuratively, eventually accumulating several hundred acres of land and experimenting with innovative farming techniques before the drought of 1911 led him to his next career: a writer.
Oscar Micheaux: Indie Author
As with so many successful artists and entrepreneurs, one trait that set Micheaux apart was his response to failure, his ability to adapt and to reframe rather than limit his opportunities. Within two years of the drought, he was selling his first of seven novels, The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer, going door to door, setting up a network of agents who would peddle the book in towns and stock it in stores, and forming his own publishing company.
But being a self-taught farmer and self-taught writer were not enough to satisfy his drive and curiosity. When he wanted to make a film of his novel The Homesteader, he raised the money and learned the craft necessary to produce it himself. The rest is indeed history.
J. Ronald Green writes in With a Crooked Stick: The Films of Oscar Micheaux that Micheaux's adaptability led directly to his artistic contributions, and that "if Micheaux had actually succeeded as a large-scale farmer, [The Conquest] would not exist and Micheaux would not exist as we know him."
One cannot help wondering what would become of Oscar were he a child today, how or even whether he would be able to channel his inquisitiveness and talkativeness and larger-than-life drive to learn and self-direction. In the end, whether his achievements were the result of talent or practice or something else entirely, one trait stands out as allowing him to pursue his successive dreams: He was willing to be the oddball and to appear foolish in others' eyes. What he needed from everyone else was simply to get out of his way.
Green, Ronald J. With a Crooked Stick: The Films of Oscar Micheaux, Indiana University Press, 2004
McGilligan, Patrick. Oscar Micheaux: The Great and the Only. Harper, 2007