|Afro-American Writers in the West
W HEN THE QUATTRO-CENTENNIAL of New Mexico was celebrated in 1940 the first
non-Indian to explore the region, an African named Esteban de Dorantes, was ignored.
In 1779, Jean Baptiste Pointe du Sable, a man of mixed ancestry, established a trading
post that is considered the founding of Chicago; although he was traditionally portrayed
as European, local Indians later told visitors that the first "white man" to come to the
area was black.
Those two Afro-American pioneers by no means stand alone: Lewis and Clark were
accompanied by a Negro slave, York, a major figure in the journey. Mountain man Jim
Beckwourth was adopted by the Crows. One of the most dramatic events in frontier
history was "the Exodus of 1879," which brought over twenty thousand blacks in search
of opportunity to Kansas from the south. The fabled Bill Pickett is credited with
perfecting bulldogging, and some rodeo aficionados consider Jesse Stahl the greatest
of all bronc riders; neither is surprising when one considers that approximately five
thousand black cowboys rode the cattle trails. At about the same time, the Negro
troopers of the Ninth and Tenth Regiments–called "buffalo soldiers" because of their
hair–comprised twenty percent of the U.S. Cavalry in the West.
Blacks were continually and intimately involved in the opening of the West. In large
measure, they had even more reason to migrate to "the great American desert" than did
their white counterparts who, though frequently poor, did not suffer the scourge of
discrimination. As diplomat and author James Weldon Johnson summed it up in 1925,
"Your west is giving the Negro a better deal than any other section of the country . . .
there is more opportunity for my race, and less prejudice against it in this section of the
country than anywhere else in the United States" (Denver Post, June 24, 1925).
There is no reason to suppose that the West's tolerance was based upon moral insight–
"The black migrant to the frontier soon found he had no hiding place from traditional
American attitudes," writes William Loren Katz–yet the lack of institutionalized racism,
the vast tracts of open land that kept blacks from concentrating in threatening numbers,
and the pragmatic willingness to accept persons for what they could do rather than
where their ancestors were born all contributed to a relatively liberal atmosphere. As a
result, it is no surprise to learn that on April 22, 1889, when the vast region now called
Oklahoma was officially opened to settlers, not only were buffalo soldiers on duty to
prevent "sooners" from jumping the gun, but an estimated ten thousand blacks raced to
stake their claims.
Those are, of course, only high points of Negro involvement in the American frontier, but
when Ray Allen Billington's otherwise excellent Westward Expansion was published in
1967, none of its nearly one thousand pages contained references to black westerners.
They were invisible frontiersmen.
Black pioneers have had plenty to write about but, like westerners in general, they did
not have the leisure or the training to do so during the early years of settlement. Thanks
to historians such as Katz (The Black West, 1971), Sherman Savage (Blacks in the
West, 1976), William H. Leckie (The Buffalo Soldiers, 1967), Philip Durham and Everett
L. Jones (The Negro Cowboys, 1965), and Kenneth Wiggins Porter (The Negro on the
American Frontier, 1970), their experiences have not been forgotten.
As early as the end of the last century a significant black novelist emerged from the
West. He was Sutton E. Griggs, a Texan who was very much a product of his time. Katz
sums up the final decade of the nineteenth century this way:
The 1890s–which saw the close of the frontier–was an era of immense change for black
and white America. During the next twenty years in each southern state, including Texas
and Oklahoma, segregation was codified. The populist movement, uniting black and
white farmers against eastern exploiters, ended in bitter and bloody defeat for black
hopes. The 1890s, which opened with the closing of the frontier, closed with the
beginning of American imperialist expansion. . . . To justify the control of darker people
abroad, white supremacy arguments again flooded the land. (pp. 299–300)
From that turbulent and tense period for nonwhites emerged Griggs, who was destined
to become the most widely read Negro novelist of the time in black communities.
His novels have about them, despite their Victorian tone, their melodrama, and their
repetition, a curiously contemporary sense. For example, black is beautiful; the hero of
Unfettered (1902) is described this way: "As to color he was black, but even those
prejudiced to color forgot that prejudice when they gazed upon this ebony-like Apollo."
The same book's Negro heroine has eyes "so full of soul." More startling, however, is
the author's militancy. He was a loyal Texan who, in Imperium in Imperio (1899),
demanded that the state be ceded to blacks. The novel begins when a Negro
organization gathers in Waco to urge that blacks revolt openly to achieve the state's
surrender so it can be used as a refuge for blacks. It sounds like the 1960s.
Born in the Lone Star State and educated at Bishop College there, Griggs wrote the
first political novels by an Afro-American. While revealing miscegenation, oppression,
and Jim-Crowism, the novels point out the need for an agency to protect the interests of
Negroes. Because they promote the philosophy that produced the NAACP and certain
government agencies of today, and because of their artistic deficiencies, the following
volumes are of more interest to sociologists than to literary critics: Overshadowed
(1901), The Hindered Hand (1905), Pointing the Way (1906), and the aforementioned
Griggs is rightly considered the most neglected Negro writer of the period between the
Spanish-American War and World War I. Second place goes to Oscar Micheaux of
South Dakota. The novelist of the Midwest ranks no higher than his contemporary in the
Southwest in establishment literary histories; he was also handicapped by not being in
the South (where the black population was) or the East (where the publishers were). The
Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer (1913), Micheaux's first autobiographical
novel, reveals the experiences of a Negro hero in the white world of the South Dakota
frontier. His second novel, The Forged Note: A Romance of the Darker Races (1915),
continues a "trail blazing," autobiographical account of the Negro "pioneer" who leaves
his farmlands to sell his novel in the South. The Homesteader (1917) is the last work of
this period. After an absence during which he produced black movies, Micheaux
reentered the writing and publishing field in 1941. After seven novels and thirty-four
films, Micheaux died in 1951 in New York; unlike the heroes of his early novels, he
neglected to go back to South Dakota to find happiness.
Finally, one western black man born in the nineteenth century lived long enough to see
his work recognized nationally. In 1933 J. Mason Brewer (1896–1975) began publishing
poetry (Negrito) and folklore (in the annual volumes of the Texas Folklore Society). He
told editor J. Frank Dobie "how unrepresentative the loudly-heralded Negro literature out
of Harlem" was, "how fake both in psychology and language." He meant it was false to
the southwestern black, but black writers in the West did not have the publishing
opportunities of the Harlem Renaissance group. Brewer's black folklore collection of the
period did not reach a national audience until reprinted in The Book of Negro Folklore
(1958), edited by Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps, both of whom had moved from
the West to Harlem.
By the 1950s, Brewer's best work was being published by the University of Texas
Press: The Word on the Brazos (1953) and Dog Ghosts and Other Texas Negro
Folktales (1958). Several other volumes followed. When Quadrangle Books published
hisanthology American Negro Folklore (1968), Brewer gained a national reputation. The
San Francisco Chronicle said: "J. Mason Brewer can rank with any folklorist, regardless
of skin pigmentation." Two Texas histories call him "the state's one Negro writer of
importance," but he never gained the recognition of those who, like Hughes, left the
West to reside in the East.
Langston Hughes (1902–1967), the dean of black American letters, was born in Joplin,
Missouri, and reared in Lawrence and Topeka, Kansas. From his extraordinary
bibliography of multiple pages and multiple genres, a westerner would feel most at
home with his first novel and many of the poems he eventually selected as his favorites.
Not Without Laughter (1930) is a semi-autobiographical novel about a young man's
early years in a small Kansas town. Called "Poet Laureate of the Negro people" in the
fifties, Hughes chose his favorite poems from seven previous volumes in Selected
Poems of Langston Hughes (1959). Although he was a world traveler and peripatetic
poet, a surprising number of poems refer to the American West or contain vivid images
of it. A few poems show the black migration to the West from the Deep South. In "West
Texas" the speaker says, "But West Texas where the sun / Shines like the evil one /
Ain't no place / For a colored / Man to stay." In "Sharecroppers" you see why: "Just a
herd of Negroes / Driven to the field / Plowing,planting, hoeing, / To make the cotton
yield." They are "like a mule broke to a halter." This leads to "OneWay Ticket":
I pick up my life
And take it on the train
To Los Angeles, Bakersfield,
Seattle, Oakland, Salt Lake,
Any place that is North and West . . .
Hughes published so much that he asked Arna Bontemps to be coeditor of The Book of
Negro Folklore and The Poetry of the Negro, 1746–1970, but Bontemps attained other
fame alone. Not until he published Black Thunder (1936) and Drums at Dusk (1939)
was there a first rate historical novel by and about Afro-Americans. The first is a
fictionalized account of the abortive slave insurrection under Gabriel Prosser in Virginia
in 1800, the latter about the successful insurrection under Toussaint L'Ouverture in Haiti.
As a child Bontemps moved from Louisiana to Los Angeles and grew up on the
outskirts of Watts, a move reflected in his latest work, The Old South (1973). Of the nine
stories in this book, three excellent autobiographical ones ("Why I Returned," "The
Cure," and "3 Pennies for Luck") are set in California; they are concerned with the
author's family, especially an uncle who was the embodiment of Afro-American folk
culture. Bontemps's early interest was poetry, some of which he published, but he never
attained the status of his friend Hughes and the great poet Gwendolyn Brooks.
Born in Topeka, Kansas, in 1917, Gwendolyn Brooks was taken to Chicago one month
later; she is now one of the major poets of the United States. For Annie Allen (1949), a
book of poetry, she won the Pulitzer Prize (an extraordinary event in black literature).
Her eighth major volume of poetry, The World of Gwendolyn Brooks (1971), is the best
introduction to a poet whose range is phenomenal–from polished sonnets to children's
verses, poems as good as any that have appeared in Afro-American literature.
Following Carl Sandburg, Brooks is now Poet Laureate of Illinois, the state that played a
large part in the westward movement of blacks. She has aided and inspired a whole
school of young black midwestern poets, the outstanding ones being Arkansas-born
Don L. Lee (Haki R. Madhuti) and his colleagues in Third World Press and Broadside
What Gwendolyn Brooks is to black poetry, Ralph Ellison is to the black novel. He has
produced the best black novel yet to appear in American literature, though it is his only
one. Invisible Man (1952) won the National Book Award when published, and thirteen
years later a poll of over two hundred authors, critics, and editors selected it as "the
most distinguished work published during the past twenty years." Today it is said that
this novel has lifted black fiction "to the highest level of artistic accomplishment that it
has yet reached." Ellison was born in Oklahoma City in 1914, and Oklahoma is the
setting of three of his best short stories. "Mister Toussan" and "That I Had Wings" were
published before Invisible Man (1952), while the more complex "A Couple of Scalped
Indians" was published afterwards, but they, like a dozen other uncollected magazine
stories, were written during his apprenticeship days as a writer. They have in common
the same protagonists, Riley and Buster, two preteen boys whose intellectual and
physical adventures in an Oklahoma black community are described with the
developing style, symbolism, and satire that characterize Ellison's classic novel.
Before Ellison, several black writers left the West to gain fame in the East. The major
satirist of the Harlem Renaissance, Wallace Thurman was born in Salt Lake City. The
Blacker the Berry (1929), a study of intraracial prejudice, has a blueblack heroine who
grew up in Boise, Idaho. Like the author she soon heads for Harlem. New York is a
favorite setting for black novels, but a few use the West. One set mainly in the state of
Washington is well known for being "a rare thing, a novel by a Negro about whites."
William Attaway's Let Me Breathe Thunder (1939), a compelling novel in the tradition of
John Steinbeck, tells the experiences of two white vagabonds who encounter a little
Chicano boy in their wanderings around New Mexico, and he becomes the moving
force of the story. As in Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men (1937), a disastrous encounter
with a woman sends the protagonists running. The trip from Yakima in a freezing boxcar
over the Montana Rockies causes an infection in the boy's hand to grow worse and he
dies. The saddened vagrants head for Kansas, leaving his body in a boxcar.
Steinbeck's excellent portrayal of a black character, Crooks, is equalled by Attaway's
white men "on the road."
A comic western novel by a Negro about whites, A. Clayton Powell, Sr.'s Picketing Hell
(1942) is a "fictitious narrative" of white Tom Tern, who becomes a powerful preacher.
Born in LaJunta, Colorado, Tom has many unscrupulous adventures with a friend in his
youth: "The two sublimated their sex desires to stealing, fighting, gambling, and
drinking." As a preacher he no longer sublimates; he has difficulty controlling the "five or
six women of the church . . . making frequent visits to the parsonage." When another
preacher sweeps into tears his audience of western women, one observer states a
theme of the novel: "Religious and sex emotions are so closely related that they cannot
tell where one ends and the other begins." All characters are white, but there is a
"curious racelessness of character," as was the case in Attaway's novel.
California alone could produce a volume on black contemporary writers, mostly those
who chose to live there, such as Ernest J. Gaines and Ishmael Reed. Gaines, born on a
Louisiana plantation in 1933, has spent his adult years in California, where he gained
wide attention with superb short stories, collected in Bloodline (1968), and three novels,
including The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971). The television version of the
latter sent readers to his earlier novels Catherine Carmier (1964) and Of Love and Dust
(1967), which some critics found the best black novel of the decade.
The most sensational of the contemporary California writers is Ishmael Reed. His
reputation is based on two novels, The FreeLance Pallbearers (1967) and Yellow Back
Radio Broke-Down (1969), and a book of poetry, Catechism of D Neo-American
Hoodoo Church (1970). In the much-anthologized poem "I Am a Cowboy in the Boat of
Ra," and in his second novel, Reed satirizes the Old West's "man's man" heroism. The
novel is set in the western town of Yellow Back Radio and features a black cowboy hero,
the Loup Garow Kid, in a fantastic satire of the "frontier" myth. Reed's absurd humor is
directed at blacks and whites; to him, there are no heroes in the Old West or the Ghetto.
Several of Reed's contemporaries in California are promising writers, but the West is
seldom their chosen locale. "A peculiar avoidance of localization" is a characteristic of
all black literature, according to a black critic in Texas in 1980. Al Young's novels
certainly fit this pattern, as does the writing of Lorenzo Thomas. Thomas gives this
reason: "The oppressed condition of the black community has remained virtually the
same in all localities." One clear exception to the rule, however, is the powerful
California poet Sherley Anne Williams. While she can get down with the best black
. . . us togetha in our own selves house
in our own selves bed in the dark. The
dark and ahhhhh. It be so good. Good to be
beautiful to be real be for him to be
more than one. It's enough. I
now my man lovin
struts my stuff.
–she has also retained a strong sense of place, her place, the rural San Joaquin Valley
that has produced so many memorable poets: Gary Soto, William Everson, Larry Levis,
Frank Bidart, Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel, among others.
Her plaint in "North Country: A Dream Realized" limns the cry of other western writers:
I wish I had known this land
before houses infected
the hills and trail bikes slashed paths
across their sides; before heat
shimmered on miles of concrete
roads (which lead to more roads that
stop just short of somewhere) . . .
Says Williams, "Wherever I go, I always seem to find my way back to the Valley," a
reality amply demonstrated by her poetry.
Williams's "ethnic" verse, however, does demonstrate the continuity of black
communities in the Old West with those in the rest of the country. There exists no
western slavery or antislavery literary tradition, since those were not slave states, but in
the early writings, and some of those today, the authors are consistently aware of where
black settlers came from, besides Africa. It is not unusual, then, that the black literature
of the West fits Thomas's two categories: one represents the black man's sense of loss,
with some pessimism; the other represents his "yearning for assimilation" into the
American mainstream, with some optimism. One is exemplified by the poetic allusion of
Maya Angelou's title I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970) and the other by
Langston Hughes's title I, Too, Sing America (1927). This essay has emphasized the
past, with little room for such present-day authors as playwright Ed Bullins and poet
Wanda Coleman, but black writers in the West must recall the motto of J. Mason
Brewer: "If we do not respect the past, the future will not respect us."The "we" refers to
the young black writers of today who will realize that a new and longer essay is needed
to include all of those who now contribute to the rich cultural heritage of blacks in the
JAMES W. BYRD, East Texas State University
with supplementary material provided by the editors
Attaway, William. Let Me Breathe Thunder. New York: Doubleday, Doran, 1939.
Brewer, J. Mason. Dog Ghosts and The Word on the Brazos. Austin: University of Texas
Brooks, Gwendolyn. The World of Gwendolyn Brooks. New York: Harper and Row, 1971.
Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York: Random House, 1952.
Gaines, Ernest J. Bloodline. New York: Dial, 1968.
Griggs, Sutton E. Imperium in Imperio. New York: Arno Press, 1969.
Hughes, Langston. Selected Poems. New York: Knopf, 1965.
Micheaux, Oscar. The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer. Lincoln, Nebraska:
Western Book Supply Company, 1913.
Reed, lshmael. Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down. Garden City: Doubleday, 1969.
Thurman, Wallace. The Blacker the Berry. New York: Macaulay, 1929.
Walker, Alice. The Color Purple. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982.
Gloster, Hugh M. Negro Voices in American Literature. Chapel Hill: University of North
Carolina Press, 1948. This volume of early, mature scholarship is a first choice for a
reader unfamiliar with black literature.
Katz, William Loren. The Black West. Garden City: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1973.
This documentary and pictorial history uses unpublished and rare manuscripts which
provide background for the casual reader or literary scholar.
Savage, W. Sherman. Blacks in the West. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1976.
While not dealing with literature primarily, Savage gives an excellent background for
understanding the black writers who stayed in the West or who left for greener pastures.
Turner, Darwin T. Afro-American Writers. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1970. In
Iowa, Turner has become an outstanding black critic of black literature. This
bibliography, though brief, is a reliable and useful introduction to the field.
Whitlow, Roger. Black American Literature. Chicago: Nelson Hall, 1973. This is a
useful, easy-to-read critical history with a 1500-title bibliography of works written by and
about black Americans.