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The Homestead Act
Dancing in the Dark by Caryl Phillips
Flyin' West by Pearl Cleage
About Caryl Phillips
About Pearl Cleage
The Homestead Act of 1862 and the underlying ideals of inequality that surround it, exemplify how historical events work within the fictional narratives of African American authors such as Caryl Phillips and Pearl Cleage. Caryl Phillips displays inequality issues through the life of a man named Bert Williams in
Dancing in the Dark
. Pearl Cleage directly highlights the lives of black homesteaders in
The Homestead Act was a United States federal law signed by President Abraham Lincoln on May 20, 1862. It gave an applicant freehold title to up to 160 acres of undeveloped federal land outside of the original thirteen colonies. The law required that an applicant file an application, improve the land, and then file for a deed of title. Applicants could be anybody that had never taken up arms against the United States government, including freed slaves. The south initially resisted the Homestead Act in fear that the increase in free farmers would threaten plantation slavery and give rise to new states populated by small farmers opposed to slavery. However, with the succession of Southern states from the Union, the Homestead Act was finally passed and signed into law.
Enacted during the Civil War in 1862, the Homestead Act is an example of how freed slaves, although they could move West and live “freely”, continued to struggle to be free. In "Dancing in the Dark", by Caryl Phillips, this can be seen with Bert Williams who struggles to make it as a black entertainer. Although he is a free black man, society’s constraints and prejudices hold him down, leading him to feel as though he might as well be a slave. The fact that he has to downplay himself as a stupid negro only adds to the humiliation and feeling of a slave to white Americans. The Homestead Act shows that although freed slaves were able to move West, start a new life, and live freely, they continued to struggle to overcome the prejudices deeply instilled into white Americans. They struggled to earn a living and to survive, not being allowed the same opportunities as whites. "Dancing in the Dark" is a perfect representation of such a “free”yet enslaved black man.
"Flyin' West" by Pearl Cleage is another period piece that depicts the experiences of newly freed slaves. Cleage created two lives at odds with the Homestead Act. Sophie sees the act as a means to freedom and success, while Frank sets out to destroy those freedoms. Cleage brilliantly captures the sacrifices and struggles African Americans faced as they came to terms with an entirely new kind of prejudice.
Entertainment during this time portrayed African Americans as lower class, uneducated stereotypes. What Cleage, Phillips, and African American film director Oscar Micheaux have done is recreate the reality of life as African Americans. The characters created by this trio are not one dimensional carbon copies of one and other, but rather, fleshed out multi-dimensional personalities who struggle to maintain an identity as a Black American while simultaneously attempted to blend in and become simply an American.
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