Flyin' West by Pearl Cleage


J. Paul Nicholas, left, Pat Bowie, Crystal Fox, Kinnik, Dawn Ursula and E. Roger Mitchell in True Colors' "Flyin' West" at the Lincoln Theatre. (By Horace Henry)

Flyin' West highlights the struggles of Black homesteaders in Nicodemus, Kansas. Set in 1898, Pearl Cleage's play includes a sparse cast of six characters. Flyin' West gives us a glimpse of the tribulations that freed Black slaves faced even after the abolition of slavery. Attempting to put the past behind them, Black Americans fled the south to available lands provided by the Federal Government in the Homestead Act. This flight into the American Frontier is known as The Great Migration. As the number of Black Americans grew in the Homestead States, this migration became know as The Black Exodus.

National Archives Flyer of 1878

Freedom wasn't without problems. Largely based on journal entries Cleage had collected and read, Flyin' West is an historical tribute to the Black women who moved west and attempted to find a place for themselves in a white male dominated world. (Rust) The play opens with Sophie a thirty six year old woman, and Miss Leah a seventy three year old neighbor. Both women are former slaves who are discussing life in the all Black town of Nicodemus. Among some of the issues that faced the women of Flyin' West were the influx of white prospectors, eager to grab up the thousands of acres in Kansas, racial hierarchies among the former slaves, racism, and the pressure to keep the land they were tasked with making into successful producing homestead farms.

These women of Flyin West had overcome remarkable odds, and were faced with even more. It wasn't enough to just apply for a homestead, there were other substantial commitments that needed to be met. For an $18 filing fee, any U. S. Citizen could apply for a homestead. The property needed to be occupied, improved, and cultivated within six months of acceptance. After five years, applicants were given the right to file for the deed if the homesteader could demonstrate that improvements had been made.

As Cleage's play opens, Sophie and Miss Leah talk briefly on the subject of purchasing more land and being surrounded by their sisters on adjoining homesteads. What a remarkable feat these women were setting out to accomplish.
The statistics show the extreme difficulty homestead applicants faced; of 67,600 homestead applications, only 27,800 were awarded deeds. Other remarkable statistics show that only 23% of claimants were Black, yet after five years 35% of Black claims were awarded, compared to 25% of white claims. (US Census Bureau) The numbers speak for themselves. Former slaves must have been more adept at farming, and were therefore slightly more successful at turning a plot of land into something capable of being deemed a working homestead.

Cleage's protagonist women have all earned their deeds in 1898. As the play continues, Sophie and Fannie are waiting for Fannie's sister Minnie to arrive from London with her husband Frank. Frank is the son of a slave and a plantation owner and is expecting a large inheritance after the death of his father. Frank is hardly a likeable character. From the moment he appears, it's obvious he feels superior to the sisters, and the other Black citizens of the town. Minnie arrives in the latest London fashion. Her black eye raises suspicions of the ladies, but Winnie explains that it was an accident. Throughout the play the audience gets glimpses of the conflict between Frank, his wife Minne, and the 'sisters' Fannie and Sophie. Frank is abusive towards women, and denies his African heritage, instead, attempting to 'pass' as a white man. Unlike the women, Frank has no desire to live in Nicodemus. The sisters may call the town a paradise for colored people, but Frank refers to is as "Niggerdemus." When Frank's expected inheritance is denied, he falls into a rage. Faced with the prospect of having to live with Minne and her family on the Nicodemus Homestead, he brutally forces Minnie to include him on the deed so that he can sell the homestead to eager prospectors willing to pay top dollar. Enraged at what Frank has done, the sister's plot to get rid of him. With a simple suggestion that they let bygones be bygones, Fannie offers to buy Frank and Minnie's deed back for the market price, and seals the deal with a homemade apple pie. Frank realizes too late that he has been poisoned, and the good sisters are rid of arrogant, manipulative Frank Charles.

In this short play Cleage addresses some of the issues that faced Black women in the late 19th century. Newly freed, Cleage's characters flocked together in a community where their children could be safe among others. Where instead of being shamed for being Black, these people could embrace their ethnicity and be proud of it.

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