Historical Context

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The Homestead Act of 1862
The notion of free land in the United States existed from the nation’s formative years, but it was not until the Civil War that the idea became reality. During the mid-1840s, the entire United States experienced significant growth, but growth in the West outpaced that of other regions. Despite its expansion, the West consisted of territories that had not yet become states. As a result, they did not have representation in Congress and thus did not enjoy the government programs afforded the older areas of the North and the South. The issue of free land was supported by Westerners, who knew that it would attract more people, and by Northerners, who wanted the newly settled land to become a productive market for manufactured goods. On the other the hand, the South opposed free land, as it would result in agricultural competition and entice many Southerners, especially slaves and other laborers, to leave the South.

In 1860, however, Southern states began seceding, making it easier for the remaining states to pass legislation in favor of free land. Congress passed The Homestead Act, and President Abraham Lincoln signed it in 1862. This Act enabled any citizen who was the head of the household, twenty-one years of age, or a veteran of at least fourteen days of active service to claim a piece of public land equal to 160 acres. Land was available everywhere except in the original thirteen states, as well as Maine, Vermont, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Texas. Once a homesteader had lived on and cultivated the land for five years, he or she got the title to it. The Homestead Act provided a strong incentive to settle the West, and the result was that pioneers settled and developed the region more quickly than it would have been settled otherwise.

Nicodemus, Kansas
In the 1870s, a white man named W. R. Hill, a black homesteader named W. H. Smith, and five black ministers founded the Nicodemus Town Company and recruited settlers to build an all-black community. The town’s name is significant, although accounts differ. Some sources say that Nicodemus was the name of a slave who predicted the Civil War, but other sources say he was the first slave to buy his freedom in America.

In September 1877, a group of 350 settlers arrived from Kentucky. Their optimism soon met the harsh realities of the flat landscape, the difficulties of farming, and dwindling supplies. Although about sixty families returned to Kentucky, the others were assisted during the winter by a group of Osage Indians, who provided food.

More settlers joined the homesteaders after the hardships of the first year, and by 1885, Nicodemus had a population of almost seven hundred people. Nicodemus had also become a proper town, complete with two newspapers, livery stables, a post office, a store, a physician, hotels, restaurants, schools, and churches. The town lost some momentum when the railroads that brought expansion to the West bypassed Nicodemus, but it continued to be a viable town until the Great Depression in the 1930s. At that time, many residents left in hopes of finding better opportunities elsewhere. Although its population dropped, Nicodemus remained a center for African-American culture and achievement.

Today, Nicodemus hosts an annual Emancipation Celebration on the last weekend of July. Descendants of the original settlers gather from all over the country to celebrate the courage and fortitude of their ancestors.

Jim Crow Laws
Jim Crow laws established a legal foundation for racial segregation in the South. The legalized racism of these laws was what many African Americans fled to...

(This entire section contains 684 words.)

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the West to escape. Jim Crow laws got their nickname from a black minstrel-type character who often appeared in stage entertainments of the time and who remained completely ignorant and happy despite being cruelly treated by whites. They were first enacted in 1865 to provide for racial separation in public transportation, but the attitudes behind the laws soon led to separation in virtually every aspect of Southern society. While the laws began by addressing railroads, they soon called for segregation in schools, hospitals, theaters, hotels, streetcars, residences, and cemeteries.

Literary Style

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Cleage introduces symbolism by using wellchosen objects to convey meaning. She introduces flower symbolism first. Flowers are beautiful products of nature, and they represent new life and strength. They also represent a lifestyle above simple survival; having fresh flowers in the house is a cheerful indulgence. Fannie brings flowers from outside and places them in water throughout the house, an act that demonstrates her natural tendency to bring the life and vitality of nature indoors. Different flowers express different ideas. For example, Sophie considers sunflowers too large to be displayed inside. This expresses the idea that not everything about the external world is appropriate or comfortable in the women’s domestic setting. Roses symbolize independence. Fannie tells the story of her father telling her mother that ‘‘colored women ain’t got no time to be foolin’ with roses,’’ to which her mother responded that if he had time to worry about how she spent her time, she was entitled to grow roses.

Another example of symbolism is Fannie’s china, which represents a better way of life than the slave existence endured by the other characters. The china also represents the importance of the past to Fannie. Sophie wanted to leave it behind when they packed up to head out West, but Fannie refused to leave without it because it was her mother’s china. The china is significant to Fannie, just as Miss Leah’s stories are significant to her, and Fannie wants to preserve both to preserve the past.

Irony refers to a difference between what appears to be true and what is actually true. It is a complex literary technique that requires contrasts and opposing forces or perceptions. That Cleage uses Frank, a mulatto, as a tool of irony, is therefore appropriate. Despite his cool demeanor, he is deeply conflicted about his mixed parentage. He chooses to believe the romantic notion that his white father and his black mother were genuinely in love and that his father wanted to marry his mother. In reality, his father would not give his mother her freedom. Frank needs to believe that he was the result of a loving and dignified union, when the truth is that he was the product of an imbalance of power and, in all likelihood, of violence. The irony is extended when he recreates the same dynamic with his own wife. He asserts his control over her and dominates her with physical and emotional abuse. The marriage is characterized by an imbalance of power, and he does not recognize that he is recreating the truth of the past. To make the parallel especially clear to the reader, Frank is very light-skinned (like his father), and Minnie is dark (like his mother); he reveals to her that he led some white men to believe that Minnie was his ‘‘black whore,’’ not his wife. His blindness toward his own hypocrisy is equally apparent in his desire to return to London, where blacks are treated better; he fails to realize that he is guilty of mistreating his own people, both individually and collectively.

Frank’s character is also ironic in the way he tries to impress Minnie’s family. He believes that he can demonstrate his superiority to them by pointing out how civilized his way of life is compared to their rustic lifestyle. Because he believes that European civilization is superior in every way to that of the American West, he assumes that everyone else will agree. This renders him incapable of earning the respect of Fannie, Sophie, Miss Leah, or Wil, all of whom see Frank’s ‘‘finer things’’ as frivolous and meaningless. They respect hard work, integrity, and freedom. As a result, the more Frank tries to command their respect on his terms, the less likely he is to get it.

Compare and Contrast

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1898: The people of Nicodemus are determined to create a strong community, despite the fact that their petition to have the new railroad come through their town has been denied. Railroads bring growth and progress, so the people of Nicodemus are disappointed that the railroad is bypassing them.

Today: Nicodemus is an important historical site but no longer a thriving town, due in part to the fact that the railroad bypassed it.

1898: Homesteaders in Kansas receive 160 acres each to cultivate, although the average farmer can only cultivate 40 acres at a time.

Today: The average farm size in Kansas is over five hundred acres. With modern equipment and technology, farmers are able to farm hundreds of acres, although issues such as soil erosion and depletion complicate production.

1898: The face of agriculture is the family farm. Farms are run by families who live on the land— often for many generations—and have a deep tie to it.

Today: The family farm is the most rapidly declining business in America. The face of agriculture is corporate farms run by large agricultural businesses that oversee large tracts of land, to which they have no tie beyond the financial.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Bennett, Suzanne, and Jane T. Peterson, ‘‘Pearl Cleage,’’ in Women Playwrights of Diversity: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook, Greenwood Press, 1997, p. 91.

Giles, Freda Scott, ‘‘The Motion of Herstory: Three Plays by Pearl Cleage,’’ in African American Review, Vol. 31, No. 4, Winter 1997, pp. 709–12.

King, Robert L., ‘‘Flyin’ West,’’ in the North American Review, Vol. 279, No. 6, November–December 1994, pp. 51–52.

Madison, Cathy, ‘‘Home Sweet Homestead,’’ in American Theatre, Vol. 9, No. 8, December 1992, p. 11.

Monroe, Steve, ‘‘Black Women as Pioneers,’’ in American Visions, Vol. 9, No. 5, October–November 1994, p. 31.

Scanlon, Jennifer, ed., ‘‘Pearl Cleage,’’ in Significant Contemporary American Feminists: A Biographical Sourcebook, Greenwood Press, 1999, p. 71.

Further Reading
Braxton, Joanne M., ed., The Collected Poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar, University Press of Virginia, 1993. Dunbar is considered among the most important early African-American poets, and his poetry reflects the emotional spectrum and unique experiences of late nineteenth-century African Americans. Frank and Minnie refer to his poetry in Flyin’ West.

Chafe, William Henry, Raymond Gavins, and Robert Korstad, eds., Remembering Jim Crow: African Americans Tell about Life in the Segregated South, New Press, 2001. This volume contains the first-hand experiences of African-Americans during the racial segregation of the Jim Crow years. Interviewees include individuals of various economic, social, and geographic backgrounds. The book comes with an audio disk that allows readers to hear some of the interviewees telling their stories.

Painter, Nell Irvin, Exodusters: Black Migration to Kansas after Reconstruction, Random House, 1977. This review relates the events leading up to the migration of many African Americans in the post- Civil War years. Painter also reveals what life in Kansas was like for black homesteaders and factors of their successes and failures.

Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, Bearing Witness: Contemporary Works by African American Women Artists, Vol. 1, Rizzoli International, 1996. This volume captures the art on display during the title exhibition. Various media were included in the exhibit, and twenty-five notable artists contributed work. The photos of the art are complemented by relevant essays written by such prominent African-American women as Cleage and Maya Angelou


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide