THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


Imagining the Black Cowboy

Recovering an alternative history of the West

by Babette Thomas

published March 9, 2018


On a Wednesday afternoon, I’m sitting in the conference style classroom of my workshop in front of a dark wood table with 16 other students. With ten minutes left in class, my professor, who prefers that we refer to him as Ed, suddenly scatters dozens of eclectic postcards in front of us. He instructs us to pick one to write about for the rest of class. Whatever comes to mind. I shuffle and sift my hands through the pieces of cardstock trying to find the best one, or at least something that ‘speaks to me.’ I almost settle on a really pleasant picture of a clock in front of a blue background. It depicts slightly chubby pale Renaissance figures encircled by yellow crescent moons. It looks like something that could have been done by Salvador Dali if he had learned to lighten up. Just as I started preparing myself to write something corny about how my soul, my body, and my spirit are aligned with the moon, another postcard catches my eye.

Nic Nicosia. The Cast (Otis, Larry and Big Mike). 1985. Pictured in the foreground: three white cowboys posed behind a table, enjoying plates of warm Texas barbeque and glasses of sweet tea. They look happy and jovial, with mustaches stretched above their giddy smiles. Hats are perched on their heads, fringe hanging from their chests, bandanas and bolo ties dangling from their necks. Surrounded by dark marbled wood, checkered red and white table cloths and some hand sewn curtains to match, they create a classic American tableau.

At first glance, these characters reminded me of the figures from the blurry drawings of cowboys in the American history textbook I lugged around during the 10th grade (which I continue to blame for my prolonged back problems). Figures with wide stances, glaring gazes, scruffy brown hair, and hands on their pistols just itching to pull the trigger. These textbook images are usually accompanied by a description of Westward expansion— attempting to portray the expansion of the US empire throughout the American continents as both justified and inevitable. Despite the figures on the postcard being neither outdoors nor engaged in any form of action other than munching on some scrumptious barbeque, their garb and aesthetic is enough to evoke images of the Wild West. An idealized representation of Western expansion.

Behind them, a Black cowboy is caught in action at the rodeo, riding a grey bull with his fringed pants billowing in front of him. The stadium is filled with Black and Brown figures in colorful garb. Also pictured, a Black rodeo clown. They’re dressed in a color coordinated red-and-white polka dot ensemble that goes perfectly with the curtains, and a pair of blue overalls on top. A rodeo clown has the complicated and dangerous task of making sure the audience is amused while providing a distraction for the bull in case the cowboy is ever in danger. This Black rodeo clown is pictured stabbing the bull in his right eye as the cowboy is thrown back by the bull’s bucks. A bullseye. The roles are clear, the scene is set, and the players costumed to part. The visual markers tell us where and what is happening, but something is missing from this classic rodeo scene. These Black southern figures have no faces. Just brown circles smudged on a canvas.

I didn’t know about the deep and complex history of Black cowboys until very recently. But why would I? My dad always boasted about the Western classics he had watched growing up, starring white male actors like Clint Eastwood and John Wayne. Such movies, like The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, The Searchers, and Once Upon a Time in the West explore the complicated and difficult lives of white cowboys. Their protagonists are handsome, brave, and strong horse-riding white men engaging in the difficult labor of cattle herding, while constantly brushing up against danger. In these movies, cowboys are typically depicted as lawless and contentious heroes, simultaneously loved and hated by many. They are awarded multidimensional characters and stories as well as autonomy, a quality rarely attributed to Black characters in Hollywood. Black actors, in Westerns as well as in other movie genres, have historically been cast for roles such as the sidekick or caretaker—someone who is always willing and eager to serve and assist the white protagonist.

What Hollywood has promoted as traditional white cowboy lifestyle actually originates from ‘Vaquero’ culture in Latin America. As the Spanish colonized the Americas, they asserted their domination by establishing ranches and missionaries in regions such as northern Mexico, the first of many links between cowboy-hood and colonial history. They began importing cattle from Spain and coerced indigenous people, whose land they stole, to begin adopting their ranching practices. These forms of cattle ranching eventually spread to Texas. By the nineteenth century, Anglo settlers sought out new methods of herding cattle, this adopting these Spanish traditions. However, this is only a small part of the history of cowboys.

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While fighting in the Civil War, white ranch owners often designated enslaved people to watch over their cattle. Many Black Americans gleaned experience in the practice of cattle ranching. In addition, directly after emancipation, ranch labor was often the only work available to free Black Americans. All of these factors led to the emergence of Black cowboys, and not just a small number of them. An article published in Smithsonian magazine notes that over a quarter of cowboys were Black. Learning this after hours of internet searching took me from wondering, “Why would I have heard about Black cowboys?” to asking, “Why the hell haven’t I heard about Black cowboys?”

“Why haven’t I learned about Black cowboys in history books?”

 “Why haven’t I watched Black Westerns?”

“Why haven’t I been taught to look at Black cowboys as heroes?”

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This is not to glorify the figure of the cowboy or to disregard the genocide of Native Americans as a consequence of the imperialistic westward expansion of white settlers. In fact, this erasure is what the image of the white cowboy relies upon. In classic Westerns made prior to the mid-20th century, such as 1939’s “Stagecoach,” Native Americans are often portrayed as unintelligent, savage, and inferior to the white cowboy, therefore justifying the white cowboy’s domination of Native people. Alternatively, in more recent and well known films such as The Lone Ranger, white cowboys and Native Americans are sometimes seen as getting along in harmony, which erases the repeated violence and genocide white settlers enacted upon Native Americans. Native people are constantly confronted with reminders of this genocide, as it is often trivialized through games (Cowboys and Indians, for instance), movies, and other forms of American culture.

Cowboy culture in and of itself is embedded in a colonialist framework that perpetuates violence against Black and Brown people. Through slavery, Black people were forced to take upon the figure of the cowboy, bringing along a violent history of how Black Americans have interacted with this framework. In moments in which Black Americans were still not completely free, they constantly found ways to assert their autonomy. However, these histories and moments of Black freedom and independence are so often erased, as American narratives typically only focus on moments of Black American struggle.

This is instead to comment on the erasure of Brown people from the history of the great American West and its creation. This is instead to voice my desire for more depictions of Black characters as simultaneously heroic and exempt from the law without fear of being criminalized, for more Black characters who aren’t only seen for their labor, but also for the complexity of their lives. In a way, after emancipation, becoming a cowboy meant freedom, escape, and the possibility of making a livelihood, but this didn’t provide escape from erasure. And it also didn’t mean that Black and white cowboys were on completely equal footing. Yes, it’s true — because of the nature of ranch labor, cowboys often had to depend on each other regardless of race; however, Black cowboys faced discrimination in the towns they rode through, unlike their white counterparts. Cowboy-hood didn’t provide escape from segregation, nor from being denied service at an establishment.                                                                       

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Picture this: a tall, Black, dark-skinned cowboy done up in the appropriate dress—pointed boots, sturdy pants, a fringed shirt and a color-coordinated hat. He is as strong as he is elegant. He is riding through a small town in Texas, looking for somewhere to grab a drink and rest his feet. He spots a “Whites Only” sign dangling from a weak nail on a tall cavern-looking bar. “Perfect,” he thinks to himself. He stops his horse and ties it up to a post outside. He enters the establishment while chewing on some tobacco, wide stance and all. He demands to be served a drink. The white man behind the bar uses some unpleasant language and refuses to serve him. The Black cowboy purses his lips, standing tall with his head high, hands on his hips, and nods. He calmly, yet proudly walks out of the bar. Everyone in the bar is surprised, as they were getting ready for a fight. As the Black cowboy exits the bar, he turns left to where he tied up his horse. He mounts the animal, grabs the reigns and rides it towards the sunset.

He then turns the horse around so that he’s now facing the tavern door. He begins to whip the strong and majestic animal, while letting out a big “Hyaaa!” The animal whinnies and charges towards the tavern. The cowboy squints his eyes, one hand gripping the reigns, the other one on top of his hat. He tries to figure out how much he’s going to have to crouch to fit through the small opening, but as he passes through the doorframe, he ducks effortlessly and times it perfectly. He looks out at the shocked expressions of the white cowboys in the bar, all ready to grab their guns. But he’s too quick for them. He shoots out every single light in the place with perfect accuracy until it is pitch black. He turns around and rides off into the sunset for real this time, patting his horse on its side, thinking to himself, “perfect,” once again.

If you’re wondering about the identity of this man, his name was John Hayes, also known as the ‘Texas kid.’ Unfortunately, not much more information is known about him. He was a Black cowboy, one who reclaimed the white violence so often used against Black and Brown people in order to assert his place in an American West that constantly tried to erase him.

Okay, now moving to Cascade Montana. Imagine Mary Fields, a Black woman who would ride around in her wagon, wearing an apron, under which she carefully tucked her six-shooter rifle. Mary loved to fight. If anyone ever approached her, she would remind them that she was known for knocking out any man or woman with a single punch. She was born in Tennessee as an enslaved person, but was freed after the Civil War. She was constantly talked about in the newspaper because of her fighting abilities and being able to hold her own. She drank large amounts of alcohol and enjoyed smoking her fair share of bad cigars.

One night, while she was making a night run in her wagon to carry supplies for the nuns of St. Peter’s convent. She was going down her normal trail, wolves emerged from the dark in front of her path. Her horses begin to kick and whinny and knock the wagon over while she’s still in it. The toppled wagon makes a loud thud, and stirs up dust that gets inside her lungs. Meanwhile, she sees from the corner of her eye that the wolves have started encircling her wagon. So she dusts herself off, fixes her apron, from which she pulls out her rifle, and points it at the wolves while yelling, “You get back!” The wolves snarl at her, but she advances towards them unafraid. The wolves eventually begin to retreat. She uses this as an opportunity to make sure her horses are alright: petting their manes and cooing (almost singing) to them. She then sits atop the toppled wagon—feet dangling, holding her rifle across her chest. And she camps out just like that for the rest of the night. Come morning, Mary was able to safely drive the supplies to the convent, for which the nuns were forever grateful.

Fields was very complicated both in terms of her interests and her reputation. While she loved a good brawl, one of her other favorite pastimes included growing and picking flowers for the local baseball team. And although Mary was loved by the nuns, the Catholic Bishop forced her to resign working for the convent, because of her fighting tendencies. However, this didn’t stop Mary’s birthday from being made a Cascade school holiday every year. With this, Fields stands as a lesson in Black female duality: navigating being both hard and soft.

About a month ago, I started browsing Amazon for cowboy hats. I was searching for one that felt festive, but not too over the top—one that falls in line with my personality. I finally found the perfect one: a cow-print cowboy hat. My love of cow-print dates back to when my family took a trip to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where we spent two hours in a cow-themed creamery. I brought home stickers, bookmarks and water bottles with puns like “Hannah Moo-Tana" and the “Jonas Br-udders". Anyway, at home, I anxiously awaited my hat. It finally came in a large box so as to not damage or smash the precious cargo. My dad handed the box off to me, giving me a look that read as “what the hell is this?" I shot him a look back that said, “you don’t want to know." I opened the box, and picked up the hat, placing it on my head and adjusting the strap. I was elated.

Today, there are subtle, yet exciting, ways in which Black cowboys show up in American culture. Movies like Django and Posse depict the experiences of Black cowboys. In terms of fashion, for 2018, Mardi Gras Solange wore a hand-embellished black cowboy hat with a sparking crystal fringe made by her and her son Julez. In 2016-2017, the Studio Museum had an exhibit titled “Black Cowboy,” containing art depicting the lives of modern-day Black cowboys. Finally, the Federation of Black Cowboys, stationed in Queens, New York, ensures that kids from the inner city are able to learn about Black cowboy-hood and interact with horses.

I walked out of my bedroom and into the living room, never having been more proud of a purchase than the one atop my head. My parents looked at each other and then both looked at me with an oh dear god expression stretched across their faces. They both begged me to not wear it outside the house… but I didn’t listen.

My family comes from various parts of the south: Tennessee, Oklahoma and Louisiana, as do many Black Americans who are the descendants of formerly enslaved people. Whenever I wear my cowboy hat, it’s not simply a frivolous accessory. I am honoring a lineage whose stories and narratives have been intentionally erased. I am reimagining and inserting myself within a new narrative of what we think of as “American Classics.” I am thinking of my ancestors who have continually been displaced because of white violence. In terms of understanding my own personal narrative, reclaiming, imagining and grounding myself within histories of Black autonomy that are so often skipped over is an important stepping stone in imagining histories that exist completely independent of a colonial framework.

 

Babette Thomas B'20 tips her hat at Black women reclaiming their histories.