Black Cowboy Photography (2017) & Documentary (9/22)
September 20, 2018 7:15 PM   Subscribe

An exhibition of photographs held in Harlem in 2017, and a documentary film about LA cowboys (upcoming). A quick internet search of “American cowboy” yields a predictable crop of images. Husky men with weathered expressions can be seen galloping on horseback. They’re often dressed in denim or plaid, with a bandana tied ‘round their neck and a cowboy hat perched atop their head. Lassos are likely being swung overhead. And yes, they’re all white. Contrary to what the homogenous imagery depicted by Hollywood and history books would lead you to believe, cowboys of color have had a substantial presence on the Western frontier since the 1500s. In fact, the word “cowboy” is believed by some to have emerged as a derogatory term used to describe Black cowhands.

Making its world premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival (LAFF) this Sunday, September 22 at the LAFF, is director Brett Fallentine's Fire on the Hill, a feature length documentary that tells the intriguing story of the last public horse stable in South Central, Los Angeles called Hill Stable, where a relatively unknown culture of urban cowboys is under threat, with focus on the lives and struggles of 3 inner-city cowboys.

The western-documentary's synopsis reads: South Central Los Angeles was once home to one of the most recognized cowboy communities in the Nation. Yet after decades of urban development and rising street gang activity, this community- which had produced world champions - shrunk to all but a one-block horse stable known as “The Hill.” When a mysterious fire destroys the Hill Stable in 2012, the future of this once thriving culture finds itself at the brink of vanishing forever.

Fire on the Hill
posted by MovableBookLady (10 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
I was the GM of a large Texas dancehall and I can assure you black cowboys are very much a thing. One black patron, Flip, was a superb two-stepper and much in demand as a dance partner, regardless of differences in pigmentation. And gawd help any backwards non-cowboy who wandered in and objected. Cowboys tend to energetically take care of their own...
posted by jim in austin at 8:37 PM on September 20, 2018 [3 favorites]

Cowboy does not come from a term referring to Black men who worked with cattle, trail drives or livestock. The term “cow boy” was first used by Jonathan Swift. African-Americans who were enslaved in Texas were largely responsible to maintaining the ranches during the Civil War ( Smithsonian piece from 2017), and later were able to work steadily as horse-breakers and drovers, like Bob Lemmons and Charlie Willis.
The film has very little to do with the lore of the Old West (I know the filmmaker) and is more about the the culture of Compton ( NYT story from March 2018) while telling the personal stories of three men from that community, one of whom is a rookie bull rider on the pro rodeo circuit.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:46 PM on September 20, 2018 [2 favorites]

I really love the photos.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 9:22 PM on September 20, 2018 [1 favorite]

Earlier this year, Dom Flemons of The Carolina Chocolate Drops released a whole album of songs about black cowboys. Details on his own website here.
posted by Paul Slade at 11:56 PM on September 20, 2018 [3 favorites]

I recently read the influential allegedly non-fiction book The Log of a Cowboy, published in 1903 but about the 1880s. In that book there's only one black character who seems to be regarded as unusual, and there's some fairly nasty racism. I'm just wondering if the author whitewashed it deliberately, if it was just inauthentic, or if there were fewer black cowboys at some times and places than others.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 2:35 AM on September 21, 2018

George McJunkin made one of the greatest archaeological discoveries in North north america.
posted by nickggully at 5:42 AM on September 21, 2018

Loved nickggully's link!

From the info on George McJunkin: the cowboy who discovered Bison antiquus, about twice the size of modern American bison and extinct for some 10,000 years. ..."he outfitted himself to look like a real cowboy, purchasing a hat, pants, and a used saddle."

Unfortunately, no one else was interested, and he died without having shared his amazing discovery. However, fortunately, he was correctly identified as the actual discoverer.

I am suitably awed, however I did have to giggle at the idea that a hat and saddle are only 2/3 of the cowboy identity. Didn't everybody need pants?
posted by BlueHorse at 7:44 AM on September 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

Photos are terrific, thank you -- and the comments here prompt lots of great leads for further research. Man, I love MetaFilter!

My contribution to that: I stumbled across a link about the Broken Arrow Riding Club in Chicago's South Side recently. Any Chicago MeFi's familiar with the High Noon Ride? I'll have to look out for it next year!
posted by Theophrastus Johnson at 1:03 PM on September 21, 2018

I was in a production of Oklahoma! this summer, and I was so happy that the cast included men and women of color (in addition to an age range of 12-90!), because the homogenous casting of Westerns that we're used to just ain't the way it were.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 10:34 AM on September 22, 2018

See also: the Black American West Museum in Denver and the new Black Cowboy Museum in Rosenberg, Texas.
posted by nicebookrack at 4:00 PM on September 23, 2018

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