“He’s the one on the right.” Miko Marks is identifying a man on a quilt. She is a country singer at this year’s National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. “He” is Wilbert McAlister, the president of the Oakland Black Cowboy Association—one of many black cowboy associations around the country.
“He’s just a phenomenal man,” Marks recalls from her time as a traveling vocalist with the Bill Pickett Rodeo, where she crossed paths with McAlister. “He’s about 78 years old now, and he still dances, still rides, and started doing blues singing, too.”
To be able to recognize someone’s likeness in patchwork cloth is incredible, but then so is this quilt. Made in 2013 by the late textile artist and National Heritage Fellowship recipient Marion Coleman, the picture-window-sized quilt—titled “Trail Blazers”—is made up of 221 fabric pieces, sewn and C-stitched into an image of two black cowboys facing one another on horseback. One man is in a blue shirt. The other is Wilbert, in yellow. It’s beautiful and approachable, like many quilts are. And as the official image for the 36th annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, it also serves as an introduction to the year’s theme of “black cowboys.”
Not always a well-represented population at the Elko gathering (this year included), black cowboys occupy a significant place in Western history. Transitioning from slave labor to paid labor in the cattle and farm industries in the mid- to late-1800s, black cowboys accounted for one in four workers in the American West. They rode in the cattle drives in Texas alongside Mexican vaqueros. They were peacekeepers and protectors as Buffalo Soldiers, and they were Exodusters who turned out in masse to buy up land in Kansas. They were pioneers, rodeo stars, and singing cowboys.
Over the course of the six-day gathering that ended on Feb. 1, participants attended workshops, concerts, panel discussions, and poetry readings to learn more about the many ways that black cowboys have made their mark on the West.
Black cowboys through the decades
For me, the best chance at a passable understanding of the many traditions that are sunk into the broad (yet reductive) term “black cowboys” is through the event’s art.
Curated by Vania Kinard, the featured exhibition at the Western Folklife Center brings together folk art, pop art, historical ephemera, and contemporary photography to tell the story of a group of cowboys whose experiences often get lost in the larger Western narrative.
The exhibition also draws heavily from music. Records from Lead Belly and Cisco Houston are displayed in cases next to musicians’ articles of clothing and traditional folk instruments like cow rib bones. Two pieces of music are particularly prominent: Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road”—which lent the title for the exhibition (“I’m Gonna Take My Horse”) and Dom Flemons’ Black Cowboys album, which inspired the Gathering’s theme this year.
Released within a year of each other, these pieces illustrate the best arguments for our renewed interest in black cowboy culture, particularly the appeal of two Wests—imagined and real, spiritual and physical.
The imagined West, or the myth of the West, can be found in the trappings of “Old Town Road”—from the references to horses and hats and “Wrangler on my booty” to its many nods towards rugged individualism (echoey banjo notes and Lone Ranger-esque shots in the video). The performative aspects of being a cowboy are front and center for Lil Nas X, making the elements that you don’t normally find in country music (Gucci, trap beats, black people) feel like a setup for something bigger.
Lil Nas X is not alone. For the past two years, the resurgence of black cowboy culture—or “the yee haw agenda” as pop cultural archivist Bri Malandro famously dubbed it—has been out in full force. On social media, we’re reminded of the black Western versions of celebrities that have been around for awhile (Beyoncé, Mary J. Blige, Nelly) or for a minute (Solange, Ciara, Cardi B). Here, on the internet, being a cowboy means being a person who might ride a horse, but, more importantly, it means self-identifying as a cowboy—wearing the persona like a ten-gallon hat, claiming and performing authenticity from the outside in.
For Dom Flemons (who also happens to be Kinard’s husband), Black Cowboys—the album and the people—is less a pop culture phenomenon and more of a historical reality. Over the course of his 18-track, Grammy-nominated folk album, Flemons pays tribute to the lived West as he sings songs about individuals like Bill Pickett (of Bill Pickett Rodeo fame), Bass Reeves (the thought-to-be inspiration behind the Lone Ranger), and the 5,000 anonymous cattle drivers who rode the Chisholm Trail.
Thirty-nine pages of album liner notes serve as a mini literature review for the legacy of African Americans in the West, beginning with the influence of slavery, touching on the the erasure of black cowboys in Hollywood, and ending with the songster tradition of black folk music—of which Flemons is a part. These notes, combined with the actual songs on the album, add up to what Flemons calls a “foundational document,” a work rooted in fact and family heritage (Kinard and Flemons’ families both come from the West).
”Part of the reason I [made a folk cowboy record] was that I figured anybody who had any sort of black cowboy heritage in their family—which I think is most African American people—could open that idea up,” Flemons says in a phone interview. “I think people are ready to delve in. It’s pretty buried. It’s a lot of history.”
Western stories, Western myths
Grounded by Black Cowboys and sent wandering by “Old Town Road,” the visual aspects of the exhibition bounce back and forth between historical appreciation and myth-making.
The quilts do some of both. Belonging to the tradition known as story and memory quilts—works that are based on either true-life experiences or stories that are true to the quilter’s memories—Coleman’s pieces straddle fact and feeling.
Loaded with iconic signifiers like hats, boots, horses, and blue and piecey backgrounds that recall endless sky, Coleman’s quilts also reference real people that she met at the Oakland Black Cowboy Association’s annual parade—which she attended each October for a number of years before her death last April. Individuals like Wilbert were selected as much for who they are as for the mood their image might spark in the viewer. According to a 2018 interview on the Art Works podcast, “playfulness” is what Coleman was going for when she chose the unknown-to-us figure who stands atop a horse in her “Riding High” quilt.
On the wall opposite “Riding High,” Kinard projects an 11-minute silent film that cycles through photographs of black cowboys, pioneer women, mountain men, and trappers. The images—sourced from The African American Museum of History and Culture—give us names and faces (and journal entries and quotations) to pair with any history-book understanding we might already have.
In the west wing of the gallery, 20 panels of the 1950s comic The Chisholm Kid—on loan from the Museum of Uncut Funk—are blown up for easy viewing. As the first, and one of the only depictions of blackness in the comic book landscape at the time, the weekly strip sticks to the same script as its white counterparts. There’s an origin story, an archnemesis, and wrongs to be righted.
As a protector of the downtrodden on the Texas trail and in the neighboring town, the Chisholm Kid holds up a general kind of social justice, helping people in (mostly physical) need, but not getting very specific about the African American experience. Just being in print as a black version of The Lone Ranger, which ran around the same time, is what makes this comic notable.
Where The Chisholm Kid swings wide, the photographs in the back of the gallery bring us very, very close. Taken by Rory Doyle, the 36 color photographs on display are a part of the artist’s “Delta Hill Riders” series. Now going on three years, the open-ended project chronicles the lives of a group of Mississippi cowboys both on and off their horses.
Each photo is a portrait of a person who seems well-known, not in the fame sense, but in the way you would know everything about a friend—which has become the way Doyle thinks about the Delta Hill Riders.
A woman on horseback makes eye contact with the camera, self-assured and relaxed. A daughter brushes her 92-year-old mother’s hair. A two-week old baby sleeps soundly, his tiny hand on a tiny cowboy hat as the camera peers over the edge of his father’s brim. In one shot, three young men dance on top of their horses outside of a McDonald’s drive-thru.
It’s a picture of a community that defies easy placement on the “realness of the West” spectrum.
Unlike most people who call themselves cowboys, the Delta Hill Riders are not cattle ranchers. Inheriting the legacy of horse care and riding from generations of slaves who farmed the land, this group of cowboys (and girls … but mostly boys) take their horses out on the delta and bordering hills to ride for fun—adopting the label of cowboy as a social identity and horse care as a pastime.
“Who’s looking?” It’s an important question.
More than any other part of the exhibition, these photographs, just by being photographs, beg the question, “Who’s looking?”—which is something that Doyle, who is white, thinks about a lot.
“I’m always conscious of who should be telling the story and if it should be me,” he says. “So many times it’s been done in the wrong way, and I guess I’m thankful for the trust [we have].”
Beyond Mississippi, the element of seeing and being seen in the black cowboy experience should include a mention of white gaze. As a white person and, really—as an American person—I’m aware of how hard it can be not to project aspects of dominant history and mythos onto topics I know very little about. Like black cowboys, for example. Before attending this exhibition, the only black cowboys I knew of were the Buffalo Soldiers. Now I know more.
The thing is, I can walk away from this week with a new cultural understanding. And that’s good. But when I do walk away, it is my very great privilege that no one will track my body with a blinding spotlight, color filter, or any other metaphorical device that renders me invisible or limited in any way related to my skin (gender yes, skin no). I can become a cowgirl tomorrow and shock no one.
That’s why “I’m Gonna Take My Horse” is such a perfect title for this exhibition. While topics like white gaze and whitewashing bear repeating, they don’t get the final word here. Lil Nas X does—and black cowboys do. He’s going to take his horse and ride, faster than eyes can follow. Old Town Road—real or not—is one way to get there. Elko is a stop.
The exhibition, I’m Gonna Take My Horse is on display in the Western Folklife Center’s Wiegand Gallery through mid June 2020. Learn more about the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering here.