The cowboys were white, right? As Hollywood has served up John Wayne and John Ford, spinning yarns of white western heroes, the erasure of Black cowboys is yet another whitewash of the sort chronicled so deftly by Muhammad Ali’s “Why is Jesus White.” Few have been taught that fully a quarter of the cowboys in the heyday of cattle ranching in Texas were Black. Despite the unending effort to define and limit Blackness to specific “lanes,” to keep Black people in their “place,” the reality is that for over 400 years there is no aspect of American life and history that Black people and Black culture have not impacted.

This Juneteenth we celebrate a different narrative, the true story of Black cowboys and Black Country Western singers, and close with an outsider’s view of ‘how the West was won.’

Happy trails from JusticeAid.

Music

Beyoncé, “Texas Hold ‘Em”

Recently, Beyoncé–a Texas native and one of the highest selling artists in the world—released a country album that sent the white music industry into a tizzy.  One country music radio station actually refused to play her songs—songs by the artist with a record 32 Grammys, over 200 million records sold and named by Rolling Stone as the world’s greatest living entertainer of the past decade. New York Times

Give a listen to Beyoncé’s “Texas Hold ‘Em.”

As with Hollywood in the last century, “Big Country” – the Nashville controlled, pop-folk music that commodifies rural American fantasies – is the cultural arm of white grievance politics. In 1974, President Richard Nixon described the genre as being ‘as native as anything American we could find.’ That must have been a shock to actual Native Americans. But the message was not for them. It was for the white Southern voters Nixon needed to win over amid massive resistance to Black enfranchisement.

There is a long and storied history of Blacks in country music. 

How many know that Hank Williams, perhaps Country’s first super star, was taught to play the guitar by a Black man, Rufus Payne? How many are taught that Ray Charles was a country music star? Take a listen to this track from his landmark album, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, “That Lucky Old Sun.”

Listen to two-time GRAMMY Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning singer and instrumentalist Rhiannon Giddens’ tribute to Dolly Parton, “If You Don’t Know How Sweet it Is” from You’re the One.

And, reflect on the legendary Charley Pride, the first Black artist to have a #1 country record, and the first artist of any race to win the Country Music Association’s male vocalist award two years in a row: “Kiss an Angel Good Morning”

Art

Thomas Blackshear

Thomas Blackshear II (1955-)is a contemporary painter and illustrator bringing history to light. A Waco, Texas native residing in Colorado, the artist uses vivid colors and plant forms to depict the strength within Western and Native cultures. His paintings depict cowboys with swagger:

“I wanted them to look proud. This is probably right after Reconstruction and the Emancipation Proclamation, and this is the first time in their lives that they can stand up straight and strong and look you right in the eye. They were also people who had a purpose and dignity.”

Blackshear attended the Art Institute of Chicago and the American Academy of Art in Chicago, worked for Hallmark Cards, and has designed more than 30 U.S. Postal Service stamps starting with the Black Heritage series. He had a long and storied career as an illustrator (he’s an inductee into the Society of Illustrators’ Hall of Fame), including doing ads for major publications and companies, before he embarked on Western art later in his career and began turning heads at the Prix de West, where he won the Express Ranches Great American Cowboy Award in 2022 with Two Americans of the Old West.  Cowboys & Indians  See the artist’s website at thomasblackshearii.com.

Two Americans of the Old West, 43.25″ h x 33.5″ w, oil on canvas, 2022

Last Drop Out of His Stetson

Film

In contrast to the Clint Eastwood shoot-em-ups, we recommend a modern drama of Black cowboy legacy and gentrification in Concrete Cowboy.

Concrete Cowboy

Concrete Cowboy is a 2020 American film directed by Ricky Staub based on the novel Ghetto Cowboy by Greg Neri, which was inspired by the real urban African-American horseriding culture of Philadelphia, and in particular, the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club–an organization devoted to inner-city horsemanship in North Philadelphia whose history stretches over 100 years.

Featured Writing

Dark Noon

In this edition, our literary offering is Dark Noon, a play which chronicles an outsider’s view of how the American West was developed.

This break-out hit of St Ann’s Warehouse at 2023’s  Edinburgh Fringe Festival retells the Hollywood story of a High Noon Western through an outsider’s lens: Native Americans, cowboys, missionaries, enslaved Africans, Chinese workers, European settlers, prostitutes, and Confederates. Ripe with marvelous stagecraft, slapstick humor, and a keen eye for hypocrisy, Dark Noon is a Wild Wild West circus where an innocent encounter can explode in an instant.

For those lucky enough to be in or near New York City, this play is being performed in Brooklyn now. See the trailer.

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