There is a rich and funky history of black cowboys in the American West. The idea of an African-American cowboy may seem somewhat unusual and even strange to many, including true connoisseurs of the Western genre. Little is known about this overlooked history among the general public. This is a pity, considering the massive contributions made by black cowboys to America’s past. How is it possible that this legacy has been so obscured and hidden in popular culture?
Could it be that the notion of black cowboys does not fit in with white cowboy culture? That it does not fit our notion of biting racism in the Midwest of america?
Maybe it contradicts the cliche of the racist “redneck” a little bit too much?
It’s true that these ebony gunslingers are rare in American Western movies. In reality, almost one in four cowboys and ranch hands was African-American. Many of the former slaves, once freed, had to eke out a living in this brutal environment alongside their equally poor ivory cowboy colleagues. Perhaps it’s time to reevaluate the contributions of black cowboys in shaping the American West.
“A small number of movies featuring black cowboys have been made. In the early days, these films were rife with stereotypes, but the same could be said for white cowboys. Stereotypes sell and simplify complex situations and relationships. The Western movie was, and still is, a simplified version of history, depicting a friendly fellowship of shared white aesthetics, values, and temperaments. The black cowboy had no place in that world.
However, in the 1970s, Hollywood gave us black cops, black vampires, black zombies, black gangsters, black musicians, black aliens from outer space, black detectives, black lovers, black comedians, and black soldiers. Suddenly, being a brother in a movie was cool and commercially interesting. Despite this, the appearance of black cowboys in Western films remained exceptional.
More recently, there have been some changes. From Tarantino’s over-the-top revenge-and-power trip Django Unchained, where we get to see a black protagonist kill white people, because “what’s not to like about that?” to the odd Brothers in Arms, playing is an alternate western universe, where hip-hop rules, the acting is – uhm – “interesting”, and where racism is non-existent.
Who really wants to know first hand how it was to be a black cowboy in the American West, reads the 1907 book AFRO-AMERICAN COWBOY: The Life and Adventures of Nat Love, an auto-biography written by – yep, you guessed it – Nat Love, who not only was a Afro-American Cowboy, but also had a cool name. The book focuses on his life, and how a former slave became a famous cowboy in the late 1800s.
It delves into his experiences on the cattle trail, his interactions with Native American tribes, and his stint at a rodeo show (during his ‘Deadwood Dick’ period – he has a knack for great names) as well as his legacy as a folk hero in Western lore. The book does away with stereotypes, myths, and historical inaccuracies that one might have about black cowboy life. This firsthand account portrays black cowboys more authentically than you will ever see in Hollywood.
In the book, Love could have examined the ways in which race and gender intersected for black cowboys in the American West. He could have explored the manners in which black men and women navigated the challenges of the cattle industry, as well as the social and cultural norms that shaped their experiences. In other words, he could have gone full “woke,” but luckily, he does not go there because nobody had heard of “woke” back then. And, with one in four cowboys being black, there was a proper amount of diversity going on.
Instead, he keeps it simple and entertaining, focusing on the upside of his adventurous life. He gives us a fascinating first-person account with many mentions of warm friendships, helpful colleagues, and opportunities. Oddly, there is very little mention in the book about racism, unjust treatment, being looked down upon, or other such mishaps.
In 1907, Love published this autobiography, which greatly enhanced his legacy and fits neatly in our Notoir collection. He spent the latter part of his life as a courier and guard for a securities company in Los Angeles, where he died in 1921 at the age of 66.