At age 15, Amanda Hunt, now associate curator at the Studio Museum in Harlem, came across an unlikely figure in a Philadelphia park: a black cowboy. Not the rugged white frontiersmen one thinks of as a “cowboy,” the man stuck in her mind. Years later, an encounter with a second black cowboy, riding the subway in Harlem, reignited her curiosity. Today, African-American cowboys are the subject of an exhibition at the Studio Museum curated by Hunt, “Black Cowboy,” which surfaces their little-known legacy.
“That was the first vision or possibility of that community that I came in contact with,” recalls Hunt, who assembled a collection of photographs and videos by six artists, including Deana Lawson, Mohamed Bourouissa, Brad Trent, Kahlil Joseph, Chandra McCormick, and Ron Tarver, to bring these communities to light. Among the works, Bourouissa’s two-channel video installation captures a subculture of young black horse riders in West Philadelphia; Joseph’s single-channel film documents a longstanding black rodeo in Grayson, Oklahoma; and McCormick’s photograph pictures men wrangling horses in an annual rodeo at Louisiana’s maximum-security prison.
Indeed, despite the long history of black cowboys in the American West—historians estimate that a quarter of Texan cowboys were African-American in the 1800s—the image of the cowboy that prevails across visual culture remains overwhelmingly white. One of the 20th century’s most enduring ad campaigns, featuring the cigarette-smoking, trailblazing Marlboro Man, cemented the cowboy as the foremost icon of white masculinity. But this portrayal entirely omits cowboys of color from its narrative.
“There’s a very specific construction of history, and that’s how we are taught that the world was shaped and formed and how America was developed, and it often excludes people of color,” says Hunt. Save for Quentin Tarantino’s 2012 Western Django Unchained, starring Jamie Foxx as a slave-turned-cowboy bounty hunter, most Hollywood depictions of the Wild West have whitewashed black characters from their storylines. Among the most famous (and egregious) examples, The Lone Ranger is widely believed by historians to be inspired by the story of Bass Reeves, a former slave who became one of the first black deputy marshals in the U.S. The character is played onscreen by a masked white cowboy.
For this reason, visitors to “Black Cowboy” may be surprised by what they find. “My assumption is these are all images we’re less familiar with, just in terms of our collective unconscious in America,” says Hunt. “I think the pleasure of creating something like this is of discovery; you’re able to uncover these things that have existed for a long time before you found them.”
And in pursuit of that curiosity, Hunt discovered a diverse swath of these communities. “There are families who have been in Oklahoma for three generations doing this, and there are kids in Philadelphia and Queens and Los Angeles who have been doing this for generations as well. It’s important to show both, because they exist,” she says.
Among the show’s strongest images are a set of four photographs taken in Hunt’s hometown, by Philadelphia Inquirer photographer Tarver, who has documented black cowboys for some 20 years. A 1993 photograph sees a black boy shooting hoops on an urban basketball court with his horse tied up to the side; another finds a man seated on his horse before a mural depicting Malcolm X. “It’s kind of crazy that something that happens to you at 15 comes back around,” Hunt says, recalling that first encounter. “It’s nice to come full circle on these things; you know, it’s personal.”
According to Hunt, a whole contingent of black cowboys showed up to the exhibition’s opening. Among them were subjects pictured in black-and-white portraits by Trent for the Village Voice, which depict members of the New York Federation of Black Cowboys, an educational program geared toward youth. The most striking of these shows the foundation’s president, cowgirl “Mama” Kesha Morse—not the John Wayne hero we know from the Wild West, but a woman.
The exhibition stands as a reminder of the way in which visual culture can be used to perpetrate a selective view of history, in some cases erasing whole communities from public memory or casting them in a false light. But it also shows the power of images to help set the record straight.