This is a longer than usual post so bear with me (especially as I catch the typos).
I am still shaking my head.
While trying to purchase ice at a local grocery store this past Thursday, I fumbled in my purse longer than I wanted. Aware that the man behind me was waiting to pay for his goods, I said, “I am sorry, Sir. It will be just a moment” and he replied in so many words, “Don’t worry. I have nothing to do today but watch Gunsmoke.” I laughed, thanked him and said good bye.
But I also walked to my car smiling. I could totally hear someone in my family saying the same. I have long wondered why people of African descent like westerns. Certainly, my parents did. It is curious partly because we rarely appear in some of the most popular televised ones like Bonanza and Gunsmoke.
It took a while for Hollywood to even allow us to see ourselves as being part of the story of the western frontier in cinema. While there were earlier depictions of us out west, the movies that come to mind the fastest are Sydney Poitier’s 1972 film Buck and the Preacher, Mario Van Peebles’s 1993 Posse and more recently, Regina King’s 2021 The Harder We Fall. These films are all examples of black folks in stories involving the west. In this case, we direct those stories.
We direct stories that, of course, involve the great harm done to Native Americans at the very moment people of African descent were being enslaved. There is so much irony hovering with such a reality in mind. As I tell my students, the word “cowboy,” as best I understand it, initially referred to the enslaved men who herded cows in Georgia. Such men were characteristically often referred to as “boys.” In time, the term referred not only to white settlers-turned-ranchers in territories and states further west, but to white men on horseback in the United States who were out west period.
What interests me: what makes people of African descent, specifically African Americans, gravitate toward this particular genre of television.
My mother has dementia and I often ask her West Indian caregiver to put Bonanza on the television after lunch. It is a way of grounding my mom in a moment when her memory was stronger: the 1960s and 1970s, or the moment when this show was on television.
I have sat beside my mother watching Bonanza and heard her say, “Who wouldn’t love Hoss?” She is referring to the late Dan Blocker who played one of the three sons in the Cartwright family in this series that became the second longest running western behind Gunsmoke in the U.S during its 1959-1973 sprint. My mother’s caregiver often looks like she is enduring such banter until I once reminded her that wasn’t it Bob Marley who said, “I shot the sheriff but I didn’t get the deputy.” Even she had to laugh.
During the initial days of the COVID-19 pandemic, I definitely gravitated toward Bonanza.
I not only threw horseshoes behind our house like a cowboy with my husband, I watched Bonanza on television, I ordered DVDs featuring episodes of this series that were not appearing in the reruns. I also read books about the show and read fan pages in the Internet, trying to learn more about this program beyond the story lines. But I mostly just enjoyed whatever good feeling that seemed to strangely come from a very patriarchal and almost entirely white western.
I loved how Ben Cartwright (Lorne Greene), head of the Cartwright family, tried to leave a moral lesson. He and his sons were more than okay with acknowledging how the Ponderosa, the land they owned in Nevada, was on land taken from indigenous people. In some episodes, one is able to see the Cartwrights trying to make amends for this horrific part of history on the continent we now call North America.
During the initial stages of the pandemic, I counted seven episodes where people of African descent were key characters. I saved them on a DVR that was eventually zapped during a thunderstorm. I kicked myself because I had only recently told myself to make a screenshot of the list of episodes. I scoured the fan pages and databases scholars use to try to find the names and dates of their release and only located five and they are:
“Enter Thomas Bowers,” starring William Marshall, April 26, 1964. An opera singer is mistaken for a runaway enslaved man.
“The Wish,” starring Ossie Davis and Harrison Page, March 9, 1969. Hoss tries to help an African American family after the son in the family steals a candle in order to make a wish.
“Child,” starring Yaphet Kotto, September 22, 1969. Kotto plays a cowboy who helps Hoss escape jail after a wrongful arrest for the murder of a miner.
“The Desperado,” starring Louis Gossett and Marlene Clark, February 7, 1971. A couple on the run who is angered by racism kidnaps Hoss with the intent to kill him.
“He Was Only Seven,” starring Roscoe Lee Browne, March 5, 1972. A search is on for the bank robbers who unintentionally kill a little African American boy.
Notably, I was born in 1967. So, most these episodes are in the backdrop of my early childhood. I have noticed Hoss, an actor who not unlike Greene, has gone on the record as being supportive of people of African descent, is featured in most of the story lines with black actors.
Such things were hardly on my mind when I watched the show as a kid with my family. I have fond memories of my grandparents and parents watching not only Bonanza, but Gunsmoke, among other westerns.
The scholar in me believes that black folk may be drawn to such shows partly because cowboys look cool. They have swagger. It’s the kind of coolness and swagger that often gets mapped onto black people. But such cool and swagger, as I try to tell my students enrolled in several courses including one titled American Swagger, is also associated with the American dream and success. I think now of how Randall “Thrill” Hill, a University of Miami football player, ran through a tunnel at the 1991 Cotton Bowl after scoring only to come back out mimicking a gun slinger. His actions were typical of UM players during the team’s rise to prominence in the eighties and nineties. So many people watching these young men were angered, as one of the most popular EPSN “30 for 30” episode makes clear. In solidarity, I wear my t-shirts imprinted with UM’s logo with pride. I attended that school in the eighties when the same young men kept us laughing at noon via their antics and conversation in the student union. Some of us know that swagger is not always about winning a game on a field but winning the game of life.
Those spoiled colonists we call Americans wanted to win that game and so does everyone looking over their shoulders including black people born in this country.
When Alexis de Tocqueville, a young French judge, arrived in the United States in 1831 while Andrew Jackson was in the White House, he said he saw a people without precedent. Their self-determination, or swagger, as Michael Leeden tells us in a book I often assign, was notable and could not have happened elsewhere. Indeed, I can’t readily recall how a motley crew of territories and colonies cohered to become a feisty nation and global power in as short a time as the States. African Americans themselves daily latch on to that same self-determination as we survive so much while simultaneously making claims to the possibilities of the American dream. We did so even during the slavery era.
While thinking through this dynamic, my students have also heard me gesture toward political scientist James Scott who tells us that even the lowliest people can intuit ways to get over in their everyday lives. Doing so is done owing to the so called “weapons of the weak” that even enslaved women relegated to the plantation space had, as the late historian Stephanie M.H. Camp reveals. The students learn, too, about the real life Mary Fields, also known as Stagecoach Mary, a feisty woman of African descent who was the second woman to deliver mail for the United States Postal Service (she is a character in the imagined The Harder they Fall albeit via a fair-skinned actor; the real Fields was dark-skinned). This Tennessee woman, who ended up out west, carried a gun and was unafraid to use it. She once entered a saloon and beat up a white man for failing to pay for the clothes she washed, dried and folded for him. When she died, the white people in her town paid for her funeral.
Fields had swagger. It is the kind of swagger that can be consumed by black television viewers like the ones who tuned into Good Times, a 1970s sitcom. In the “Willona’s Dilemma” episode, which aired November 11, 1975, such viewers saw James Evans Sr. (John Amos) tell his wife Florida (Esther Rolle) and their neighbor Willona Woods he is not going to listen to gossip. He will instead go catch a John Wayne movie. When his wife asks him how does he know a John Wayne movie is airing, he speaks as coolly as the Duke himself when replies there is always a John Wayne movie on television. His words suggest the Duke’s popularity with a wider audience.
Similarly, in the “Love Has a Spot on Its Lung Part 2” episode for Good Times, which aired March 30, 1977, Nathan Bookman (Johnny Brown), the janitor in the Evans’ apartment building, encourages Carl Dixon (Moses Gunn), the hardware store owner who wants to marry a now-widowed Florida. He does so after Dixon learns he has cancer. Bookman himself recalls feeling inspired after seeing the 1971 television commercial that even I remember. In this commercial, Wayne, following his bout with cancer, encouraged television viewers to get a check up.
African Americans are not the only group facing historical challenges who receive inspiration from the swagger of a cowboy like John Wayne. One might recall in the 1996 film The Bird Cage how one gay man (Robin Williams) helps his partner (Nathan Lane) embrace the same swagger in order to appeal to their soon-to-be Republican in laws. The idea here is that their in-laws buy into the idea of Manifest Destiny, or the idea that “Americans” were destined to conquer the land on which we live. There’s no better way to see how we inhabit such destiny than via John Wayne. So, the effeminate partner awkwardly tries to display the swagger of this cowboy.
I’d love to someday address black fascination with cowboys and westerns in particular in a lengthier piece of writing. If I never get to it, I offer it now in this blog entry.
I do so with memory of being on a horse named Poncho during a trip to Austin last fall. I hadn’t been a horse since a visit to the Poconos early this century. I plan to ride more often here in Alabama.
As true in Austin, while on a ranch in the Poconos, I was given a horse who had a bit of swagger. They both wanted to do things their way — not unlike many folks seen in westerns, I suppose. In the end, that kind of freedom has resonance with many people — especially Americans — and that is an idea that, again, can be consumed.
Westerns can inspire and make us laugh while we remember our ever present difficulties ironies and realities, racial or otherwise. Indeed, one social media poster reminds us we need to see the “black joy” on display in the wrap party for King’s The Harder They Fall. King, a native of Los Angeles, which is out in the old “Wild Wild, West” per rapper Kool Moe Dee, is dancing on the set with her fellow cast members as seen in the photo below. That black joy is often shaped these days as Afrofuturism — even if that word is never offered explicitly. The late Octavia Butler, a sci fi novelist to whom my American Swagger students were introduced this semester, repeatedly said she worked hard not to be a skeptic. Via her writings, she offered hope. There has to be hope. There has to be a better future for an already suffering people.
Foster Sylvers’ “Misdemeanor” is heard as King dances, inviting such a future no matter her ongoing woes even as a now-wealthy woman. A similar joy is seen when Django Freedman (Jamie Foxx) coolly rides his horse toward Candieland in Quentin Tarantino’s 2012 western Django Unchained.
I would say that social media poster is right! Some of us need to see that kind of joy. Coolness. Swagger. We need to see it in the face of ugliness that sadly exists in our everyday experiences.
People need to see more joy period. I can’t tell you how my students of all racial and ethnic backgrounds are increasingly more than okay with telling me they are suffering mentally.
As I prepare syllabi for next semesters’ courses, I am aware that I have opportunities to keep spreading joy even as my students hear challenging narratives that make us all squirm and sometimes cry.
But we must press on. It was filmmaker Julie Dash, best known for her 1991 film Daughters of the Dust, who said black folks in particular who made it to the Americas descend from ones who chose to survive.
PS I duck as I confess Urban Cowboy, a 1980 film starring John Travolta and Debra Winger, is one of my favorite films. A friend once asked “How!? It’s so misogynistic.” I said, “Sissy didn’t play. Girl power! It was Bud who said he was sorry.” In the end, again, no black people. But boy, that Travolta had swagger and so did Winger as Sissy.
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