The Black Cowboys

A 19th century photograph of a group of working cowboys

The History

According to Smithsonian researchers, during the heyday of the Wild West, about one out of four Cowboys were black. To understand the rise of the black cowboy, one has to take a look at Texas in the decade of the 1860s, when war broke out between the states and during that war, The Emancipation Proclamation was passed.

For Texas ranchers, who went to war, this was a particularly difficult time, for if they survived the war (and many did), they only returned home to find affairs in disarray. For while away, the slaves had often been left in charge of managing the cattle herds, a task with which they took on with varying degrees of success.

It only took the ranchers a short time to turn things around. By taking on the now free black men as cow hands, they straightened out life on the ranch. And then as lucrative markets for beef opened up in the industrial north, the ranchers now had an opportunity to prosper. There was one catch; they had to drive their herds north to places like Kansas, where the product could be quickly shipped to market.

Nat Love was a real 19th century cowboy, who in 1907 wrote his autobiography

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Cowboy Autobiography

In 1907, Nat Love wrote his autobiography of his life as a cowboy. Born in 1854 as a slave in Tennessee, Nat eventually traveled West, where he found work on an Arizona ranch in the 1870s.  In Nat’s own words, his first-hand accounts differ only slightly from many of the stories that we see in the movies.

In his book, Nat talks about huge cattle drives from Arizona to Kansas, fights with Indians and visits to the Wild West cow towns like Dodge City, where saloons, gambling joints and ladies of the night flourished. During his travels, Nat met the likes of Billy the Kid, Pat Garret, Bat Masterson and even earned his own colorful nickname of Deadwood Dick after winning a cowboying contest in Deadwood, South Dakota.

Everybody Wants To Be the Cowboy

Back in 1996 the Fugees, released a song called The Cowboys. The tune appeared on an album called The Score, which in many ways embraced the gangster lifestyle. A year later, Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers, borrowed a line from the popular Fugees number and released this video, titled “Everybody Wants To Be the Cowboy”. Filmed on the shores of Jamaica, the following music video takes a slightly different tack on the rapster/gangsta attitude, which today seems quite popular and successful, even finding its way into our highest political institutions.

(Unfortunately) There Will Always Be A Need For Memorial Day

A replica of the Vietnam Wall as seen in Old Orchard Beach, Maine on Memorial Day
A replica of the Vietnam Wall as seen in Old Orchard Beach, Maine on Memorial Day

A Vietnam Memorial and a Photograph

When American Indians from the West first encountered American photographers and their bulky cameras, the natives often referred to the picture-making device (and photographer) as a shadow catcher. And as a matter of fact, cameras can capture a person as well as their shadow. Furthermore, shadows can be portrayed in all sorts of ways from sinister or ghastly to benign or even humorous. Just a quick look through the annals of fine art photographers will reveal quite a few images of people with all types of dark forms following the main subject around.

When I made the above picture, I was concentrating on the actual names on the wall and the small American flags displayed in front of the wall. The appearance of the shadows and the reflection of the people inside the wall gave this picture a supernatural atmosphere that was totally unplanned. However, over time, I have grown to like both the shadows and the reflection, as I now see these dark shapes as being more transcendental than any thing else.

Not The Real Thing

If you look closely at the people standing next to the Vietnam Wall, you might notice that they make the wall seem small. This is not an illusion, because this is actually a half-scale replica wall that is set up at various places around the country, so people, who do not have the time or money to travel to the nation’s capitol, can see a very accurate replica. This picture happens to have been taken in Old Orchard Beach, Maine almost ten years ago. This situation also underscores the sad fact that our need to remember the war dead can barely keep up with our ability to put soldiers in armed conflicts.

 

A Brief History

Memorial Day occurs tomorrow on Monday. OK it’s not the real Memorial Day. That occurs on May 30th…this coming Saturday. But the New and Improved of Memorial Day does come around this Monday….And as always, it is a good time to remember those who have sacrificed their life in armed conflict. And don’t forget remembrance of the war dead should not be limited to national holidays.

The custom of placing flowers on the graves of soldiers probably exists for as long as there has been organized warfare. However, our Memorial Day seems closely tied to our very own Civil War (or War Between the States as it is sometimes called), for during this bloody conflict advances in military weapons and techniques outpaced improvements in medical treatment. The result was over 600,000 dead and for both sides the task of remembering the dead was monumental. For the rest of the 19th century each side had its own Memorial Day. Then came the 20th century with more wars and war dead and so the custom merged as one and became a national holiday.

Today

Today we have the exact opposite situation, as we faced during the Civil War. Medical treatment has taken giant strides forward, while our ability to maim and kill seems to have taken a big step backward, especially with the rise of car bombings and other terrorist  techniques in the Middle East…….at least that’s the way I see it in this current year (2015).

The American still flies and can be found in many locations, both indoors and outdoors, photo by author
The American flag still flies and can be found in many locations, both indoors and outdoors, photo by author from Minneapolis, MN

 

Writing About War

Ruins at Guernica in 1937
Ruins at Guernica in 1937 photo from Deutsches Bundesarchiv (German Federal Archive)

Oops, I let Veterans Day slide by without posting anything about the date of observance, so here are a few belated thoughts about novelists who write from the war experience. Actually the list is quite long, for it seems that participating in a prolonged military engagement provides good material, not to mention some real-life experience for novelists and other types of creative writers. I’ll skip the great Russian writers – you know the titles – War and Peace or Doctor Zhivago and jump to the American scene.

Actually the American Civil War was not only one of the bloodiest of all wars, but also one of the most written about. Besides such notable stories as the “Red Badge of Courage” by Stephen Crane and the “Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge”, by Ambrose Bierce there are over a thousand first-person accounts of the war that were published in book form. Just reading a synopsis of one of these accounts is fascinating, but the going for the whole book might be even better.

Fast forward to the Second War World, which provided firsthand material for a number of successful writers. Take for example Norman Mailer and his “The Naked and the Dead” or James Michener’s “Tales of the South Pacific”, “Slaughterhouse Five” by Kurt Vonnegut or “Mister Roberts” by Thomas O. Heggen. All of these are stories well told that usually brought the writer some literary fame and financial compensation.  Even Jack Kerouac served in WWII with the merchant marines. He too, wrote a story about the adventure which has just recently been published. It is entitled “The Sea Is My Brother”. Not one of his most noteworthy titles, but it goes to show how widely the war experience runs.

Nazi-parading-in-elysian-fields-paris-desert-1940
Nazi-parading-in-elysian-fields-paris 1940 Public Domain (U.S. War Department

Good writing during wartime did not stop during Vietnam with quite a few films and books having been released and still available to readers as paperbacks or DVD’s. My favorite Vietnam War book, “The Things They Carried With Them by Tim O’Brien and Full Metal Jacket, the Stanley Kubrick movie.

I hope this post doesn’t sound like I’m glorifying war, but it is hard to imagine what some of these writers would have done if they hadn’t gone to war.