The return of black cowboys heritage
London, Dec. 15, 2019 (AltAfrica)-Picture a cowboy. You’ll probably think of young white men with wide-brimmed hats and spurred boots riding through a dusty frontier town. You probably don’t picture thousands of mostly black men and women riding through rural east Texas, blasting country and rap music.
Some historians believe that well before Hollywood distorted our view of what a cowboy looks like, French-speaking slaves from Africa – later clumped in with the cultural mishmash known as Creoles – rode horses in Louisiana.
Some even say the term “cowboy” derives from slave owners commanding to “go tend to the cow, boy,” though Andrew Sluyter, a history professor at Louisiana State University and the author of Black Ranching Frontiers, said there’s no hard evidence for that theory.
“Enslaved cowboys, vachères, in French, of African origin herded the cattle on the first French ranches established in south-west Louisiana, in the valley of Bayou Teche near Lafayette in the early 1760s, before the Acadians/Cajuns arrived,” Sluyter said. “Unlike their French masters, the Africans had long experienced herding cattle in the Sahel zone of west Africa.”
Prohibited from joining white-only rodeos, freed slaves and landowning Creoles practiced their own cowboy culture. At some point in the last half-century – no one can be sure – that culture started to take the form of trail rides. As oil work popped up in Texas, Creoles from Louisiana moved west, bringing their culture, and trail rides, along with them
In the past decade, trail rides have surged in popularity, thanks in part to how hip-hop has infused with the washboard and accordion rhythms of zydeco. What were once a traditional country gatherings have transformed into huge festivals with attendees numbering in the thousands, often attracting city-dwellers far detached from their Creole roots.
That’s what descended on Columbus, Texas, this August. The gatherings, known as Creole trail rides, are growing increasingly popular across the U.S. Part horse-riding, part rodeo, and part dancing to zydeco, trail rides are rooted in the often overlooked history of black cowboys in the American west.
“It’s fun. It’s addictive. It’s better than going to clubs,” said Jackie Cyrus, a female rider who came from Houston for the Calvert trail ride.
A college-age woman said she just came for the concert after the trail ride. Horses freak her out, she said.
This particular trail ride was held to celebrate the life of Mozell “Pike” Williams IV, a local boy who died in a car accident in 2010. Williams’s mother, LaToya Lanham, said her son loved riding horses.
That’s about all they do around here,” she said. “That’s the most fun they have.”
Lanham said she gets emotional when she sees so many people at the trail ride to honor what would have been her son’s 25th birthday.
“It makes me happy,” she said. “Sometimes I cry, but I don’t let people see me. All these people coming to celebrate my son’s day.”
As the blazing Texas sun started to sink behind the horizon, horses lined up beside ATVs, sports cars with revving engines, motorcycles and trolleys blasting a body-shaking mixture of zydeco and hip-hop
“I’m so sorry, but there’s gonna be some cuss words in some songs,” a DJ announced as the trail ride passed the cemetery where Williams is buried.
The procession moved along dirt roads and on to the highway as the party began to amp up. Cowboys with beers in hand trotted beside trolleys that bounced up and down with women twerking off the side.
As trail rides have grown in popularity there has been controversy.
In 2010, St Landry Parish in Louisiana moved to ban the Step-N-Strut trail ride, an event so big it’s referred to as the Creole Woodstock. The town council said it was responding to complaints about the mess left after the ride – but the ban was accused of being discriminatory. Why ban trail rides when Cajun Mardi Gras – which attracts crowds as numerous and rowdy – is permitted?
The town eventually decided to regulate the number of attendees for trail rides and Mardi Gras, which was seen as a victory.
Swells of trail ride attendees have also caused spates of violence, including the shooting death of a 48-year-old man in June. “This is something that hardly ever happens. That’s exactly why it shook us so hard,” said Amos Patrick Cravins III, an organizer for the Stop the Violence movement, a musician-led group that aims to nip any trail-ride violence in the bud.
Since the recent shooting, Stop the Violence has hosted several events in Louisiana to promote non-violence and the “family-friendly” nature of trail riding. “Out of that tragedy, the good part I can say is we as a culture and a community have come together on a larger scale,” Cravins said. “It has us working harder to preserve our culture and keep the tradition going.”
Wearing a cowboy hat with a hole in the top exposing his smooth bald head, Calvert native Robert Brown, 46, said trail rides are very different from when he first started going as a toddler. Back then, there weren’t as many people. “Why? Because it wasn’t as popular,” he said. “Now everybody wants to be a cowboy.”
As an MC rapped in front of a boisterous crowd late into the night, Brown admitted he prefers the zydeco country line dancing of his youth, but he’s OK with younger people throwing their music into the mix. “We’ve made black trail rides our own. It’s the way we do,” he said. “Even though I don’t like a lot of this stuff, it’s still taking the legacy on.”
When asked about whether he’s faced any discrimination being a black cowboy in Texas, Brown said people are mostly surprised. “They feel like black people aren’t supposed to be cowboys – it’s a white thing,” he said.
But that makes him want to celebrate his culture, and trail rides, all the more. “The reasons we honor being a black cowboy is because of all the struggles we went through. Not just a black cowboy, to be cowboys To be respected.
And today, these rides by black cowboys also serve to build up the black community. Follow us down the 10-mile trail to experience this unique culture, and a different image of the iconic cowboy.