Let's Go, Let's Show, Let's Rodeo: African Americans and the History of Rodeo

Article excerpt

In recounting a bull riding event in August 1981 in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where a score of seventy-four is the minimum required to advance to the next round at a major Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) rodeo event, bull rider Abe Morris recalled, "One of the [judges'] names was Jim. I never really liked him and he never really liked me, either. He was determined that I was not going to place at any major PRCA rodeo where he was judging ... I figured that the only reason he didn't like me was because I was black, and he showed it." (1)

This change in score cost Morris $2,100. Sadly, Morris's experience with racism in the arena was not unique. Historically, the roles of ethnic minorities as contestants in rodeo events have been multifaceted. (2) The influences from African American, American Indian, Latino/a, and European American cultures have made rodeo what it is today. Nevertheless, most visual images in the literature do not show the diversity of rodeo in the United States historically or currently. In fact, due to white supremacist U.S. law and practices, ethnic minorities have had and continue to have a complicated role in rodeo competition.

In this essay we are specifically concerned with African Americans in the sport of rodeo because of their lack of visible representation in mainstream media. (3) We examine the representations of rodeo in print media and popular culture historically, which has focused almost exclusively on white cowboys, and we specifically ask: What is the role of African Americans in rodeo, past and present? We describe how African Americans were exploited in early days of rodeo and assigned stereotypical roles. As an exotic "other" oftentimes their contributions to the sport were erased. This erasure is particularly important to the Black Studies discipline because of continued marginalization of African Americans in the sport. There is a lingering "white male only" mentality operating in rodeo among both athletes and fans, despite the fact that one of the popular events of rodeo, bulldogging (steer wrestling), was created by an African American cowboy.

RODEO, JIM CROW, AND THE MYTHOLOGY OF THE WHITE WEST

In Wild Ride: The History and Lore of Rodeo, historian Joel Bernstein pointed out in 2001 that "more than twenty-four million people go to Professional Cowboy Association rodeos in the United States and Canada, and to the surprise of many sports fans, that puts rodeo attendance ahead of such well-known professional sports as golf or tennis, making it the seventh ranked of all professional sports. ... People, whether they are Americans or not, don't seem to be able to erase the picture of the North American cowboy from their consciousness." (4) With the increasing popularity of rodeo in the early 20th century, Bernstein notes, it is no wonder that the iconic cowboy image is that of the white male, the lone "Marlboro man" out on the open range. This iconic image of the independent white cowboy in the American West overshadows the involvement and accomplishments of African Americans and other ethnic groups in rodeo. The mythology surrounding "cowboy culture" is that a cowboy is a cowboy and other factors like race and gender are unimportant. However, this is simply not true. The information about African American cowboys has been ignored or purposely left out of most accounts in favor of white cowboys in the written and visual history of rodeo.

Legalized racial segregation in the United States led to the marginalization of racial and ethnic minorities in American society, and the resulting racial discrimination was an historical reality on "the Frontier," in cowboy culture, and in rodeo. (5) "Jim Crow" laws circumscribed the lives of African Americans and other "people of color." (6) Historian C. Vann Woodward pointed out that this legislation "constituted the most elaborate and formal expression of sovereign white opinion" and sought to bar African Americans and people of color from all public accommodations and spaces, including sporting events. …