"History Is a Funny Thing": African Americans in the West, American Studies, and the Screen

By Daniels, Melissa | Americana : The Journal of American Popular Culture, 1900 to Present; Hollywood, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

"History Is a Funny Thing": African Americans in the West, American Studies, and the Screen


Daniels, Melissa, Americana : The Journal of American Popular Culture, 1900 to Present; Hollywood


History is a funny thing; they got us believing that Columbus discovered America and the Indians already here. That's like me telling you, and you sitting in your car, that I discovered your car, then they want to call them the "evil red savages" because they didn't give up the car soon enough. There's one thing about time, no matter how much or how little passes, it changes things. People forget their past, and they forget the truth. But pictures don't lie - forgotten gunslingers like Nat Love, Ice and Dart, Cherokee Bill, and troops like the ninth and the tenth - see people forget that almost one out of every three cowboys was black. Cause when the slaves were free, a lot of them headed out West, built their own towns; shit, they didn't have much choice. In fact, over half of the original settlers of Los Angeles were black. But for some reason we never hear their stories, stories like Jessie Lee and his posse.

- Woody Strode, Posse

The quote above comes from Mario Van Peebles's 1993 film, Posse. The words belong to Woody Strode, an old man sitting at a desk, in the opening scene of the film, with a Colt 45 in one hand and sepia toned photographs of dark-skinned gunslingers in the other. A former Western actor himself, Strode offers a revisionist history of the West that speaks into existence the forgotten contributions of black cowboys on the frontier. As Strode puts it, not only have historians ignored the existence of African Americans in the West, but so too have those other recorders of popular culture, the Hollywood filmmakers. Arguably, it is Hollywood that Strode implicates in this catastrophic omission when he regretfully says that "we never hear their stories." Strode's invocation of both historians' and filmmakers' neglect of black cowboys begs a familiar question to American studies scholars, "How can we account for this striking absence?" (28).

Given the popularity of the Western as both an academic object of analysis and a cultural mythology, the absence of African-American men from any discussion of the West seems "funny." Classical American Studies texts such as Henry Nash Smith's Virgin Land and R.W.B. Lewis's The American Adam have explored the mythologies of the "frontier as symbol" for the West and the New World respectively. Yet neither of these works investigates African-American men's roles in shaping these myths. Given this omission, American studies scholars today have a responsibility to revise the academic scholarship on the West as myth and symbol. This revision must take into account the hordes of newly freed African Americans who escaped the Jim Crow South and built all black towns, schools, and saloons in the West, while battling racism and violence at the hands of the law and vigilante groups such as the Klu Klux Klan. Additionally, American studies scholars have a responsibility to complete this revision through an engagement with non-traditional methodologies that privilege members outside of the academy. More specifically, this means privileging art forms historically deemed "non-academic," as well as voices beyond the ivory tower. Given Lyotard's assertion, now some twenty-five years old, that the postmodern condition is marked by the absence of "master narratives," and the centrality of film to American popular culture, this responsibility also entails an engagement with the screen. This paper will argue that American studies scholarship on the mythology and symbolism of the West must be rewritten using the voices of forgotten African-American cowboys and film.

To demonstrate the academic value of rewriting myth and symbol scholarship on the West through the medium of film, I perform a "reading" of a scene from Van Peebles' film, Posse. In "A Fair Trial," a title taken from the DVD version, Van Peebles explores the hardships African Americans faced in the legal system of the Old West. Van Peebles reveals how corrupt law enforcement agents and racist vigilante groups such as the KKK managed to re-draw the color line west of the Mississippi. …

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