'Eight Seconds': The forgotten history of African Americans in Western culture

The media's portrayal of mostly White cowboys doesn't tell the full story of Western culture in America.
"Eight Seconds" - Ivan McClellan
Posted at 7:39 PM, May 05, 2024

For years, America's frontier has been portrayed as mostly White, overshadowing the history of Black people in Western culture. But one photographer saddled up to explore the deep history of Black cowboys in the United States.

Clint Eastwood movies and shows like Bonanza were prime examples of what it meant to be a true cowboy. But the media's portrayal of only White cowboys isn't the full story of Western culture.

Since the 1850s, Black cowboys could be found from Kentucky to Texas, hosting rodeos and rounding cattle since the Civil War era. Ivan McClellan is a professional photographer and author of the book "Eight Seconds," a photo book that highlights the history of Black cowboys.

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Some of the earliest visuals of Black cowboys go all the way back to Nat Love. But even today you can see them perform in the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo — one of the most notable rodeos with all Black competitors.

And while the men ride and show off their shiny spurs, there's a common misconception about who's really holding the reigns of the show.

"The women are generally in charge and that's something you really wouldn't expect," McClellan said. "The Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo — touring rodeo — that there is and it's run mostly by women. Valeria Cunningham is the president and a lot of the leaders under her are women."

McClellan's new book shows Black people embracing Western-style clothing in everyday life as ranchers and performers. The book also underscores the hardships of improper representation and maintaining a life that the media didn't declare was theirs to have.

"I've actually heard that from some Western brands, is that the Black athletes don't perform as well as the professional white athletes," McClellan said. "And I don't think that's true at all."

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As the media showed more White cowboys as Western culture, the work to keep Black cowboys around became more difficult. Now, McClellan makes it his job to preserve their legacy.

"A lot of the rodeo cowboys [and] rodeo athletes that I meet sacrifice a lot to be able to afford to maintain horses, maintain land, and go on the road and compete in their event," he said. "It takes a ton of grit and it takes a ton of resilience to continue to do that year after year with little recognition."

There have been efforts to expand the cowboy diaspora with movies like Netflix's "The Harder They Fall" and Jordan Peele's "Nope." Even singer Beyonce released her new album "Cowboy Carter" earlier this year, describing Texas cowboy culture. And McClellan believes the more representation there is, the more people will see and accept this old tradition with all backgrounds of people.

"I just think, you know, Black culture is not a monolith," he said. "It's not one thing. It's many things. And this is one of the segments of it that I found interesting that resonates with my soul."