Front of house: How Black artists are rewriting the Wild West

“The Harder They Fall” portrays the underrepresented history of Black cowboys. (Courtesy: David Lee/Netflix)

From cowboys and pioneers to sheriffs and gunslingers, the Wild West is the source of some of America’s most iconic imagery. The sandy wooden playground of the old American town has served as a site of play for both prestigious directors and rowdy children alike. It’s an integral part of American media and legal history. 

However, the era of the American frontier is not always portrayed truthfully. The Western heroes of Hollywood’s golden era were largely white men, with the image of the cowboy becoming synonymous with the John Wayne-type Hollywood actor. This image that has such a beloved spot in our cultural memory is white, when in reality, the parts such actors play and the stories they mimeograph owe their cues to Black and Indigenous people.

Much of the imagery of cowboy culture is taken from the Vaquero culture popular among indigenous Mexican men. American pioneers appropriated their practices during the process of colonization and following the annexation of Texas, when many vaqueros were forced to find jobs working for white American landowners. Vaquero culture was imitated, diluted and then molded into the image of the American cowboy that we know today. Those roots are still visible; the word “lasso” comes from the Spanish word “lazo,” which means “rope.” 

Even beyond that, many of the first and most important explorers in America’s Western expansion were freed Black people. It’s estimated that around 25 percent of the first cowboys were Black, and many of them pioneered cattle herding practices that became staples of the practice. A Black US Marshal is thought to be the basis for the iconic Lone Ranger as well.  

The narratives of the Wild West are historically Black, but beyond that, those narratives serve as a striking parallel for the experiences of Black and brown young people today. Movies like “Lone Star” show how racism and the trauma it causes pass from generation to generation — and are just as potent all those years later. The heroes of the American Western were outlaws, moving through the world in fundamental opposition to law enforcement and in their own self-interest. 

There were plenty of sheriff protagonists in classic Western films, but they were rarely prescribed the edgy cool-factor given to their outlaw and cowboy counterparts. Cowboys ride against the grain of the establishment, and we cheer them on while they do. The journey of the cowboy is an attempt to define himself through accrual of wealth and a pre-written ideal of masculinity riddled with violence. 

Scholars of Black history have identified this constant conflict between respectability and defiance in the contradictory images of success with which young Black men are presented. Law enforcement and government establishments ruthlessly antagonize young Black men, whether they misbehave or not. Success is intrinsically a triumph over the system. The underlying narrative, then, becomes the same: a success story against the odds paved with run-ins with law enforcement, with undertones of vigilante justice.

Is that not the cowboy’s journey? Then why did the gunslingers of the Wild West earn themselves an endeared spot in our cultural imagination, while the same narratives are chastised when coming from Black and brown rappers?

There has been academic writing concerning this contradiction, but few have outlined the issue as succinctly as Lil Nas X in the wake of the success “Old Town Road” and its successive remixes. The popularity of “Old Town Road” was an extraordinary moment in media history for many reasons, but the quality of the music video is a large part of what solidified the song as more than just a viral hit. 

The video takes place partly in an image of the Western frontier outfitted with every trope of the genre, and partly in a visibly low-income black neighborhood like the one he grew up in. Though in different time periods, both are labelled simply, “The Old Town Road.” This parallel, along with Billy Ray Cyrus’ supportive words in the face of the song’s reception by the country community, speak volumes to the congruence of Western narratives and the fortitude displayed by Black communities in the face of adversity. 

What positive reception there was to Lil Nas X’s subversion of the country and Western genres serves as a point of optimism for the reclamation of those narratives. The upcoming film “The Harder They Fall” is poised to work in a similar direction. They are steps in the direction of remembering this deeply treasured genre for its true roots and resonances.

Caelan Reeves CM ’24 is a Literature and History dual major from Chicago, Illinois. They love everything to do with music, movies, and books. 

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