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Hoo-Doo Cowboys and Bronze Buckaroos

Hoo-Doo Cowboys and Bronze Buckaroos: Conceptions of the African American West

Michael K. Johnson
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  • Book Info
    Hoo-Doo Cowboys and Bronze Buckaroos
    Book Description:

    Hoo-Doo Cowboys and Bronze Buckaroosundertakes an interdisciplinary exploration of the African American West through close readings of texts from a variety of media. This approach allows for both an in-depth analysis of individual texts and a discussion of material often left out or underrepresented in studies focused only on traditional literary material. The book engages heretofore unexamined writing by Rose Gordon, who wrote for local Montana newspapers rather than for a national audience; memoirs and letters of musicians, performers, and singers (such as W. C. Handy and Taylor Gordon), who lived in or wrote about touring the American West; the novels and films of Oscar Micheaux; black-cast westerns starring Herb Jeffries; largely unappreciated and unexamined episodes from the "golden age of western television" that feature African American actors; film and television westerns that use science fiction settings to imagine a "postracial" or "postsoul" frontier; Percival Everett's fiction addressing contemporary black western experience; and movies as recent as Quentin Tarantino'sDjango Unchained.

    Despite recent interest in the history of the African American West, we know very little about how the African American past in the West has been depicted in a full range of imaginative forms.Hoo-Doo Cowboys and Bronze Buckaroosadvances our discovery of how the African American West has been experienced, imagined, portrayed, and performed.

    eISBN: 978-1-62674-001-3
    Subjects: Sociology, Film Studies

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-2)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 3-15)

    In a column published in the 25 May 1955Meagher County Newsunder the title “My Mother Was a Slave,” White Sulphur Springs, Montana, resident Rose Gordon narrates the story of a remarkable African American western pioneer, her mother. “In the year of 1881,” Gordon writes, “a brown-skinned colored woman who bore the name of Mrs. Annie Gordon stood at the boat landing at Cairo, Illinois where the Ohio flows into the mighty Mississippi. Tears rolled down her cheeks and were falling on her baby boy whom she held in her arms. Her friends had gathered to bid her farewell....

  5. 1 Performing (in) the African American West Minstrel Shows, Brass Bands, Hoo-Doo Cowboys, and Other Musical Tricksters
    (pp. 16-50)

    In his autobiography,Father of the Blues(1941), W. C. Handy remembers being on tour with the Mahara’s Minstrels troupe in 1896 and visiting the “10th U.S. Cavalry at Fort Missoula, Montana, and marvel[ing] at the spic and span cavalry band on horseback—all Negroes except the English bandmaster. Horses maneuvered at the sound of the bugle, instruments flashed in the sun, stirring music echoed and reechoed across the plain. The pageantry of the scene won me. I wanted to join up then and there, but yielded to persuasion and remained with the show” (65). Although we might associate Handy...

  6. 2 “Try to Refrain from That Desire” Self-Control and Violent Passion in Oscar Micheaux’s African American Western
    (pp. 51-74)

    Jean Baptiste, the protagonist of Oscar Micheaux’s novel,The Homesteader(1917), first appears in the narrative struggling against a howling blizzard on the plains of frontier South Dakota.¹ Micheaux’s depiction of this storm, which transforms the plains into “one endless, unbroken sheet of white frost and ice,” is both a realistic winter landscape description and an allegorical representation of Baptiste’s social situation—a black individual who has left behind African American communities in the East to seek economic opportunity in a predominantly white western frontier settlement (38). As Baptiste observes, there were “Germans from Germany” and “Swedes from Sweden” as...

  7. 3 “This Strange White World” Race and Place in Era Bell Thompson’s American Daughter and Rose Gordon’s Newspaper Writing
    (pp. 75-101)

    Aboard a train heading out of Minneapolis toward frontier North Dakota, Era Bell Thompson describes a landscape that grows steadily bleaker with each mile further west: “Suddenly there was snow—miles and miles of dull, white snow, stretching out to meet the heavy, gray sky; deep banks of snow drifted against wooden snow fences. . . . All day long we rode through the silent fields of snow, a cold depression spreading over us” (American26–27). Like Oscar Micheaux inThe Homesteader, Thompson uses realistic winter landscape descriptions in her autobiography,American Daughter(1946), allegorically to represent the social...

  8. 4 Cowboys, Cooks, and Comics African American Characters in Westerns of the 1930s
    (pp. 102-126)

    Combining action, humor, and musical performance, a series of black-cast Westerns filmed in the late 1930s and starring singer Herb Jeffries places African Americans at the center of their stories of life on the American frontier. By so doing, such films asHarlem on the Prairie(1937),Two-Gun Man from Harlem(1938),The Bronze Buckaroo(1938), andHarlem Rides the Range(1939) provide a vision that counters the way most Hollywood Westerns marginalize or ignore the role blacks played in settling the West. Although produced for African American audiences, these Westerns have been accused of repeating many of the same...

  9. 5 Oscar Micheaux, The Exile, and the Black Western Race Film
    (pp. 127-153)

    Although it might seem unusual to consider the centrality of South Dakota to African American history, two landmark events in the history of African American cinema are connected to the state. Writer and filmmaker Oscar Micheaux’sThe Homesteader(1919), the first feature-length silent film helmed by an African American director, is primarily set in South Dakota. Although interior filming took place elsewhere, Micheaux spent several days traveling around the state with his two stars for on-location filming. For the first African American–produced feature-length sound film, director Micheaux returned to the setting of South Dakota forThe Exile(1931). Both...

  10. 6 Sammy Davis Jr., Woody Strode, and the Black Westerner of the Civil Rights Era
    (pp. 154-185)

    “The Incident of the Buffalo Soldier,” an episode of the popular long-running WesternRawhidethat first aired on 6 January 1961, begins with Clint Eastwood’s Rowdy Yates and fellow cowboy Jim Quince sitting by a campfire, talking—or, rather, with Quince nervously (they are heading into Kiowa country) talking and nervously taking offense at everything Yates says in reply while Yates tries to get Quince to shut up so he can sleep. Out of the darkness, an African American man, played by Woody Strode, steps out of the brush and into the light. Tall, athletic, and in the uniform of...

  11. 7 Looking at the Big Picture Percival Everett’s Western Fiction
    (pp. 186-211)

    The African American characters in Percival Everett’s short stories and novels set in the contemporary American West seem to have achieved what earlier generations of black westerners have sought but seldom found—an existence not defined or limited by American narratives of race. As Madison Smartt Bell observes about Everett’s first Western novel,Walk Me to the Distance(1985), “Its narrator is a black man in a landscape where there aren’t any others . . . and because his color isn’t a consuming subject for him the reader doesn’t hear much about it either; inWalk Me to the Distance,...

  12. 8 The Post-Soul Cowboy on the Science Fiction Frontier
    (pp. 212-233)

    As we move on through the twenty-first century, developments in the Western genre, particularly in the hybrid genre of the science fiction Western, have opened a new space for imagining and performing an African American West. Rather than the traditional Old West settings ofDeadwoodorHell on Wheelsor the contemporary West of Percival Everett’s novels, these hybrid Westerns feature settings that are futuristic and/or postapocalyptic. Film and television Westerns with science fiction elements such as Joss Whedon’sFirefly(2002) andSerenity(2005) and the Hughes Brothers’ postapocalyptic Western filmThe Book of Eli(2010) are unusual as Westerns...

  13. Conclusion The D Is Silent
    (pp. 234-241)

    Accompanied by both praise and criticism,Django Unchained(2012), director Quentin Tarantino’s twin homage to the blaxploitation film and the spaghetti Western, opened strongly on Christmas Day and will likely become the most profitable and popular story of the African American West sinceBlazing Saddles. Even though the film has a historical setting in the nineteenth-century past, in style and approach it is very much what Neil Campbell calls a post-Western—particularly in its self-reflective “poaching and borrowing” from Westerns and from other film genres (“Post-Western” 409). As is the case withThe Big Lebowski’s opening sequence of a tumbleweed...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 242-257)
  15. Bibliography
    (pp. 258-269)
  16. Index
    (pp. 270-287)