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

Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Fall 2010, Volume 9, Issue 2


Melissa Daniels
Northwestern University

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. In this scene, Van Peebles also illustrates how African-American cowboys formed their own vigilante groups to protect and serve the citizens of all black towns who were frequently the targets of an aggressive white supremacy. Not only have these points been omitted from the written academic record in classical American studies scholarship, but they have also been elided from audio/visual representation in most major Hollywood studio films. This paper believes that these omissions are essential components of our academic work on the West as myth and symbol. American studies scholars must undo the silences African-American cowboys have been subjected to in traditional myth and symbol criticism and in Hollywood by using both textual and visual sources that privilege black voices. In adopting a post-colonial methodology that includes film criticism, American studies scholars may be able to develop a new school of myth and symbol criticism that discusses the true influence African Americans had on the West, and how the West in turn influenced African-American cultures.

Before discussing the scene in question, it is important to frame my reading with a statement on the current situation in new studies on the West. In his essay, “A Longer, Grimmer, But More Interesting Story,” Elliott West discusses the importance of sight and interpretation for historians and ethnohistorians alike. Arguably, “sight” and “interpretation” possess a great deal of currency for any revisionist project, but particularly so for film. West writes: “As historians come to recognize the great diversity of the western historical experience, they have begun to reconstruct what its various peoples have seen and what they thought about what has happened” (109). This statement forms the foundation of this analysis and is critical to my reading of the following scene. In “A Fair Trial,” Van Peebles reconstructs what was probably a very common confrontation between African-American men and law enforcement agents in the West. Van Peebles dramatizes how African Americans must have felt about their lack of agency with regard to the law after similar experiences under slavery. If the West symbolized a vast and endless realm of freedom and possibility in the American imagination, then African-American men must have felt utterly disappointed by the presence of racism on the frontier. In fact, African-American men must have felt so powerless that they devised their own vigilante groups to seek justice. In utilizing film as the device by which to present this past, Van Peebles demonstrates that the value of privileging sight, interpretation, and ethnocriticism in studies on American culture is a more diverse record of American history that makes room for the creative and expressive arts. Without an emphasis on sight and interpretation, or the turn towards ethnocriticism, American studies scholarship would only reproduce the same marginalizing narratives of westward expansion that dominated the post-war period (e.g. Smith’s Virgin Land). These narratives often erased the history of U.S. imperialism, along with African-American contributions to western civilization.

At the beginning of “A Fair Trial,” Van Peebles debunks the traditionally held view that “imperialism” was a “European thing” that did not exist on American soil. As Ella Shohat and Robert Stam point out in Unthinking Eurocentrism, imperialism was very much a “thing” of the West; the very narrative of westward expansion “told the story of imperial-style adventures on the American frontier” (114). As the scene opens, Jessie Lee and his lover, Lana, an African-American woman with Indian ancestry, are mourning Papa Joe’s and Obobo’s capture by the racist sheriff of Cutterstown. (Earlier in the film, Papa Joe and Obobo are arrested in an all-black saloon for not passively submitting to the sheriff’s demand that they tell him Jessie Lee’s whereabouts.) An onlooker tells a sorrowful Jessie Lee that “Papa Joe and Obobo will not get a fair trial” because “the KKK will get them before dawn.” The scene suddenly shifts to the prison house where Papa Joe and Obobo are behind bars. In one cell, Obobo, a very large man, angrily shouts, “Let me out, Let me out!” In another cell, Papa Joe casually smokes a pipe. The mayor approaches Papa Joe’s cell and slyly says, “You boys are going to get a fair trial as God is my witness.” A mature Papa Joe knowingly replies, “Your witness? Mayor, is that the same God that witnessed you all putting black folks into slavery and stealing the Indians’ land?” The mayor, obviously rubbed the wrong way by Papa Joe’s allusion to his ancestor’s participation in the project of U.S. imperialism, serves Papa Joe a swift counterpunch. He tells Papa Joe that he ought to be working on saving his “black soul,” an epithet that when used by white people evokes the myth of black moral depravity. Knowing that this is but a myth, a lie white people have constructed to justify their inhumane treatment of blacks, Papa Joe’s retort - “Shit, I’m working on saving my black ass” - exposes his familiarity with the hypocrisy of the white legal system, which is perhaps best represented in the exchange that follows. After the KKK bursts into the jail, the warden removes the keys to Papa Joe’s and Obobo’s cells and tosses them to the Klansman. Smiling and chuckling, the warden expresses “pseudo-regret” over the arrival of the Klan. He tells Papa Joe and Obobo that “I’m sorry, they got guns,” and sits down to read the paper. But what he does not know is that the Klansman draped in veil and white sheets is not a white man, but none other than Jessie Lee himself, in disguise. With memories of his father’s lynching in mind, Jessie Lee lifts his veil and shoots the warden straight in the chest. The take ends with an announcement that the real “white sheets” are coming, and Jessie, Papa Joe, and Obobo leave the prison.

Dramatically, this scene functions to underscore the existence of imperialism on the frontier and corruption in U.S. government and law. Papa Joe points towards both in his attack on the mayor’s belief in God, given the U.S. government’s longstanding policy of violence towards African Americans and Indians. When Papa Joe calls into question the mayor’s moral makeup, he questions the compatibility of the mayor’s belief in God and his ancestor’s belief in empire. Papa Joe’s comments expose how white settlers’ beliefs in empire often coincided with violence against indigenous and enslaved people - all of which was done in the name of God. Papa’s Joe’s critique of the mayor’s morality evokes Richard Slotkin’s claim: "Violence [was] central to both the historical development of the Frontier and its mythic representations. The Anglo-American colonies grew by displacing Amerindian societies and enslaving Africans  to advance the fortunes of White colonists" (11).

Here Slotkin explains why violence was a necessary feature of law and order in the development of the West. As he suggests, developing the West frequently meant enslaving, removing, and exterminating blacks and Indians who were outside of the categories of religion and citizenship. As Richard Drinnon argues, aside from the few exceptions to the rule, blacks did not own property, they were property. As for Indians, they did not view their land as “individual” property. Therefore, blacks and Indians existed outside of Madison’s understanding of lawful citizenship (Drinnon 112). Within Madison’s framework, the enslavement of African Americans and the seizure of Indian lands did not present a major moral dilemma for the settling class. It did, however, present many legal problems for African Americans and Indians alike, with political representation and protection by the law at the top of the list. While the West symbolized freedom from Southern racism, African Americans quickly discovered that the problem of the color line existed on the frontier too. As Quintard Taylor explains, the racial logic of the West was hardly new: "Free blacks sought out the Far West for economic opportunity and refuge from racial restrictions...while Western state and territorial governments rapidly constructed familiar racially based proscriptive legislation that denied voting rights, prohibited African-American court testimony, and banned black homesteading, jury service, and marriage with whites" (105). Taylor’s comments explain how Southern racial paradigms were quickly constructed in the West to protect white male identity and its claims to property and citizenship. Taylor’s comments also reveal how little protection from the law Papa Joe and Obobo could have expected under such constraints. Because they exist outside of the category of lawful citizenship, receiving “a fair trial” is not a possibility. The only way for Jessie Lee to seek retribution for Papa Joe and Obobo’s unfair imprisonment is to take matters into his own hands. For Jessie, this means dismantling the authority of white legal structures.

When Jessie Lee attacks the warden dressed in Klansman’s attire, he subverts the logic behind white supremacy, and revises the narrative of black masculinity. In killing a white officer, Jessie appropriates the power of white masculinity and turns it against an agent of the law to undo the legal violence of his father’s death and prevent Papa Joe’s and Obobo’s prospective lynching. In a way, Jessie’s racial cross-dressing rewrites what Richard Abel calls the racist discourse of “Americanisation.” According to Abel, the discourse of Americanization “sought to privilege the ‘Anglo-Saxon’...as dominant in any conception of American national identity” (78). When Jessie lifts his veil so that the warden can see that a black man has shot him, he carves out a space in the discourse of Americanization that positions African-American masculinity at center stage. This new black masculinity rejects the tropes of black male identity perpetuated during slavery: effeminacy, immaturity, and poor mental development. This new black masculinity also embraces the effectiveness of vigilante justice over white legal structures. This filmic representation of black vigilante justice is also a revision of the western as genre. According to Julia Leyda, such revisions serve an important function for black film audiences. As Leyda puts it, these revisions “invite black Americans to see black men as fully vested American citizens and as righteous heroes” (61). When Jessie kills the warden, he rewrites the cultural narrative of black masculinity, and demonstrates the accuracy of Stuart Hall’s assertion that culture is the “terrain for producing identity, for producing the constitution of social subjects” (291).

If Jessie Lee constructs a new identity through the retribution he gains from black vigilante justice, then he also produces a new cowboy mythology. Jessie’s new cowboy mythology rejects the fiction that African-American men did not exist on the frontier, and repositions black masculinity as heroic and victorious. But as countless western films, television shows, and comic books of the classic Hollywood era suggest, the cowboy mythology of Old was largely incompatible with many Americans’ understandings of African-American culture and black masculinity. During this era, cinematic/television images of African-American culture in general and black masculinity in particular were for the most part restricted to athletics and entertainment. As Kenneth Porter has explained, cowboy mythology inevitably became the product of Hollywood screen/scriptwriters who cast rugged Anglo-Saxon types like John Wayne in major roles. As a result, cowboy mythology on screen came to signify whiteness, despite the historical inaccuracies of such depictions. Furthermore, these flagrant characterizations continued to dominate the cinematic and literary imaginations of most Americans well into the nuclear age. Porter elaborates on this phenomenon, positing that

The cowboy myth continued into the twentieth century and, in fact, grew larger as Hollywood producers turned out hundreds of movies and television programs with “western” themes. The greatest discrepancy between the cowboy myth and reality, however, was that many of the real cowboys were black while few of those in books and films were. Several historians have speculated about why the mythmakers omitted black cowboys from the fictionalized version of the West. For one thing, most Americans (and, consequently, most book readers and film viewers) were white, and authors and movie producers wanted to cater to their audiences. For another, most white Americans would presumably have balked at the idea of African-Americans being portrayed in a positive, even heroic, light. (111)

As Porter explains, Hollywood is ultimately to blame for the production and circulation of the myth that African-American men were not cowboys. The cinema, along with books and television, reflected the misconception that African Americans were absent from the West in an attempt to gain their audiences’ interest. But as Porter reveals, the omission was steeped in a premeditated maliciousness that sought to keep the black image in film utterly pejorative. Because the cowboy was a symbol of successful masculinity - despite his status as hero or villain - African-American men’s absence from this paradigm barred them from obtaining “full male credentials.” Consequently, African-American men were relegated to the realms of barbarity, childhood, or femininity. By not casting African-American men in cowboy roles, Hollywood managed to keep the black image in film either savage or servile, but definitely not heroic. When Jessie Lee shoots the racist warden who is all too willing to give Papa Joe and Obobo up to the KKK, Jessie defies the notion that African-American men are not heroes. In fact, Jessie Lee inverts the heroism of white cowboy mythology by “unveiling” the warden’s legal corruption and saving Papa Joe and Obobo from the gallows. When the warden tosses the keys over to what he believes is the Klan, he betrays his “unfitness” for heroism by privileging vigilante justice over the sanctity of law and order - his moral duty as a white man.

But if it appears that “A Fair Trial” suggests that black men only sought heroism in vigilante justice, the Cuba scene suggests otherwise. African-American men did not only form vigilante groups in the West, but they also joined the U.S. military. Though it is not widely known, blacks were regular servicemen in U.S. army regiments in the West (Billington and Hardaway 74). From the period of the Civil War to the Spanish-American War, 141,000 black enlisted men served in the U.S. army (Billington and Hardaway 56). Strode’s remarks at the beginning of the scene acknowledge this past. As Strode puts it, it is commonly forgotten that troops fighting in Cuba, such as the ninth and tenth, were all black, and that many headed West after being discharged from the military. Though the film only briefly engages with this past, it is an important sequence in the trajectory of the film. For starters, it gives Van Peebles a point of reference for his dramatization of how the black movement West began. It also acts as an exposition that explains Jessie’s connections to the frontier, his role in the military, and how his crew gets back West. But the Cuba scene is also in dialogue with the themes presented in “A Fair Trial.” Like the prison house scene, the Cuba sequence illustrates the violence of U.S. imperialism, and dramatizes how African Americans were its victims. If in “A Fair Trial” Papa Joe and Obobo are the victims of a racist legal system, Jessie Lee and his men are also victims of that same racism while in uniform. This point is made early on in the film when Colonel Graham demands that Jessie Lee and Little J attack a Spanish convoy loaded with artillery, guns, and gold. When Jessie appears reluctant, the Colonel reminds him that he is serving a lifetime sentence in the U.S. military, and that if he fails to comply with his orders, he will die by hanging. After Jessie Lee and his men successfully complete the mission, they learn that they have been pawns in the Colonel’s corrupt game of empire building. More importantly, they learn that there is little heroism to be obtained for black men in the U.S. military. When Jessie Lee discovers that the Colonel has plans to kill him for the very gold he has ordered him to steal, Jessie and his men botch the delivery. They keep the gold for themselves and make plans to go back to the states in wooden coffins. In order to avenge his father’s lynching, Jessie must go West. To undo the violence the racist Sheriff of Cutterstown has done to his family and friends, Jessie must revise three competing mythologies: the cowboy, the West, and black masculinity. In the end, Jessie manages to rewrite the narratives of Anglo-Saxon dominance in the West, the fiction of virgin land, and the idea that he is outside of successful masculinity - e.g. property, political power, and physical strength - because he is a black man.

Coincidentally, Posse provides ample opportunity for scholars within the academic field of American studies to do similar revisionist work. Given Hollywood’s historical neglect of African Americans in the West, and its current-day attempts to rectify that injustice, it is important for American studies scholars to do the same. Major studies on African Americans in the West still need to be done, perhaps studies that include women and sexuality as well.  Studies that make use of diverse subject positions and non-textual artifacts are also key. As George Lipsitz has argued, “American studies has been at its best when engaged in dialogue with the complex and conflicted realities of American life and culture”; therefore, it must delve more freely into popular culture (616). This means privileging art forms traditionally considered “non-academic,” fields such as architecture, film, television, radio, and sculpture. It also means listening to those voices outside the ivory tower. If American studies scholars seek to undo the silences African-American cowboys have been subjected to in traditional myth and symbol criticism and in Hollywood, they must formulate a methodology that includes black voices. In adopting an ethnocritical methodology that blends post-colonial theory with film criticism, American studies scholarship can debunk the widely embraced notion that African Americans were absent on the frontier.

Works Cited

Abel, Richard. “‘Our Country/Whose Country? The ‘Americanisation’ Project of Early Westerns.” Back in the Saddle Again: New Essays on the Western, eds. Edward Buscombe and Roberta E. Pearson. London: British Film Institute, 1998. 77-95.

Auerbach, Jonathan. “American Studies and Film, Blindness and Insight.” American
Quarterly 58.1 (2006): 31-50.

Billington, Monroe Lee, and Roger D. Hardaway, eds. African Americans On the Western Frontier. Boulder: UP of Colorado, 1998.

Drinnon, Richard. Facing West: The Metaphysics of Indian Hating and Empire Building.
Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1985.

Hall, Stuart. “Subjects in History: Making Diasporic Identities.” The House That Race
Built. Ed. Wahneema Lubiano. New York: Vintage Books, 1997. 289-299.

Leyda, Julia. “Black-Audience Westerns and the Politics of Cultural Identification in the
1930s.” Cinema Journal 42.1 (2002): 46-70.

Lipsitz, George. “Listening to Learn and Learning to Listen: Popular Culture, Cultural Theory, and American Studies.” American Quarterly 42.4 (1990): 615-636.

Porter, Kenneth W. “Black Cowboys in the American West, 1866-1900.” African Americans on the Western Frontier. Eds. Monroe Lee Billington and Roger D. Hardaway. Boulder: UP of Colorado, 1998.

Posse. Dir. Mario Van Peebles. Perf. Mario Van Peebles, Stephen Baldwin, and
Billy Zane. 1993. DVD. MGM, 2001.

Shohat, Ella and Robert Stam. Unthinking Eurocentrism. London: Routledge, 1994.

Slotkin, Richard. Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century
America. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1992.

Taylor, Quintard. “African American Men in the American West, 1528-1990.” Annals
of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 569 (2000): 102-119.

West, Elliott. “A Longer, Grimmer, But More Interesting Story." Trails: Toward a New Western History. Eds. Patricia Nelson Limerick et al. Lawrence: UP of Kansas, 1991. 103-111.

Back to Top
Journal Home

© 2010 Americana: The Institute for the Study of American Popular Culture