Black cowboys have been in the headlines for the past few years. After the 2020 murder of George Floyd, images of black protesters on horseback went viral, including the Compton Cowboys and other similar groups. 2021’s new western The Harder They Fall, starring Idris Elba, is all about black cowboys, though it borrows familiar tropes from old white-centric westerns: excessive violence, a revenge tale, and women as characters. sexualized elements of the saloon. Before that, the 1996 movie The Cherokee Kid saw Sinbad play a clumsy fool who knew nothing about horses.
McClellan adds a new narrative to the mix: Black cowgirl and cowboy joy.
Raised in Kansas City, Kan., McClellan grew up watching Gunsmoke and Bonanza on television. McClellan said that as a result, he once viewed cowboys as white men waging war on native peoples, and he viewed black cowboys as a joke, like Cowboy Curtis on Pee-wee’s Playhouse, played by Laurence Fishburne.
But at age 33 in 2015, a trip to the Roy LeBlanc Invitational Rodeo in Oklahoma opened his eyes to a tight-knit community of black cowboys who defied those categories. These riders were world-class athletes and fierce competitors, but also like a loving family that embraced its strong history. During slavery, black people developed skills related to horses and cattle, which enabled them to work in fields related to animal husbandry after emancipation. Historians estimate that one in four people [smithsonianmag.com] Cowboys was black, and that ended up fueling today’s black rodeo culture, which doesn’t seek to imitate its white counterpart.
“They’re not chasing after John Wayne. They don’t act like Yellowstone,” McClellan said, referring to the TV show about a white ranching family in Montana.
The black women at these rodeos are community matriarchs, McClellan said, a far cry from the archetype of the woman in old western movies: a submissive waitress “serving hootch” in a hoop skirt. “Women at a rodeo are no joke. They really have a lot of strength,” he said, mentioning two of his subjects: Kanesha Jackson, 33, and Kortnee Solomon, 12, mother and daughter, barrel racers based near Houston in Hempstead, Au. Texas.
“Horses just give me joy,” said Jackson, who spends his weekends on the professional rodeo circuit and has won cash, trophies, saddles and buckles. “I love competition, I have a competitive side, but I just love the fun of riding, bonding with my horse.” McClellan’s photos of mother and daughter feature beaming faces, including a playful photo of Kortnee with her hands on her hips as a horse sniffs her cheek.
Horseback riding runs in the Jackson family. Her stepfather and mother introduced her to both horseback riding and barrel racing when she was five, and her grandfather also rodeoed. “I was raised around the Bill Pickett rodeo since I was little, so of course it’s more of a family environment for me,” Jackson said, referring to the 38-year-old black event. She didn’t get into professional rodeos until she was older, and she has longtime friends on that circuit as well.
In the past two years alone, Jackson has noticed that public awareness of black rodeos has increased. “We are finally recognized,” she said. “We’re finally getting the publicity we’ve been waiting for for a long time.” In 2020, the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo was featured on NBC Nightly News [nbcnews.com]and also appeared on The Cowboy Channel, ProRodeo’s official network.
McClellan photographs black riders in these competitive settings, but he also follows them home to capture a quieter happiness in their private lives as riders and ranchers.
“Ivan was one of the first people to come visit and really recognize what we were doing,” said Rachel Stewart, who runs a ranch. [southwestblackranchers.com] in southern Arizona with her husband Stew, aged 35 and 45 respectively. They raise and sell goats, sheep, pigs, chickens, ducks, turkeys and beef, selling meat as well as live animals and duck eggs. The couple lived near Phoenix before Covid-19 hit, with Stew working in various fields including sales and personal training, with Rachel also working as a trainer and homeschooling their four children, ages nine to 12. The pandemic has closed gyms, leading to food shortages at grocery stores. , and led them to change their way of life.
Rachel and Stew said they love the independence of farming, the ability to create their own food security and the bond with their animals. McClellan’s photos show the kids having fun too, cradling a goat, taking a piggyback ride on Stew and smiling in the sunshine wearing denim jackets and cowboy hats.
Black ranchers are few, but “the love is definitely shared,” Rachel said of connecting with them on social media. According to McKinsey, only 1.4% of farmers identify as black or mixed race, down from 14% a century ago. [mckinsey.com].
McClellan lives with his wife and two children in Portland, Oregon, a more urban lifestyle than the one he chronicles in his work and his new photography book. [eightsecs.com], released in February. He doesn’t have any horses or land yet, but on weekends he often attends a rodeo, not to compete, but to watch and have fun. “These smiles kind of come out,” he said of his subjects. “I’m having a good time.”