Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Class Post - Review - "Black Cowboy Wild Horses"

Close your eyes.  Think of a cowboy, a quintessential American cowboy.  The hat, the spurs, the whole nine yards.  Now open your eyes, and look at the cover of Black Cowboy Wild Horses: A True Story by Julius Lester.  Is this the image you pictured?

Probably not.  The image of the American cowboy in media representations has been so overwhelmingly white that it might be hard to imagine anything else.  What Julius Lester and illustrated Jerry Pinkney have done with this gorgeous, transfixing picture book is open up an entire new vista of possibilities for thinking about the classic cowboy image.

Bob Lemmons is a cowboy.  With his black stallion, Warrior, Bob sets off to corral a herd of wild mustangs.  Across familiar landscapes, Bob tracks the animals and bides his time.  He protects himself during a thunderstorm.  When he finds the herd, he is careful, he is dominant, and he eventually brings most of the herd back to the ranch, to the cheers of the other cowboys.

Black Cowboy Wild Horses is not a book for die-hard animal lovers.  Frank acknowledgement of animal cruelty involved in the corralling of a wild herd in the Old West is part and parcel of Lester’s narrative.  This is definitely a picture book for older readers, written around a fourth-grade reading level.

Lester’s text does not make a big to-do about the color of Bob’s skin, letting the emphasis of that image rest on Pinkney’s shoulders.  Lester does mention Bob’s background, writing, “Some people learned from books.  Bob had been a slave and never learned to read words”, going on to say that Bob was fluent in the language of tracking animals.  This is the only mention Lester gives to Bob’s race.  Pinkey, however, with his gorgeous illustrations in pencil, gouache and watercolor, says volumes.  He places Bob in the traditional settings of a cowboy: horses, the wide open prairie, dusty ranches.  The contrast is given between what is familiar, the image of the American West, with what is unfamiliar, a black cowboy.  A two-page spread towards the end of the book features Bob, just coming into frame on the left side, while the page is dominated by white cowboys.  Though subtle, the difference is very telling.

Black Cowboy Wild Horses received a starred review from Publishers Weekly.  The review highlights "[t]he fluid brushwork of Pinkney's watercolors" and says the book is "[n]otable for the light it sheds on a fascinating slice of Americana."

Backmatter reveals more about the author and illustrator’s inspiration for the story, and Pinkney gives an important nugget of information: “...one out of three cowboys was black or Mexican”.  These are not the images we have from popular books, movies and television.  That’s what makes a book like Black Cowboy Wild Horses so significant.  By not making a big deal of Bob’s race, Lester is acknowledging that such a thing was not uncommon at all, and in fact was downright commonplace.  This offers young black readers an image in a popular genre that reflects their own face.

In the backmatter, Pinkney lists two famous black western names, Nat Love, a cowboy, and Bill Pickett, a rodeo star.  Several books exist for those interested in further reading, including Pat McKissack’s Best Shot in the West: The Adventures of Nat Love, Andrea Davis Pinkey’s Bill Pickett: Rodeo-Riding’ Cowboy, Lillian Schlissel’s Black Frontiers: A History of African American Heroes in the Old West and Vaunda Micheaux Nelson’s Bad News for Outlaws: The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves, deputy U.S. Marshall.

Lester, Julius.  Black Cowboy Wild Horses.  Illustrated by Jerry Pinkney.  New York: Dial Books, 1998.  ISBN: 9780803717879

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