Saturday, July 16, 2011

African-American Lawmen in the Old West

Shortly after "Miles to Go" appeared in the BEAT to a PULP webzine, I got an e-mail concerning my noir westerns that went like this:
I enjoy your writing and wish you much success, but when I'm reading about your character Gideon Miles, a black lawman in the Old West, it seems forced like you're reinventing the West to kowtow to current sensibilities and trends.
I wrote back with a link and one line that read: Obviously, you've never heard about Bass Reeves.

We've corresponded several times since then, and I was happy to draw attention to the African-American marshal. I asked the e-mailer for persmission to post his words here because I am endlessly fascinated how Bass Reeves, a real American hero, remains overlooked in our country.

It felt good to turn what was on the verge of a negative into a strong positive.

16 comments:

TJ said...

Way to go, for taking the time to respond with an answer that would enlighten your follower instead of alienating him.

Often, we are too quick to lash out instead of taking the opportunity to embrace a teachable moment.

Charles Gramlich said...

You'd think that most folks with an interest in the west would have heard of old Bass. Guess not. Such a colorful character. :)

pattinase (abbott) said...

Similarly Edward Jones's great book THE KNOWN WORLD pointed out that there were black slave owners then too. Now only an African-American could probably pull that off since it was negative information where yours was positive.

Randy Johnson said...

It's just part of the old "whitewashing" of history in every phase. There were a great many black cowboys during the period, but how many did one ever see in the thousands of westerns produced since movies began. Not any that I can remember in the first fifty years or so. If they appeared in movies in the early days, it was a demeaning stereotype.

Naomi Johnson said...

Another positive to take away from this exchange is that clearly your stories are reaching a new audience, and not solely the hard-core fans of Westerns.

David Cranmer said...

Thanks, TJ. I had considered taking a different approach but by opening up a dialogue it went very well and ended with a new reader to my Cash & Miles series. Btw thank you for stopping by.

Charles, I’m sure movies and television are where many folks receive their history lessons and, of course, that was whitewashed for many, many years.

Patti, I’m very interested in THE KNOWN WORLD now. That titled has been mentioned to me before.

Very true, Randy. And that’s why we now have so many more stories to tell. Heck, We’re just getting started.

Naomi, Yes it is exciting to bring in folks that wouldn't in general read a western story. Also a conservative ballpark figure tells me 75% of my audience is crime and mystery fans. Most of my reviews on Amazon come from that generous group and I’m very grateful.

Ron Scheer said...

Couldn't imagine you handling that situation any differently. It helps to have a nonthreatening reply at the ready. And you had the advantage of email to think of one...I once had a student who complained that she didn't want to hear any more about Native Americans because she was tired having to feel guilty about them. I didn't have a reply for that then, but I do now if it ever happens again.

Heath said...

I never heard of Bass specifically, but I was aware of the tradition of black cowboys in the Old West... in fact, there's a song by Country Bob & the Blood Farmers called "What's it Like to Be a Black Cowboy?" you might enjoy...

David Cranmer said...

Ron, I bet it's a helluva lot of fun being in your class. As for that girl, lets hope she has matured in her opinions.

Great song, Heath. I just gave it a spin. First time I've heard it.

Alyssa Goodnight said...

Good for you for enlightening him, and good for him for couching his complaint in a compliment. :)

G said...

It's funny (or sad, depending on your viewpoint) how history is presented nowadays to the average person.

All fluff and no meat. When people hear of something out of the ordinary, they think that it couldn't possibly be true.

It's tough combating the perception that certain things simply didn't happen and even tougher trying to correct that perception to begin with.

If I remember correctly (and this is going back to my days working at the State Library) there was a book a co-worker told me about that effectively obliterated the warm fuzzies that everyone got about the "good old days".

It was called "The Good Old Days--They Were Terrible". Came out in 1974 and was classed as YA (according to Amazon)

Dave King said...

I have to confess that I had not heard of Bass Reeves, but even without him your e-mailer was assuming too much.

David Cranmer said...

G, What is the good old days to one group may be hell to another. What I find (most of the time) is that history is far more fascinating than we give it credit. (That book title rings a distant bell, G.)

American history, Dave. We have a big pond and one hundred years separating us from Bass.

BrittReid said...

The first Black character to have his own comic book was a cowboy!
Though not a lawman, he fought for justice!
http://heroheroinehistory.blogspot.com/2011/02/lobo-1-saga-begins.html

David Cranmer said...

Britt, I appreciate you stopping by and I will check out your link.

THE OFFICIAL: Gwandine's Inspirational Black Cowboy Romance and Adventure Novels said...

I've read quite a bit about Bass Reeves and other Black cowboys as I am an author of fictional Black cowboy stories. I was surfing the net and stumbled across your blog. There were numerous Black cowboys and cowgirls of the old west. A historian named William Loren Katz researched a lot of this information including providing photos. Visit blackcowboys.com and theblackwest.com. Also, the Buffalo soldiers contributed to a valuable part of the settling of the southwest. I have an older friend whose grandfather was a Black sheriff in the 1800s. She has a photograph of him dressed as such. Also, you can visit the black cowboy museums online.
--Gwandine Black Cherokee Cowgirl.