This photographer’s work celebrates lives of Black cowboys and cowgirls
Perspective by Sarah Enelow-Snyder
June 30, 2022 at 6:00 a.m. EDT
When photographer Ivan McClellan goes to a rodeo, he hears R&B, gospel and hip-hop floating out of trailers. He smells turkey legs that have been cooking for three days. He sees people braiding hair, horseback riders wearing Jordans and a lot of smiles.
“I think those smiles come out of a place of celebration and enjoyment of the moment that we’re in,” said McClellan. “Me coming to these folks and saying ‘Hey, I see greatness in you, let me take your photo’ is a moment of me seeing them and them feeling acknowledged.”
Black cowboys have made headlines in recent years. After the 2020 murder of George Floyd, images of Black protesters on horseback went viral, including the Compton Cowboys and other similar groups. The 2021 nouveau Western film “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 narrative and women as sexualized fixtures of the saloon. Before that, the 1996 film “The Cherokee Kid” saw Sinbad playing a bumbling fool who didn’t know the first thing about horses.
McClellan is adding 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 thought of cowboys as White men who warred with Indigenous people, and he thought of 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 Okmulgee Invitational Rodeo in Oklahoma opened his eyes to a tightknit community of Black cowboys that defied those categories. These riders were world-class athletes and fierce competitors but also like a loving family that embraced its robust history. During slavery, Black people developed skills related to horses and livestock, which allowed them to work in ranching-related fields after emancipation. Historians estimate that 1 in 4 cowboys was Black, and this eventually fed into today’s Black rodeo culture, which does not seek to emulate its White counterpart.
“They’re not chasing after John Wayne. They’re not acting out ‘Yellowstone,’” McClellan said, referring to the television show about a White family of ranchers in Montana.
The Black women at these rodeos are matriarchs of the community, said McClellan, a far cry from the archetypal woman in old Western films: a subservient waitress “serving hooch” in a hoop skirt. “The women at a rodeo are no joke. They really carry a lot of strength,” he said, mentioning two of his subjects: 33-year-old Kanesha Jackson and 12-year-old Kortnee Solomon, mother-and-daughter barrel racers based near Houston in Hempstead, Tex.
“Horses just bring the joy out of me,” said Jackson, who spends her weekends on the professional rodeo circuit and has won money, trophies, saddles and buckles. “I love to compete, I have a competitive side, but I just love the enjoyment of riding, of bonding with my horse.” McClellan’s photos of both mother and daughter feature radiant faces, including a playful shot of Kortnee with her hands on her hips while a horse sniffs at her cheek.
Riding runs in Jackson’s family. Her stepfather and mother introduced her to both riding and barrel racing at age 5, and her grandfather took part in rodeos, as well. “I’ve been raised around the Bill Pickett rodeo since I was little, so of course that’s more of a family environment for me,” said Jackson, referring to the 38-year-old Black event. She didn’t enter professional rodeos until she was older, and she has longtime friends on that circuit, as well.
Just in the last year or two, Jackson has noticed that the public’s awareness of Black rodeos has increased. “We’re finally being recognized,” she said. “We’re finally getting the publicity that we’ve been overdue for.” In 2020 the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo was profiled on NBC Nightly News and has also appeared on the Cowboy Channel, the official network of Pro Rodeo.
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 and visit and really recognize what we were doing,” said Rachel Stewart, who runs a ranch in southern Arizona with her husband, Stew, ages 35 and 45, respectively. They raise and sell goats, sheep, pigs, chickens, ducks, turkeys and steers, selling meat as well as live animals and duck eggs. The couple lived near Phoenix before covid-19 hit, Stew working in various fields including sales and personal training, Rachel also working as a trainer and home schooling their four children, ages 9 through 12. The pandemic closed gyms, brought food shortages to grocery stores and led them to change their lifestyle.
Rachel and Stew said they love the independence of ranching, the ability to create their own food security and the connection to their animals. McClellan’s photos show the kids enjoying it, too, cradling a goat, going for a piggyback ride on Stew, and smiling into the sunshine wearing a denim jacket and a cowboy hat.
Black ranchers are few, but “the love is definitely shared,” Rachel said about connecting with them on social media. Only 1.4 percent of farmers identify as Black or mixed-race, compared with 14 percent a century ago, according to McKinsey.
McClellan lives with his wife and two kids in Portland, Ore., a more urban lifestyle than the one he chronicles in his work and his new photography book, released in February. He has no horses or acreage yet, but on weekends he’s often at a rodeo — not to compete but to observe and enjoy. “Those smiles just sort of pour out,” he said about his subjects. “I’m having a great time.”