In a 2016 portrait by the photographer Brad Trent, an older black woman poses on a bale of hay, a white Stetson hat on her head and a pair of hand-tooled cowboy boots on her feet. The fringe on her leather jacket flows downward, as do her knee-length dreadlocks, which echo the texture of the lasso coiled in her fist. Her posture is at once relaxed and confrontational. Her gaze is steely as a gun.
The woman in the image is Kesha (Mama) Morse, the sixty-seven-year-old president of the New York Federation of Black Cowboys, an organization that is devoted to teaching inner-city kids about a neglected aspect of American history: the thousands of African-Americans who played a role in settling the Old West. According to scholars, one in four cowboys working in Texas during the golden age of westward expansion was black; many others were Mexican, mestizo, or Native American—a far more diverse group than Hollywood stereotypes of the cowboy would suggest. Bass Reeves, a black lawman who had a Native American sidekick, is thought to have served as a model for the Lone Ranger. Britt Johnson, a black cowboy whose wife and children were captured by Comanches, in 1865, partly inspired John Ford’s classic film “The Searchers,” almost a century later. In the wake of the Civil War, the African-American Buffalo Soldiers were dispatched by Congress to protect Western settlers and federal land.
Morse’s portrait, which Trent shot last year for the Village Voice, appears alongside the work of other photographers in a compact but exciting new exhibit, “Black Cowboy,” at the Studio Museum in Harlem. The photos, like the very idea of a black cowboy, suggest that that many common conceptions of what an iconic American looks like are wrong. Amanda Hunt, the curator of “Black Cowboy,” describes the show as a “small-scale revisionist art history.”