The Black Cowboy Community of Philadelphia

We’re now at the end of week two in what is currently my final quarter as an undergraduate and things are rapidly progressing. I have a lot of feelings about nearing graduation—nervous, yet relieved at the same time because, of course, I’m also quite proud of myself for making it to the end. On one hand, I’m beyond grateful that my class schedule isn’t as densely packed as some of my previous quarters, allowing me to have an easier balance between handling my responsibilities and still being able to enjoy lots of down-time. But on the other hand, I have so much down-time that I find myself easily bored. Thankfully, we’re in the age of streaming services, giving us hundreds upon hundreds of entertainment options. So over this past weekend I watched Concrete Cowboy. It’s a newly released film on Netflix about one rebellious teen’s coming-of-age after he’s sent to spend the summer with his estranged father in Philadelphia. There, he learns about (and eventually embraces) the local Black cowboy community while also navigating life in a metropolitan city as a young Black kid. It’s a star-studded cast composed of Caleb McLaughlin who plays our main character, Cole, in addition to Idris Elba who plays his father. The film also features rap-legend-turned-actor Method Man and Jharrel Jerome, known for his roles in Moonlight and When They See Us. But what impressed me the most wasn’t the star credits but rather the rich history of the Black cowboy community that the film touches upon. So, I figured that I’d talk about it today because—like myself—a lot of people have no idea there was such a thing nor how important it is to preserve parts of Black history often kept out of the history books. 

Summer Field Photo by FelixMittermeier from Pixabay Now I won’t spend a lot of time pontificating about the erasure of Black history in both academic and social institutions (because we’d be here all day if I did), but I want to spend a little time on providing background on Black cowboys of long ago. If you’re interested in a more detailed explanation on the Black cowboy figure in US history, you can read this article. In summary, the cattle community established or co-opted Spanish/Mexican territory in the 19th century, bringing along enslaved Black men to assist as ranch-hands and stable boys on the cotton and cattle forms of the Midwest. Around the 1860s when Texans joined in on the Civil War up east as a part of the Confederacy, they left their enslaved Black servants behind to tend the farms and cattle in their absence. In doing so, the enslaved servants developed skills necessary for the maintenance of the land such as cattle handling, ‘breaking’ horses, and similar tasks. Actually, at one point in the film Concrete Cowboys some of the members of the community explain to Cole why the Black cowhands were so good at ‘breaking’ horses’. According to Nessie, one of the female cowhands in the film, “People used to believe breaking a hose meant crushin’ the will of the animal, dominating ‘em, making ‘em believe that the only way it was gonna survive was to submit, right? Well, Black folks, we knew that a horse wasn’t meant to be dominated. A horse is meant to be free. Only way you can realize its true spirit, its nature, is through love” (Concrete Cowboy). So when the ranch owners returned to a larger cattle population without an effective containment structure in place and the declaration of the Emancipation Proclamation, which rendered once-enslaved Black folk free, they [white ranch-owners] felt urged to hire skilled Black Americans as paid cowhands and the rest is history. Eventually, the population of Black cowhands/cowboys grew, although they seldom received the recognition they deserved.

prairie land with bison Photo by Vlad Chețan from Pexels The cool thing about the film was that it's revealed in the closing credits that some of the characters were actually real members of the local Black cowboy community in Philadelphia. And so it becomes apparent then, for certain—if it wasn’t realized sooner—that the issues surrounding land ownership and animal maltreatment discussed in the film were genuine problems these dying communities were faced with. Most importantly, the film opens viewers’ eyes to a vast history unbeknownst to them, showing that there are hidden figures all around the world and within our country who are working slowly but surely to preserve their cultural histories. As a Black kid growing up in a farm town myself, it was fascinating to now see a film about Black people riding around on horses. It was a great eye-opening experience, one that I even shared with my mom and by the end I felt both elated and dismayed. I was elated to see such an obscure story be told on as large of a platform as Netflix and even more elated to discover that these were true stories being told, amongst some of the narrative fiction of course. But I was also dismayed to see their story because these experiences—these deeply rich Black experiences—are so far removed from my own upbringing in a farm town devoid of a large Black community (at least beyond the West side of town known as ‘the hood’). I watch films like these and it saddens me that I didn’t grow up around more of my own people or that I didn’t grow up knowing my extended family who are sprawled out in various parts of the deep South and East coast. But I always remind myself that I’m making these connections, these cultural resonations all the time in small yet significant ways by staying connected to different online Black communities, from family gatherings, and through my higher education journey in courses of the nuances of gender, race, politics, sex and sexuality and class stratification. What I’m trying to say is that although my opportunity to experience every facet of Black American culture (and eventually African and Afro-Carribean cultures) in my adolescence has long passed, I am uniquely privileged to be able to experience these things online and through the people I encounter. As I set my sights on graduate school, seeking to tackle housing inequity through interior design, I feel emboldened to face these stories anyway.

Photo by Mariam Abdel-Akher It’s an odd thing to long for or mourn something you never had but that’s sort of what happens. Nevertheless, I always come out of that feeling much prouder of who I am and of my people. Finally, I hope that through each of my articles about Black issues, I can open up about my perspective on a culture that is so often displaced, commodified, brutalized, redistributed and stripped of all authenticity for the palate of the dominant culture to all of our non-Black readers. With that being said, I conclude with resources to learn more about the Black cowboy community of Philadelphia and how you can contribute to their projects which can be found here and here. You can also read about the community’s recent progress after the film’s release here. The next time you’re looking for something to watch, be sure to check out Concrete Cowboy streaming now on Netflix while it’s still available (you know how they do us). Thanks for reading!