“The society which has abolished every kind of adventure makes its own abolition the only possible adventure.” Paris, May 1968

Friday, 14 February 2014

How skiffle inadvertently told the truth about the Wild West.

Popular culture frequently distorts history, and usually presents a sanitised version of the past that fits in with the "national story" of the status quo. If you relied on the Hollywood and pulp fiction version of the American West you could be forgiven for thinking that the frontier was a peculiarly white undertaking. When I was a kid  Western films, comics and novels influenced  how we viewed "adventure" and also helped form our ideas of what it meant to be a "hero" and in this world of hard riding, fast drawing action a black face very rarely appeared.

More recently this version of the past has been challenged and we now know that as many as a quarter of old time cowboys were black. In the first half of the twentieth century the cowboy was seen as the epitome of the decency and honest self-reliance that was central to the American Dream. To admit that this square jawed hero was just as likely black would question the right to treat Afro-Americans as second class citizens so the black cowboy was airbrushed from frontier history.

At the same time that pop culture portrayed the western hero as exclusively white the black male was shown to be generally decent but dim, downtrodden and subservient. The reality was that even in the worst years of Jim Crow many blacks refused to toe the line and lived a dangerous, marginal, renegade life. There were black outlaws as well as black cowboys.

Meanwhile, in the wild east of Leyton I was graduating from practising fast draws with my Gat air pistol and starting to take an interest in music and leaning provocatively against the jukebox in the local cafe. Lonnie Donegan was popularising an up tempo version of American folk and few of us had a clue what he was singing about or about the roots of the music. Railroad Bill was a favourite and if the identity of Railroad Bill remained a mystery the idea of, "A 38 pistol on a 45 frame" sounded unbearably cool. It would be years later before I discovered that the Railroad Bill referred to was one of those black gunfighters who's very existence was denied by books and film.


Dr Llareggub said...

Also airbrushed out is the history of black armed self defence. God, when I mentioned this on the Incubone blog I was hammered and slammed as a racist. But blacks did fight and were not the passive abused non actors depicted by the left narrative.

Gary McMichael said...

Yes, and the “airbrushed” history works both ways. Blacks were not only cowboys, but doctors, lawyers, business owners, etc and the victimology of academia would have us believe blacks were confined to slaves until 1960, when the opposite is true.