Originally published in Points West magazine
Black Cowboys in America: Photographer Illuminates Diversity of the American Cowboy
Story by Tessa Baker
Photos by Ivan McClellan
Ed. Note: The special exhibition explored in this article closed to the public on January 7, 2022.
In the landscape of the Old West, roots run deep for cowboys of color. Historians estimate that one out of every four cowboys was Black, but modern portrayals of the American icon rarely reflect such diversity.
“The image that we have of a cowboy is pretty universal—it’s John Wayne, it’s the Marlboro Man, it’s Buffalo Bill,” said photographer Ivan McClellan. “It’s all of these images that have sort of permeated media and permeated, I think, our subconscious.”
In his debut solo exhibition, Eight Seconds: Black Cowboys in America, McClellan illuminates the icon’s different races, cultures, and genders.
“It’s not my goal at all to replace the image of the white cowboy,” McClellan said.
“I think it’s exactly the way it should be, and I think that it has a lot of honor and a lot of esteem behind it. I just want people to know that that’s not the end of the story.”
By digging a little deeper, you find rich interpretations of the archetype and an expansive culture, he said.
To elevate the stories of cowboys and cowgirls of color, McClellan created the Eight Seconds project, with the support and encouragement of his wife, Heather. As he shared his stunning photographs, McClellan gained a strong following online and caught the attention of major western brands, such as Wrangler, as well as galleries and museums.
While his work has been displayed across the country, the Buffalo Bill Center of the West is the first to host a solo exhibition featuring McClellan’s images. Displayed in the Center’s Duncan Special Exhibition Gallery, the show runs opened May 7, 2021, and runs through January 7, 2022.
It’s fitting to debut the exhibition in Cody, Wyoming.
“We love our rodeo. We call ourselves the ‘Rodeo Capital of the World,’ but many of us, especially visitors, know little about the rodeo of the country and the world,” said Rebecca West, the Center’s Executive Director and CEO. “And this is what we’re trying to do, is to show another aspect.”
‘A Transformative Moment’
McClellan attended his first Black rodeo in 2015, discovering a world that left him captivated.
The photojournalist calls that sweltering August day in Oklahoma “a transformative moment.” For McClellan, a native of Kansas City, Kansas, the experience shifted the narrative of his home “from a place of poverty and violence to one of ownership and pride.”
While people of color are often presented as “victims, criminals, rappers, or athletes” in media portrayals, McClellan said he realized that “I come from a place where Black folks work the land, tend to animals, rope, ride horses, and identify as cowboys.”
Since that 2015 event, he’s traveled from his home in Portland, Oregon, to rodeos in Texas, Arizona, and elsewhere.
He sees rodeo as an extension of a culture and way of life.
“Rodeo is kind of like church—churches are, intentionally or not, very tribal,” McClellan said. “You have white churches, you have Black churches, you have Greek Orthodox churches, you have Mexican churches. They’re very centered around the culture.”
Each rodeo is a distinctive event, reflecting the cowboys’ culture.
“At a Black rodeo, you’ll hear tons of hip hop, you’ll see the Pan-African flag flown and waved,” he said. “You’ll see long acrylic nails, you’ll see guys riding their horses in Jordans. It’s just extremely different than what you’re kind of used to.”
McClellan’s rodeo images bring him joy, taking him back to moments he cherishes and people he’s befriended.
“It’s just a delight. That’s the thing that I want people to get out of [the exhibition], is that delight and that joy,” he said. “And then, you know, I’m just hoping that people start to question their perceptions about things.”
Eight Seconds spotlights the visual impact of McClellan’s images, West said, accompanied by his written words.
“Our new mission statement is: ‘Connecting people to the stories of the American West,’ and his stories that go with the photographs are very strong,” she said.
Interpretive elements also explore people’s perceptions of cowboys and rodeo.
“Not so much [to] challenge them to change that, but at least to have them consider that it might be very different in terms of race, gender, culture, and ethnicities than they might have thought before,” West said.
Under the Center’s strategic plan, it strives to provide diverse content and reach different audiences, she said.
The show also includes images by Ken Blackbird of Cody, highlighting a Native photographer’s view on Native rodeo.
“This just opens a whole new world to people’s vision of the cowboy,” West said.
For McClellan, the cowboys and cowgirls he photographs are more than subjects existing for a moment in his camera’s lens — they’re people he cares about and stays in touch with, long after a rodeo wraps
“I started going to individuals’ ranches and houses, and riding with people and getting to know them more intimately, doing multiple shoots over a period of time with folks,” he said. “I’m really getting embedded in these communities in a more significant way.”
One of the cowboys he’s gotten to know is legendary bull rider Charles “Charlie’ Sampson. In 1982, Sampson won the bull riding championship, becoming the first African American to win a world title in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association.
Like bull rider Myrtis Dightman, who broke the color barrier at the National Finals Rodeo in 1964, Sampson has been compared to Jackie Robinson, as the two cowboys faced challenges similar to the baseball legend.
Despite numerous injuries—including breaking every bone in his face except his nose during a rodeo in front of former President Ronald Reagan—Sampson has carried on. At the age of 63, he’s still competing, now as a team roper.
People ask why more Black cowboys and cowgirls haven’t competed in the PRCA or made it to the NFR.
“We’re in 2021, and there’s never been a Black female barrel racer who’s competed in the National Finals Rodeo,” McClellan said.
It’s largely owing to a lack of sponsorships and resources, he said.
“To compete in pro rodeo, it’s super expensive,” McClellan said.
A good horse costs thousands of dollars, then there’s a truck, trailer, barn, arena, and pasture, plus rodeo entry fees and travel costs, as well as housing.
“And you have to do that with no job, because you’re traveling the majority of the year,” McClellan said.
Athletes must have tens of thousands in cash, and the only way to get that kind of money is through sponsors, who “haven’t traditionally worked with Black folks or made that a priority,” he said.
But things are changing.
Since McClellan photographed his first Black rodeo, he has seen the culture shift.
“When I started this five years ago, nobody was interested in my photos, let alone brands, because it was just too exotic,” McClellan said.
“It really took until last year with the unrest around George Floyd and Breonna Taylor for a lot of brands to start to pay attention.”
While he’s glad to partner with brands to create work spotlighting cowboys and cowgirls of color, “I’m really devastated that it took what it took to get there.”
Businesses have recognized they need to create a more varied image for their brand for financial survival, he said.
“I think that it’s a long time coming, and I’ve seen brands be really convicted and really committed to changing and telling a different story,” he said.
For rodeo competitors, it may lead to more sponsorships and opportunities. McClellan has seen several people he’s worked with go on and get sponsorships out of their photo shoots.
“That’s going to start to transform that entire rodeo landscape,” he said.
About the author
Tessa Baker is a freelance writer with 15 years of experience in journalism. She lives in Powell, Wyoming, and enjoys everyday adventures with her husband and 2-year-old son.