Ellis “Mountain Man” Harris, a 78-year-old member of the Federation of Black Cowboys wears a Stetson hat and stares coolly at the camera, lasso coiled around his right hand. A pair of dark-skinned rodeo riders roam a field, set against the ink-black sky, while a man on horseback stands in front of a mural of Malcolm X.
If you try to envision a cowboy, that stoic symbol of Western masculinity brought to life by vintage cigarette ads and old movies starring John Wayne and Marlon Brando, there’s every chance that he’ll be white. But Black Cowboy, a current exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, challenges this assumption via images that celebrate the African-Americans that have been erased from frontier history — even though an April 2016 report in The Village Voice found that they comprised 25 per cent of the 35,000 cowboys that thrived in the Wild West in the 1870s and ‘80s.
Of course, this phenomenon is deeply rooted in American culture. But the gap between this little-known reality and our fantasy of chisel-jawed white men, whose dignity and heroism shored up the country’s beliefs about what real Americans should both look and act like, has powerful echoes in Australia, too.
Here, the ANZACS, World War One soldiers whose legend epitomised mateship and resilience — qualities that went on to define national identity for generations — are enshrined in our cultural consciousness as Anglo-Australian. This overlooks the nearly 400 Indigenous Australians that also fought for the British Empire against the Germans and Turks, returning, as Paul Daley points out in a January 2014 article in The Guardian, to discover that their ancestral lands had been divided and allocated.
Around 50 years before that, the Chinese settlers who flocked to Ballarat also helped build hospitals and orphanages, went on to establish the Chinese Goldfields League in 1982 — a series of teams that (you heard right) played some of the first-ever games of AFL. Sure, the League dissolved when the White Australia Policy was introduced in 1901. But isn’t it nice to think that Australianness didn’t manifest as a barbed-wire fence between “us” and “them” but as something more malleable and expansive, even if it was for one fleeting historical second?
Culture likes us to perpetuate capital H History, the single story that the novelist Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie warns against in her famous 2016 TED Talk. But in a world in which whiteness dictates who gets to be an insider and who’s considered an outsider and far-right parties use a whitewashed past as evidence of national greatness, there’s power in acknowledging our mixed-up histories, our endlessly tangled roots.
This overlooks the nearly 400 Indigenous Australians that also fought for the British Empire against the Germans and Turks, returning... to discover that their ancestral lands had been divided and allocated.
After all, xenophobia and Islamophobia are premised on the notion that people of colour are always recent arrivals, strangers to the country’s legacies and traditions — one, it pays to remind ourselves, that’s often manufactured to spark longing for a racial purity that never really existed. As Amir Hussain points out in a January 2017 article in Religion and Politics, Muslims lived in America “more than 90 years before the pilgrims arrived and some two centuries before most of the founding fathers were born” but it’s a history that’s been “overlooked, forgotten and purposefully dismissed”.
In a January 2017 article in The New Yorker, Amanda Hunt, the curator of Black Cowboy, described the show as a “small-scale revisionist art history.” And from Wesley Enoch’s recent play Black Diggers and the work of Hego, the Sydney artist whose paste-ups of forgotten Indigenous Anzacs appear on walls in Redfern to Chinese Fortunes, an exhibition that celebrates the forgotten lives of the Chinese Australians on the Victorian goldfields at the Museum of Democracy in Ballarat, you’ll find efforts to combat erasure everywhere if you seek it out. Yes, we’ve heard stories about lone cowboys and valiant soldiers and miners flocking to the goldfields to strike it rich many times before. But, as it turns out, the stories that we think we know by heart are more expansive then we could ever believe.