Arts, Culture & Entertainment

The Compton Cowboys redress the mythical American west

Many of the first cowboys were Black, and these young equestrians honor the presence of Black culture within an erased history.

People on horses putting their fists in the air

Beyoncé opened the 94th annual Academy Awards with a streamed performance of her song “Be Alive” from the film King Richard. The performance opened with an aerial shot of the two actresses who portrayed Serena and Venus Williams in the film leading a line of young Black people down the streets of Compton, with one striding in on horseback.

What you may have missed was that these weren’t just any models for Beyoncé's latest IVY Park collection, they were the Compton Junior Equestrians, a subgroup of the Compton Cowboys.

Owner Randall Hook, aka Randy Savvy, and his associates stroll down the streets of Compton on horseback with some of their horses flaunting the word “Compton” shaved into their coats in the organization’s iconic script. This image in your mind may feel foreign—detached from the John Waynes and Clint Eastwoods etched into the common depiction of the old western cowboy. But many of the first cowboys were Black.

The Compton Cowboys directly combat the sentiment that Black people don’t fit into the vision of what a cowboy looks like. Some of their young equestrians compete in rodeo circuits, some event in English-style shows, and others want to manage their own ranch; the group nurtures all of these goals. All while highlighting the rich history of Black horsemanship, the group establishes a second home for Compton youth to stay out of trouble and be immersed in a unique and gratifying culture.

In the documentary short film “Keiara” directed by Floyd Russ, Keiara Wade, who is part of the Compton Cowboys leadership “gang,” remarks that “when you really become one with your horse, you can just keep on going after what you want.” Connecting Black people to a practice that spans centuries does more than ‘gets them off the streets,’ but fills the cavity of generational trauma. After losing her brother to violence and finding a home with the Compton Cowboys, Wade declares, “now I have the strength to walk through this neighborhood within the chaos.”

Just as the Compton Cowboys have forged a home for Compton youth, they have done so for their horses.

“We want to find horses and take care of them. When we first get the horses, some of them, they out there starving. But we feed them, take them in,” the voiceover says. The Compton Cowboys find strength in community—a community of humans and horses alike.

The Compton Cowboys would not exist, however, without Mayisha Akbar. After moving her family to Richland Farms, a rural town in Compton, California, she decided to start the Compton Jr. Posse to teach local kids how to ride as a modem of mentorship and to continue the country spirit of her ancestors from the American South. Some of those very kids started a new group with the same ethos, and in 2017, the Compton Cowboys were born.

While the cowboy lifestyle stakes its roots in Texas since Spanish colonization in the 1500s, the cultural phenomenon did not gain its popularity within the American narrative until the 19th century—the same time enslaved people were gaining quasi-freedom. During the Civil War, many enslaved people had to maintain their owners’ cattle ranches while they were away. Then, once the war ended, many of these cowboys started out as cattle-raisers on their own; for many, being a cowboy was a way to reclaim autonomy and agency for their lives through this arduous line of work. And yet this legacy is widely unknown.

Popular conceptions of history have written out the existence of Black cowboys along with the Native American cattle-raisers and Mexican vaqueros who taught them. While many historians estimate that 1 in 4 cowboys was Black, Larry Callies, founder of the Black Cowboy Museum in Rosenberg, Texas, believes there were many more. He recounts in his interview with the Guardian that when officials came to do the census, the white ranch owners would “hide about 30 to 40 Black cowboys in the woods because they didn’t want to pay taxes.”

Although the western genre was popular in literature since the advent of the cattle-herding industry, western film and television enshrined the homogeneity of the Wild West within popular culture. Yet, this image grossly obscures the prevalence of Black people in American Western history. Many firmly believe that the “Lone Ranger” character was inspired by Black cowboy Bass Reeves, a 19th-century enslaved man who eventually became a legendary U.S. Marshall once Native American cattle-raisers taught him how to be a horseman. Callies remarks, “they would not accept him [Bass Reeves] as a Black man, so they put a Black mask on a white man,” and the Lone Ranger was born.

This erasure of Black men and women riding horses aligns with the broader tradition of American history to write out the presence and impact of people of color in curating the spirit of American history. The Compton Cowboys, along with many other programs across the U.S. including Urban Cowgirl Ranch (run by horsewoman Brianna Noble, the first documented rider to join the Black Lives Matter protest), strive to improve the visibility of Black horse-riding culture and increase the accessibility of the discipline for Black youth in urban environments.

Featuring these young Black equestrians at the Oscars, one of the largest entertainment ceremonies in the country, not only gives wind to the organization’s goals of being trailblazers within the entertainment industry but also spotlights an aspect of Black American history that has been widely erased from popular knowledge. And it does so through the very medium that erased them.

This revisionist movement to put visuals of Black western culture at the forefront of entertainment is surely taking the industry by storm. Renowned rapper and producer Kendrick Lamar wore metallic patchwork cowboy boots for his surprise appearance at Coachella, featuring a Compton Cowboys logo patch on the right boot. Netflix’s 2021 American Western film “The Harder They Fall” stars an all-Black principal cast, with the main character being Nat Love, a real-life Black cowboy of the Old West. Amanda Hunt’s exhibit “Black Cowboy” at the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York ran through April of 2017 featured photographs from artists like Ron Tarver and Deanna Lawson depicting Black cowboys trotting down city streets. These are only a few examples of the broader drive to unravel the narrative that Black people riding horses is bizarre and historically incorrect.

Groups like the Compton Cowboys are so important because they are riding the pulse of an American history that is just as much Black as it is anything else. Holding their ground in Compton has not only made Richland Farms a physical space to empower Compton youth but imbues in them a sense of strength fortified by the camaraderie of a 1,000-pound companion.