Is Anything Black About the American West?

Illustration for article titled Is Anything Black About the American West?

Reading obituaries about John Hope Franklin reminded me about a long-standing beef I have with a certain limited way of thinking about who African Americans are. For me, though, the telling biographical fact was where he was born—Oklahoma.

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In its obituary, the Raleigh News & Observer said the eminent historian “gave definition to the African-American experience.” That’s quite a legacy. A black Okie did all of that?

You see, too many African Americans—you know who you are—believe real black folks are from the South or the urban North. They’re not from the West, not Oklahoma, not Colorado—where I was born—and certainly not Hawaii, though there are exceptions made for California and L.A. I’ve been hearing it for the 30 years or so I’ve lived on the East Coast.

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This narrow-mindedness results in part, I think, from our creative imaginations of the black experience, in fiction and film, almost exclusively in the South or North. Historically, African Americans have been concentrated in the South, but major migrations have taken us not just to the North but to the West. By taking a geocentric view of blackness, we cut ourselves off from parts of our history—and even some of our heroes. With a black Hawaiian in the White House, it’s time to embrace an expansive view of the black experience in its full diversity.

For the skeptics, let’s go through the roll call of black Westerners who have made significant contributions. Ralph Ellison, whose Invisible Man is one of the best black novels of all time, was from Oklahoma. Gordon Parks, who took iconic photographs of the black experience, was born in Kansas. So, too, was Gwendolyn Brooks, the first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize. And Nebraska deserves some black cred, too: Malcolm X was born in Omaha.

The black presence on the western frontier goes back at least to the 1800s. Remember the Buffalo Soldiers? After the Civil War, they were posted at frontier forts in Kansas, Oklahoma, Arizona and Texas.

Not all black Westerners have the same story. In my case, my family rode two historic movements into the region.

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In the 1830s, my maternal great-great-great grandparents, a horse trainer and his first wife, came West, with the Cherokee Indians. They arrived in Arkansas and Oklahoma, the latter then-called Indian Territory. He was a free black from North Carolina, and she was most likely born a slave to a white-Cherokee family in Georgia.

John Hope Franklin’s family, I learned from the obits, has a similar history. His ancestors came to Oklahoma from Tennessee and Mississippi with the Chickasaw and Choctaw Indians, which, like the Cherokee, were slaveholding tribes.

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Not long ago, I learned my ancestor who trained thoroughbred racehorses was one of the original investors in Fort Scott, Kansas when the town was planned during the Civil War. It is also where Gordon Parks later grew up. His semi-autobiographical novel and film, The Learning Tree, is about a black boy growing up on the plains of Kansas, and it stands as a prominent exception to the pattern of creative works placing the African-American experience in either the urban North or the South. On my father’s side, ancestors abandoned the South after the collapse of Reconstruction. They were “Exodusters,” farmers who landed in Kansas in the 1870s. One branch trekked from Tennessee, the other from Louisiana. Their roots stretch back into Mississippi, Kentucky, North Carolina and Virginia.

I don’t think my ancestors on either side tossed their blackness off the wagon when they crossed into the wide, open spaces west of the Mississippi and north of the Mason-Dixon Line. On a basic level, you’d know it when my father waxes poetic about oxtails or admits that just hearing the words “mustard greens” makes his mouth water. Or when my mother harangues my sister about her menu for family gatherings: “If you have greens, you have got to have cornbread!”

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Kenneth J. Cooper, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, is a freelance journalist based in Boston.

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