Essay by Courtney Reid-Eaton

Essay | Courtney Reid-Eaton

Like many people of my generation (b. 1958), I grew up watching Westerns; Bonanza, Gunsmoke, The Big Valley, The Virginian, The Magnificent Seven, The Good, The Bad and The UglyTrue Grit, One Eyed Jacks…I could go on and on. No Black cowboys there. But in reality, they werethere and they remain there still. 

There are so many stereotypes about who we, as people of the African Diaspora in America, are and are not.

I ‘m from the urban east coast. My first elementary school, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, was across the street from the Claremont Riding Academy, a stable and riding school. My mom mentioned having taken lessons there as a girl, but I never saw her ride. 

New York City has had mounted police since the mid 19thcentury and I’ve seen a few Black mounted officers in my day, but none held the mythical, magical power of a “Black Cowboy” (or girl). Yes, I have a surface knowledge of the “Buffalo Soldiers,” but they’re historic. The opening shots of Half Past Autumn, with Gordon Parks cantering through Kansas grasses, reinforced his “specialness” rather than illustrate a culture of Black people on horseback. 

Louisiana Trail Riders crossed my desk as an entrant to the 2016 Center for Documentary Studies Documentary Essay Prize in Photography. I was moved by how comfortable the folks in these images seem; with their horses, in their bodies, and with the camera. Several generations. Black men, women, and children celebrating a part of their rich culture. A beautiful unfolding of story and witness, Jeremiah Ariaz has frozen intimate details of mastery and the bonds of relationship—human to human to horse to landscape. Fathers and sons in one saddle, teaching and learning a legacy; a young couple rides their single mount bareback—her with a shy/sly downward glance, him with a strong, direct gaze. There are horse-shoes and cell phones; cowboy hats and baseball caps; big silver buckles and sagging jeans; boots and flipflops; guitars and a turntable. Beautiful men and badass women—and horses. This isn’t about working or Rodeo riding, this is about tradition, a slice of life, of deep culture. This isn’t nostalgia, it’s real and now. It’s the mixture of romance and real that makes this work sing to me.

That Ariaz is able to hold so many tensions in these evocative black and white images, though he is not part of this culture, is a testament to his gifts as an artist and a human being.

--Courtney Reid-Eaton, Exhibitions Director Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University