Review, Lisa K. Winkler, On the Trail of the Ancestors: A Black Cowboy's Ride Across America
One September day in 2007, a dreadlocked New Jersey schoolteacher named Miles Dean mounted his buckskin stallion, Sankofa, and rode him to Manhattan’s African Burial Ground, the earliest archaeological site related to black slavery in America. After a recognition of other black horsemen, and a brief African dedication ceremony, Dean set out to ride horseback across America. He would be the first African American to do so in over a century.
Journalist Lisa Winkler recreates Dean’s historic, and grueling, cross-country journey, using him not only as a guide for a travelogue, but also to restore lost history to its rightful American place. Winkler narrates Dean’s visits to locations associated with African American history, emphasizing the conflict at the heart of being black in this country. It seems the places dearest to black American culture are also the places of deepest conflict, shame, and fear.
Like many boys, Dean fell in love with cowboy movies on afternoon TV. He dreamed of riding herd and rounding up bad guys, but there weren’t a lot of horse paddocks in Newark, New Jersey. And, though he didn’t realize it for several years, there weren’t many black cowboys in the movies, either. That is, until Sidney Poitier in Buck and the Preacher, and Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem,” which inspired him to challenge Hollywood’s lily-white frontier.
It seems the mythic American West was far less Caucasian than many of us believe. In the heyday of the cattle drives, African Americans comprised up to a third of working cowboys. Rodeo rider Bill Pickett invented the steer-wrestling move known as “bulldogging,” but got forced from his sport by a rising tide of racism. Nat “Deadwood Dick” Love perfected the rope tricks and sharpshooting techniques that made Roy Rogers and Gene Autry rich.
Why, then, are black cowboys missing from our myths? Miles Dean could not accept this, and set out to draw attention to this gap in our knowledge. But it seems everywhere we turn, we find another place where mythology has scrubbed American history white. Many pioneering horse race jockeys, Civil War heroes, and country singers paved the way for white successors...and then vanished from history.
Dean’s itinerary calls attention to these and other forgotten heroes from American history. His audience follows his journey as he reminds them of the free blacks who took Harper’s Ferry with John Brown; the Little Rock Nine, whose simple desire to attend high school nearly caused a second Civil War; and Dr. King, whose imprint on American history has been sanitized to a mere poster boy for voting rights.
Even Dean himself learned much on his journey. For instance, the Buffalo Soldiers he memorialized, it turns out, participated in illegal land grabs from Indians who only wanted to defend themselves. The wealthy and the powerful pitted two defenseless groups against each other, and laughed while they fought over the scraps. Yet the Buffalo Soldiers had the Army’s lowest desertion rate, and both groups set new standards for gallantry in battle.
As told in Winkler’s clean, energetic prose, Miles Dean reminds Americans that we are inheritors of a beautiful, tense, and complicated heritage. We built what some call the greatest nation on earth, but we did it on the backs of slaves. We invented enduring myths that inspire not just Americans, but generations of people worldwide, and then we purged those myths of the diversity that made them possible.
Dean’s journey took him from Manhattan to Los Angeles, covering 5,000 miles across twelve states and the District of Columbia. He rode his horse through dense cities and wide-open countryside. He traversed centuries-old trails and modern highways, through forests and prairies, across bleak deserts and up mountains so steep his life was in constant peril.
And everywhere he went, young and old, black and white, raced out to greet him and his horse. Churches held dinners and civic groups sang his praises. Strangers opened their doors to him, simply because he was doing something that reminded them of their own dreams. Dean transcended boundaries of race, location, and history, by simply enacting boyhood dreams.
Miles Dean set out to recapture a piece of black history, and he did so admirably. But he does something more, too: he reminds us that America is worth something to people of all races. And if we have regions of history we’re not proud of, that doesn’t make us smaller. It just gives us higher goals and more noble dreams, and a reason to reach after them.