With the release of films such as The Harder They Fall and the new Ivy Park Clothing line, there is a resurgence of fascination with black cowboy culture. However, few may be aware of the actual lifestyle of the black cowboy, particularly of a black cowboy in the city. We sat down with Aaron Baxter, a black cowboy from Chicago to learn more about the reality of cowboy culture.
Chante’ Gamby (CG): How did you get started in this work?
Aaron Baxter (AB): Black Cowboys were the first ones to introduce it to me at the age of one. They told me to keep watching rodeos and westerns if I wanted to keep up with the cowboy culture and I did. My favorite part of the rodeos ended up being bull-riding. My mom would take me to the bull riding championships in Vegas. Those professional bull riders were my Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. Meeting them let me know that I could participate. It’s not a special club, you just gotta want to participate. I didn’t get the opportunity until I was twenty-one, but when I did, I went to my first bull riding school and that was the beginning of my career.
CG: What is cowboy culture? Do you see any connection to black culture within it?
Aaron Baxter (AB): I feel like there are two different strands of cowboy culture. There’s the Hollywood romanticized version and then there’s the cowboy. They are synonymous but there’s a grandeur to the Hollywood cowboy, which is present in truth, but not. It’s more prevalent in our culture than we really know, coming from this city. In black culture, there is just as much importance in agriculture and farming. It is much larger in our culture than we really know coming from Chicago. To me, it is an essential strand. The term [cowboy] alone was most likely given to a black boy first.
CG: Where did you learn all of this history?
Aaron Baxter (AB): I just got enthralled in everything about being a cowboy. I loved horses and cowboys and had the most fun with horses. Riding an English saddle is nice and graceful, but being a cowboy just looks fun. That’s what really got me hooked. It’s a way of life to be involved with the land and the animals. It is almost the story of life. You can seek the history out if you love it. Cowboys can’t help but tell tall tales.
CG: Who first put you in the saddle?
Aaron Baxter (AB): The first cowboy to put me in the saddle was Art Reed who had a horse named Buttermilk at the Southside Cultural Center. I was his guinea pig to help get other kids comfortable with riding a horse. I was also introduced to it through Stoney Burke, a postal worker who also rode with the Buffalo Soldiers.
CG: What would you say to anyone who has an interest in the lifestyle, but may not know where to start?
Aaron Baxter (AB): You can get started with finding any black cowboys. For the most part, cowboys like to extend their knowledge and share their passions. I offer horseback lessons and teach others how to deal with our four-legged friends.
CG: How do people find out about black-owned ranches?
Aaron Baxter (AB): There are black-owned ranches, but there is scarcity in the privately owned horses. Timberland Ranch is owned by Keith Gill, they can keep about 40-50 horses on the property. He is one of the few black-owned ranches that can sustain a business like that.
CG: How can everyday folks support the black boy cowboy or even help expand that ranch capacity?
Aaron Baxter (AB): If folks are interested, then pull it together. For years, we have had multiple entities within our communities fight for stable space in the city. And there’s always some give, but there’s never the push. Wherever I am in the city and I have my hat and my boots on, I have seventy-five percent of folks being intrigued or having an interest in pursuing it, but never do it themselves, and twenty-five percent cracking jokes. If there was enough of a sightline to see that we want to extend ourselves to the community and the community extend themselves to us there may be a more pull to actually make something happen.
CG: So, there would need to be more of a push than just the fascination?
Aaron Baxter (AB): Exactly, people see the cowboy as a person who rides horseback state to state to get revenge for their brother. They don’t see that cowboys get up every day for a job that nine times out of ten, depending on what you are doing on your land, are getting paid once per year, not every two weeks. They live a life that is unseen but used by all. It’s quite important to put that understanding out there-it is deeper than riding horses and doing rodeos. There have groups on Facebook that would argue whether I am a cowboy because I work at full-time at a school and don’t go back to the farm.
CG: So, there is even that idea of not being cowboy enough within the community.
Aaron Baxter (AB): Yeah, definitely.
CG: How do you feel about the Hollywood portrayal of black cowboys recently?
Aaron Baxter (AB): I feel like it’s a mix of both positive and negative. The negative impact is the horse market. Now it is much more expensive to get a horse. But it also exposes people to black cowboys. There’s still that dividing line of truth. Even with the movie The Harder They Fall. The movie puts Bill Picket in a role that he actually wasn’t in being a gunslinging adventurer of the west-he actually created a discipline of rodeo competition. It’s just that dividing line. It’s just important to truly dive into it that’s important in anybody’s field.
CG: What’s next for you?
Aaron Baxter (AB): I’m looking to continue riding bulls until my body tells me no., I like rodeos so I plan to continue that. My entire life, I have always had some representation of a black cowboy because I dove in, but there is still that backdoor disappointment that I am the first black cowboy that anybody met.
CG: If you could leave us with one lesson from the cowboy lifestyle, what would you say to folks?
Aaron Baxter (AB): Work hard and fight to be yourself every day. Becoming a cowboy has been a journey of self-discovery. If you fall off a horse, if it matters to you, you’re gonna get back up. Eventually, if you keep riding that horse., you’ll end up with a partner for life. The most valuable lesson of it is to work hard to be yourself. It’s so many different levels of it, if you just fight to be yourself., you are being a cowboy in essence.
CG: How can folks connect with you?
Aaron Baxter (AB): They can message me on Facebook/Instagram:@xearo_nitti1 Facebook: Aaron Baxter-the only black cowboy you’ll see there.
Chante’ Gamby is a writer passionate about social justice and empowering others to live their healthiest lives. You can follow her on Facebook at Fringefam, Instagram@fringegram, or on her website, www.fringefam.com.