Black Cowboys, Weird Westerns, and Hoodoo

I’ve been kicking around some ideas for a weird western comic about Black cowboys and hoodoo. I love a good weird western—they combine some elements from westerns, dark fantasy, and horror I love best: harsh environments, the occult or the fantastic, notions of the uncharted, whether geographically or conceptually. While I can name plenty of both westerns and weird westerns, not a whole lot of them seem concerned with Black folks and, by virtue of that focus, an interest in our occult traditions.

Yes, there’s Ishmael Reed’s Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, which is fantastic, but I would love to know more. It’s so odd, yet not unexplainable, more doesn’t exist, especially when you find out that about a quarter of all cowboys, in the American West, were Black. Bass Reeves, a US Marshall known for hunting down bounties and hauling them to jail, is perhaps the most well known of these figures but there are so many more whose amazing stories deserve to be known.

Mary Fields, also known as Stagecoach Mary or Black Mary, was the first Black woman to become a star-route mail carrier. This essentially meant she placed bids to carry mail through disconnected and often dangerous territory. Bill Pickett served as the progenitor of the rodeo tricks you can see in stadiums across the western US states. Henry Ossian Flipper was a Buffalo Soldier who spent time in the Comanche Wars and other conflicts in which the US government oppressed indigenous peoples.

The Great Migration occurred after the Civil War, bringing Black folks from the South to other parts of the country. That migration spread hoodoo, the syncretic result of West African spiritual practices and Christianity, throughout the United States. A lot of the historical spotlight has been on northern and mid-western cities such as New York and Chicago. It’s quite easy to find research and ephemera about rootwork practices in those cities and the ways they developed after this influx of southern Black folks. But the research and other materials available indicate a large chunk of those folks definitely went west. Many fled to start their own freedmens’ towns, such as Blackdom, New Mexico or Allensworth, California.

These facts aren’t quite reflected in the American imagination, which feels like an opportunity with potential issues. On the one hand, it’s a genre that could benefit from more voices of those interested in that history. One other other, its troubling I can’t find anything on the history of hoodoo out west, which speaks to a history that’s been overshadowed by American ideals and revisionism (it’s crazy to me that the critical westerns are considered revisionist). Then again, that’s the allure of the weird western for me. It begins with a broader epistemic by attaching the fantastic as an integral plot element.