By Ivan McClellan
I moved from Kansas City, Kansas to Portland, Oregon, to pursue a career as a designer and photographer. I found myself working mostly in tech in front of a computer 12 hours a day. Rarely did I encounter other black folks, and for the first time in my life, I felt racially isolated. One day at a party, Charles Perry, a filmmaker friend of mine, told me about a documentary he was working on about black cowboys. I didn't know anything about that culture, so he invited me to go with him to a rodeo in Okmulgee, Oklahoma. I quickly said yes and sat excited for the next few months anticipating the event.
When I showed up at my first all-black rodeo, I was stunned by the energy and vibrance on display. There were thousands of black cowboys and cowgirls sitting outside of their glistening white horse trailers. Young men loped their horses wearing basketball shorts, tank tops, cornrow braids, chains, and boots. They were ribbing each other and hitting on women. The women, bedazzled and fringed from head to toe, hosed their barrel racing horses down to keep them cool in the 105-degree heat. And old-timers with white button-downs so starched that they crunched when they bent their arms sat stoically atop their horses observing the rodeo grounds. Their precise straw hats kept them cool, and their pinkie rings glinted when they hit the sun.
It was a party atmosphere. Gospel, country, and hip-hop blared from the trailers as several cowboys did the cupid shuffle, their boots kicking up dust. A cloud of barbeque smoke floated through the air, enticing people to massive grills full of ribs, brisket, and chicken.
I walked around, introducing myself to people and asking to take their picture. Everyone was eager to share their story and a beer. I met a cowboy named Robert Criff and his beautiful horse Summertime, a blonde Tennessee Walker. He offered me bottled water, which I desperately needed because my shirt was see-through from sweat. His cracked face was bone dry; in fact, nobody at the rodeo seemed to be sweating except for me.
Robert was wearing a Kansas City Royals hat, so I asked him what part of the city he was from. Turns out, he lived on the other side of the 5-acre field behind the house where I grew up. Robert knew my grandma, he knew my pastor, we went to the same high school. In fact, he told me that half of the people there were from Kansas City and come down every year for their family reunions. I was shocked! Black cowboys had been in my backyard, and I knew nothing about them.
I photographed the event with glee. I took thousands of photos, and when I got home to edit them, I was blown away by all the color and vivacity that I'd captured. If I'm feeling separated from the culture, I flip through the photos and am taken back to that day's energy. When I go back to Kansas City, I visit Robert and his riding club Down to Earth Riders. My home has been transformed into a place where black cowboys are from.
Ivan McClellan is a photojournalist and designer based in Portland, Oregon. His work has been displayed in museums and galleries across the country including the Oklahoma Contemporary, B.J. Spoke Gallery, ilon Art Gallery, and The New York Center for Photographic Art.