Which way are you ridin', Preacher?The Preacher:
Well, that's not exactly settled in my mind yet.Buck:
Well, you got three possibilities.The Preacher:
North, south or east.The Preacher:
What happened to west?Buck:
We're going west.1
The 1972 film Buck and the Preacher tells the story of black migrants leaving the south in search of economic opportunity, self-determination, safety, and black power in the American West. Buck's (Sidney Poitier) declaration to the Preacher (Harry Belafonte) that he and his travel companions were "going west" (and implying that the Preacher should not accompany them) reads as a declaration and a provocation. As the film reveals, formerly enslaved Blacks imagined the West as a place where they could cut ties with the Old South and their former owners, and with the aid of Native Americans, establish all-black towns where they could thrive and escape Jim Crow. Blacks would go west and challenge anyone who attempted to thwart them. As a "black power" western in the revisionist tradition, Buck and the Preacher tapped into an over 100-year tradition of black performances and representations of the Black West as a site of resistance and becoming. Black communities and individuals occupied, defined, imagined, and deployed the Black West to their own ends, ever mindful that their presence in the West provided counter-narratives to the mythic Wild West [End Page 5] replete with white cowboys, pioneers, gunslingers, homesteaders, sex workers, and marauding "savage" Indians. In doing so, they not only demanded that their presence be acknowledged in Western narratives, but also critiqued the dominant white framing of the West as a utopian space for rugged individuals and frontier democracy. The cultural work performed by Buck and the Preacher and other black westerns echoed that of novels, museums, plays, paintings, photographs, nonfiction texts, and other mediums dedicated to preserving histories and articulating visions of the Black West.
In the academy, the study of the Black West has primarily included historians, many of whom are concerned with correcting narratives of Western settlement featuring cowboys, Indians, and intrepid "pioneers." Interest in black cowboys, "black Indians," black homesteaders, and the famed Buffalo Soldiers fueled historical scholarship beginning in the 1970s. Kenneth Wiggins Porter's The Negro on the American Frontier and William Loren Katz's The Black West: A Documentary and Pictorial History both appeared in 1971. A year earlier, the University of Nebraska's PBS station NET had released a four-part documentary series "The Black Frontier" that sought to place Blacks firmly in the histories of the West. Nell Irvin Painter's Exodusters: Black Migration to Kansas after Reconstruction (1976) and Robert Athearn's In Search of Canaan: Black Migration to Kansas, 1879-80 (1978) offered more critical analyses of black migration westward. Historians were not alone in paying attention to the black presence in the West in the 1970s, as the aforementioned Buck and the Preacher (a clear narrative break from John Ford's 1960 revisionist western Sergeant Rutledge) and several blaxploitation westerns—Soul Soldier (1970), The Legend of Nigger Charley (1972), and Boss Nigger (1974), to name a few—sought to place Blacks (primarily men) at the center of cinematic Westerns. Documentaries like Black Rodeo (1972), narrated by Woody Strode the star of Sergeant Rutledge, drew on black cowboy histories to explain the significance of the New York rodeo invitational.
The 1990s became the most significant decade for literary production, particularly by Black women, in the genre of western historical fiction. Writers produced reinterpretations of historical spaces, geographic migrations, and the realities of social relationships in the "new" frontier. Examples include Pearl Cleage, Toni Morrison, Jewell Parker Rhodes and others who turned their attentions westward in an attempt to reconstruct prosperous and thriving communities destroyed by white capitalism, racism, and terror. Other authors like Octavia Butler frequently positioned the west as a platform for Afrofuturism and reimagined black power.2
During this same period scholars produced multiple critical histories of blacks in the West—that is, histories that did not focus solely on including Blacks in Western historiography, but rather...