Art & Design & Photography

Thousands of Black cowboys

Ivan McClellan

I was born and raised in Kansas City, Kansas. Our house sat on 5 acres of land in the middle of the city. In the field behind the house I would spend my summers picking blackberries, climbing trees, and catching fireflies with my sister. On the street in front of our home, we would avoid gangs, police, and all forms of trouble.

I grew up, moved away and started a career as a photographer and designer. As I advanced and got promoted, I was surrounded by fewer and fewer black people. I developed a case of imposter syndrome, feeling like I didn’t belong and would be discovered as a fraud. One day I was at a party, and the only other black person there came up and introduced himself. His name was Charles Perry, and he told me he was working on a documentary about Black cowboys. I chuckled, assuming he was kidding. I had seen black cowboys on TV and in movies, but they were always a joke, like Sheriff Bart in Blazing Saddles. He invited me to come to a Black rodeo in Oklahoma that summer to see for myself. I said sure, it was an opportunity to be around black people and get away from my desk job.

I showed up at the rodeo arena on a 105° day in August and was stunned to see thousands of Black cowboys. There were young men with braids, gold chains, and Jordans riding horses. I saw women bedazzled from head to toe racing quarter horses at 40 miles per hour. Everyone there was kind and willing to share a story and let me take their photo. I met a man named Robert Criff. I asked him where he was from, and he said Kansas City, Kansas. As we talked, I realized he lived on the other side of the 5-acre field from where I grew up. He told me that many of the people at the rodeo travel from Kansas City every year for their family reunions. In this chance encounter, I found a part of my culture I knew nothing about. It changed my definition of home from a place of pain and poverty to a place of pride, grit, and independence.

This began a seven-year journey that has taken me across the country and introduced me to lifelong friends. From rodeos to ranches, I’ve documented the lives of these extraordinary people. This work has shed light on Black cowboy culture, elevating their stories in popular media. I do this work not only to disrupt perceptions but to celebrate this newly found part of my identity.