Start with the TV show “Bonanza.” Lose the Ponderosa Ranch, the ten-gallon hats, the wholesome hijinks and Pa’s endless supply of cash. Add a heaping dose of institutional racism, gang warfare and black cowboys. In some ways, Walter Thompson-Hernández’s The Compton Cowboys: The New Generation of Cowboys in America’s Urban Heartland is a totally different take on the cowboy way of life, but at its heart is the recognizable hope that human goodness will triumph over inequality.
Given that the publication of Thompson-Hernández’s book is accompanied by features in the New York Times and The Atlantic, an exhibit at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia and an upcoming feature-length film called Concrete Cowboys starring Idris Elba, it’s safe to say that black cowboys are having a moment. Well, another moment. According to historians, black cowboys made up 25% of the cowboy population during the West’s early days. (No, Will Smith was not the first cowboy of color in the wild, wild West.) And though this book alludes to the tradition’s beginnings, its main concern is recent history—specifically, the story of a small group of riders in one of America’s most notorious zip codes.
Today’s Compton Cowboys are alumni of Mayisha Akbar’s Compton Jr. Posse, an equestrian program aimed at providing academic support and an alternative to gang life to low-income students in the Richland Farms area. The program has operated under Akbar’s steady hand since the 1980s, offering Compton’s youth a safe haven in the middle of a neighborhood known for its violence.
The book begins at Akbar’s retirement—a tenuous transition from her strict, formal leadership style to the more laid-back approach of her nephew, Randy Hook. Hook must navigate his move from group member to group leader while securing long-term funding and facing the challenges the group was created to combat: gang violence, poverty and the limiting effects of racism.
Thompson-Hernández’s integration of research into readable prose makes room for readers to grapple with the book’s toughest questions about bias, inequality and the future of the black cowboy tradition.