At MTV News, Oakland writer Carvell Wallace travels to Elko, Nevada, for the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering and reflects on what it means to be black and American.
I think about the American government sending armies to wipe out the nations that had thrived here for millennia, warring with them for generations, committing atrocities that most Americans have never heard about in order to clear out the West so that rough-hewn men, gallant cowboys and lion-hearted ranchers, could homestead their land and claim their stake. Grow their cattle and bequeath land to their families. So they could watch life raising itself from the earth and contemplate the miracle of it all as they gazed into the heavens. And compose terse and delicate verses about how marvelous it all is.
I thought I had come to Elko to wallow in the melancholy of the cowboy poet, but really, it was just another chance to see if I could belong in my own country. And the results were inconclusive. When I walked through that lobby, nodding awkward hellos to people whose glances lingered just a little longer on me than maybe they would have otherwise, I felt foreign.
But when I sat with Flemons and Farrow and we traced the roots of cowboy music all the way back to our great-grandparents and the songs they sang, songs that they had probably learned from their parents, who would have been born into slavery, I didn’t just feel like I had a right to be here. I felt like I belonged here. Like this was my home as much as it was anyone else’s. I was reminded that people like me don’t pick up guitars and scratch out anguished rambling songs because we want to be white. We do it because we’re answering a call buried somewhere in our blood and bones. This is the music we made. This is the land we made.