Behind the Book with Keith Ryan Cartwright

The following is from the University of Nebraska Press Fall 2021 Newsletter, i.e.

Keith Ryan Cartwright is a communications specialist for the Rutherford County Board of Education in Tennessee, an adjunct professor at Middle Tennessee State University, and a journalist. He previously served as editorial director and senior writer for Professional Bull Riders Inc. His recently published book is Black Cowboys of Rodeo (Nebraska, 2021).

Black Cowboys of Rodeo: Unsung Heroes from Harlem to Hollywood and the American West, my new book from UNP, reveals how, much like Jackie Robinson and other Black athletes throughout the twentieth century, Black cowboys stood up in the face of adversity, enduring hardships and collectively breaking through many racial barriers and glass ceilings in pursuit of their sport. Through more than one hundred years’ worth of cowboy stories set against the backdrop of Reconstruction, Jim Crow, segregation, the civil rights movement, and, eventually, the integration of a racially divided country, the narratives I was fortunate enough to capture here give a vibrant, unvarnished, and comprehensive look at a seldom-documented segment of the African American experience.

In pursuit of these hidden stories, I conducted more than eight hundred hours of interviews over three years with more than 130 subjects, including African American scholars, civil rights leaders, and Black cowboys, along with the cowboys’ friends and family. Thirty-five of the thirty-eight chapters are intimate firsthand accounts.

I found many of these Black cowboys from the late 1800s and early 1900s—their stories, family members, and descendants—through social media. Facebook in particular proved to be a modern-day time capsule when it
came to uncovering their often-overlooked and mostly untold stories. More than half the book’s chapters are a direct result of meeting Black cowboys, their family members, friends, and fellow cowboys online.

As a former television producer, I began this project in spring of 2017 by doing what we would refer to as pre-production. I started by writing a logline. Just two sentences describing what I thought the story was and then
followed with a list of bullet points outlining anything I already knew along with a list of people, museums, and libraries that might prove useful. I noted anything that might relate to the subject of Black cowboys and made
a calendar of potential trips.

Not one time in this pre-production stage did I mention using social media platforms as part of my process. However, after the first of several trips I made to Texas and later Oklahoma, I began sharing photos, anecdotes, and
other short essays online from the interviews and conversations I had recorded. The more I learned, the more I posted—and I continued this practice right up through my last pre-pandemic trip to Harlem and Brooklyn.

The online comments people left (and still leave) proved to me there is an overwhelming curiosity when it comes to the subject of Black cowboys. I pressed on. Soon enough, I had Facebook friends who messaged me asking if I had heard of the LeBlanc family from Okmulgee, Oklahoma? I hadn’t. I have now, and they are a big part of the book.

The myths and legend of the American West meet the real-life struggles and triumphs of Black cowboys in this
fascinating account from journalist Cartwright. . . . This stirring history will have readers rethinking the very definition of Americana.”

Publishers Weekly, starred review

Eventually people went from sharing new info with me to asking if I had the answers to their questions. I was even bringing some of the cowboys, who had not seen one another in years, back together. My experience using social media as a primary research tool was made even better by a friendship I developed with Reginald T. Dorsey that resulted in the book’s foreword by the actor, film director, and activist Danny L. Glover.

Without all those connections, Black Cowboys of Rodeo would have been a very different book. Thanks to social media and the cooperation of so many willing participants in the research process, it became an up-close and
personal view of an important and long-overlooked narrative in American history. I’m thrilled to be able to share it with all the people I interviewed and with readers everywhere.

UNP Senior Acquisitions Editor Rob Taylor Responds:

Just as Keith writes about developing his book with the help of social media, social media also was a part of how UNP ended up as his publisher. I didn’t know Keith when he sent me a Twitter message in May 2020, complimenting UNP on a book jacket that he had seen. It was good timing because just prior to hearing from him, I’d seen a story of his on the all-Black rodeo in Harlem in 1971. I’d wondered if he had a book-length work in mind,
so when we connected, I asked him, and in fact he had nearly finished his book and was now seeking a publisher. Just a couple of weeks after hearing from him, we had signed with him to publish Black Cowboys of Rodeo.

The narratives I was fortunate enough to capture here give a vibrant, unvarnished, and
comprehensive look at a seldom documented segment of the African American experience.”

Keith Ryan Cartwright

What makes this book so special are all the cowboys who shared their stories with Keith, many for the first time in print. Among the larger-than-life characters in the book are Cleo Hearn, the first Black cowboy to professionally rope in the Rodeo Cowboy Association; Myrtis Dightman, who’s been described as the “Jackie Robinson of rodeo” after being the first Black cowboy to qualify for the National Finals Rodeo; and Tex Williams, the first Black cowboy to become a state high school rodeo championship in Texas, just to name a few. I wanted to publish Black Cowboys of Rodeo because it reveals a timely and vitally important aspect of American culture, telling that largely hidden history through the words and stories of these revolutionary Black pioneers themselves.

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