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The forgotten cowboys

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CARBONDALE, Colorado ” When Allan Harris talks about this country, he sounds in love.

“This is such a beautiful experiment, this thing called America,” he said.

That’s not to say it’s perfect, he admonished. He doesn’t try to whitewash its flaws. He doesn’t attempt to rewrite history.



He only tries to present it a little more clearly.

In his show, “Cross That River,” the singer tells a story most of us haven’t heard, that of the country’s black cowboys.



“Cattle don’t care what color you are,” he said ” and that was just as true in the mid to late 1800s.

During “Cross,” he describes the time through the eyes of Blue, an escaped slave who finds a new life as a hand on a cattle drive. Though the character is fictional, the events surrounding him are real. During the height of the Western cattle industry, about 40 percent of cowpokes were black. While most people like to think of cowboys as romantic figures, maybe with harmonicas and clean jeans, their reality was unbelievably harsh. Harris painted a picture of hundreds of bovines, all smelling and mooing and excreting what you’d expect, and that was what the boys on the trail were surrounded by for months. Who on earth would do that job?

Well, someone like an ex-slave. Cattle foremen would try to add a few African Americans to each drive because they had a reputation for working hard and, on the whole, Native Americans wouldn’t mess with them. But there was something else, too. While no one wanted to be a cowboy back then, it sure beat living in slave quarters. The industry depended on those black men.

That, Harris explained, “is a tough pill to swallow” for most people raised on old Westerns and dime novels. So he likes to break it to folks in song. He tells of Blue’s life on the plantation, his running away, his world on the cattle drive, his time as an old man, and does it all to a bluesy, country beat. His show is a mixture of acting and storytelling with a musical through line. It’s a real experience, one that people are “hungry for,” he explained ” especially right now.

“I couldn’t have planned it better,” he said. “Because of the election, everyone is more open to this, more open to embrace each other.”

Harris is happy to do his part, just as he has been for the last five years. The most impressive thing, really, is not what he’s doing but why. A black man himself, he wrote this show not out of criticism of this country, but out of caring for it. People don’t want to talk about the pain of slavery and segregation and racism, but he thinks being silent about it is all wrong. That’s just embarrassment getting the better of people, he explained, and he proposed one way to correct it.

“Once you face it head-on, you start to heal each other,” he said, making it clear that America deserves no less.

He admitted the past has been rough in spots and alluded to “horrible things” having occurred. But he also talked about the greatness of this country. This is a place where everyone has opportunity, where no one is denied a fair shake, he feels. In his show, he tells the history of one segment of America’s population, but he might as well be singing about the United States’ society as a whole. That’s because, in his eyes, we’re all connected, all dependent on each other. We’re all responsible for building this country as we go.

“We are all one,” he said, “and we are the beacon of light.”

As soon as we start embracing that, he thinks the rest of the world will follow suit. He’s already noticed how much more receptive the globe seems to be after the election. The country’s current state is about more than the president-elect, though, just as Harris’ show is about more than the color of the African American cowboys’ skin. They’re both affirmations about how far this country has come, maybe how much further it can go. They both speak of the great possibilities available here.

“There is so much love and hope right now,” Harris said. “We’ve gotten back on track on what the promise of America is.”

And, like so many Americans before him, he’s not about to let that promise go to waste.

Contact Stina Sieg: 384-9111

ssieg@postindependent.com


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