Cowboy Snippets: Sam Omatseye in The Nation

As I said, I am currently interested in all things Westerns, cowboys and Nigeria in order to make sense of paintings of cowboys at the back of lorries. Here's one more snippet I found. This is Sam Omatseye writing in The Nation on 25 April 2016.

As a boy, I was a fan of the western, or what we know here as the cowboy drama or movie. I did not only watch their heroics, I played them. I was Michael Landon who played Little Joe in the Family Cartwright show called Bonanza. Dan Blocker was too fat and impetuous for me. Lorne Greene was too old and hoary. When I didn’t play Little Joe, I eased into the equine razzle-dazzle of Buffalo Bill, Jr, starring Dick Jones.
I also gathered their picture cards attached to every chewing gum item I bought. I did not only admire the dynamics on screen, I also loved their names, including those I never saw on screen, like Bob Big Boy Williams. They spun tales of the west, of the good guys versus the bad, of horse ride fights, bull fights, gunfights on plains and craggy highlands, of bar brawls and chivalry. They had guns, rode horses and, lasso in hand, controlled a herd of cattle. Their fashion fascinated me. Their hats with the wide, floppy rims; their bandana, the boots, their tops that came across as a cross between a soldier and civilian attire. The good guys were often winsome like Little Joe.
I loved their confidence. The cowboy was debonair before he felled his foe. So, you saw him as a noble figure.  The Indians were for the most part the bad guys, hooting, tactless, ungainly, their faces tarred, dark and ugly and inevitably doomed.
The image lingered in me for years even after I stopped watching the westerns. It was at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife when I studied American history under Professor Richard Olaniyan that I came to understand that I was fed a myth by Hollywood. The story of the cowboy as hero and vanguard of high values was part of the American tendency to romanticise the past. I began to repaint the Indian in my consciousness and asked their forgiveness. I learned of President Andrew Jackson, who drew a trail of tears with the slaughter of Indians. His face is being replaced by Harriet Tubman, a black abolitionist, as part of the American quest to restore truth to history.  From my studies, I knew that the cowboy was only a little different from the Fulani herdsman.

By the way, I was a little surprised how popularly Bonanza features in the few personal recollections of Nigerians watching American Westerns I have found so far. I guess that means I shouldn't underestimate the significance of the TV in shaping at least middle class (I know, I know the terms isn't particularly exacting when applied outside of European contexts but, pls., forgive my using it as a shorthand here) experiences of 'the cowboy.' It's also rather fascinating because I suddenly remember how prominently this very series also featured in my childhood TV viewing. World's a village, no?


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