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Opinion | Learning About Freedom at a Black Rodeo

A Black rodeo sounds like a good time at any time, but this is a particular moment in Portland’s near history. The city was a staging area for Black Lives Matter protests. That surprised a lot of people. For many years, Portland held the distinction of being the whitest big city in the United States. From its inception, Oregon had laws that restricted the number of Black people within its borders.

When a state starts with a constitutional imperative geared to making it whites-only, whiteness is the nucleus of everyday life. It is in the culture, the politics, the economics. Over time, Portland’s demographics are changing. Eventually, the long-overdue bill for its founding principles came due.

In the historical scope, it makes sense why protracted conflict marred this city. It is less obvious what a Juneteenth celebration would mean for Portland. The city does not have Texas’ history with enslaved people. It does not have the cultural history of the American South. And it is not a central part of the Great Migration story of Black history.

The Portland rodeo is a celebration trying to fasten Juneteenth’s specific story of freedom from slavery to universal themes of place, home and equality. Now that Juneteenth is a federal holiday, communities across the country are doing the same complicated dance. This nation still has not fully acknowledged its national debt to slavery. How can it find a unifying national message around Black freedom without acknowledging white accommodation of slavery? A rodeo is as good a way to explore those tensions as any other. Like a rider wrestling a bull beneath bright lights, reconciling national narratives is not a pastime for the faint of heart.

When the photographer Ivan McClellan announced that he was planning the first Black rodeo — the Eight Seconds Juneteenth Rodeo — in Portland for this past Sunday, I was compelled to see it with my own eyes.

McClellan is a photographer from Kansas City, Kan., who has been documenting Black cowboy, cowgirl and Western culture for a decade. I have been following for half that long. Traditional Western imagery is full of expansive landscapes, exciting action shots of rodeo life and expressive portraits. McClellan’s work has all of that. But because his subjects are Black, his work also has a depth of narrative contrast — a sense of the unexpected — that makes for evocative sociological tapestries.

The men and women in his photos look as at home in urban settings (which he also shoots) as they do on ranches and trails. As a viewer, you have to wonder if there is something preternaturally citified about young Black people or if you have internalized the idea that there are limited ways to be Black.

Then there is the land. Many of McClellan’s portraits juxtapose Black Western figures against beautiful, harsh landscapes. Staring into them, past the beauty, brings up questions about dispossession and migration and labor. “Whose land is this?” I often wonder when staring into one of his shots.

That is a complicated question to ask about anywhere in the United States. Portland is no exception. Its reputation is, in a word, crunchy. This is Seattle’s cooler little sister. It’s a liberal, bike-loving, nature-centric, casual city on a river. You can still see scars from Black Lives Matter and police protests along the downtown district — boarded windows of a small business, still operating, but not yet cleaned up.

Juneteenth is a cultural celebration of enslaved African men, women and children surviving white fascist rule in a foreign land. The official story is more linear but at its core Juneteenth is nonlinear, a ritual for Black people — wherever they find themselves — in need of a ritual to mark the thin veil between life and death, freedom and enslavement, time and space. The Emancipation Proclamation ended some forms of slavery for a limited number of African Americans in 1863 and was directed at the enslaved in Confederate states. Juneteenth commemorates the day in 1865 when enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, were informed of the Civil War’s end and their newfound freedom. It became symbolic of the slow, uneven compromises of the Civil War, and later, Reconstruction.

For many generations, Juneteenth was a regional cultural celebration that expanded as Black people migrated. It took on the cultural practices of different families, different regions, different branches of Black history. Fairly constant was the idea that Juneteenth was about celebrating what had been verboten for enslaved ancestors — family, levity, rest and ritual. Juneteenths I have participated in over the years have felt like family reunions. When President Biden made Juneteenth a federal holiday in 2021, my first question was similar to the one I had when I arrived in Portland: What happens to the family reunion when it stops being for family?

Whose land? Whose family? Why here and why now? The Eight Seconds Juneteenth Rodeo organizers thought a lot about those questions. Vince Jones-Dixon is a city councilor from Gresham, a nearby suburb of Portland. He has been holding a grass-roots Juneteenth celebration in the area for four years. This year he approached McClellan about bringing their interests together. Jones-Dixon wants Black Portlanders to see a version of themselves in a rodeo that is fun but that also makes them proud.

Like every story about enslavement and the American West, you cannot talk about Juneteenth in Portland without talking about land. “Ivan very intentionally had the rodeo here at the Expo Center,” Oregon State Senator Lew Frederick said. The Expo Center is near Vanport, a formerly Black working-class enclave built around the shipping industry in the 1940s. A massive storm, followed by flooding, wiped Vanport off the map in 1948. Frederick says there remains a notion among Black Portlanders that the flooding was a convenient excuse for displacing the city’s thriving Black enclave.

Having the rodeo near Vanport is a way of saying that this is an event for you, for us. And that we remember. For State Senator Frederick, Juneteenth is not only about commemorating news of freedom for Galveston’s enslaved people. It is also about remembering in places where a lot of effort has been made to forget. “That’s what Juneteenth is managing, to tell the history that we have not been told. So it can be told in an Oregonian way.”

DJ O.G. One, the official D.J. for the Portland Trailblazers, was tasked with giving Portland’s first Black rodeo a vibe. As a student of cultural practices in country, R&B and soul music, I wonder just how he intends to do all of that while also keeping the people’s mind on freedom. As Jones-Dixon told me earlier, the cowboys want country and the crowd wants hip-hop and soul music. “In Portland, we don’t have one sound. We are a mix. That’s what makes this a Portland rodeo, not a Southern rodeo.”

A Portland rodeo has to figure out how to talk about freedom within a statethat wrote the enslaved out of the narrative entirely. It also has to create a vibe from a cultural mélange that prides itself on being unclassifiable. And it has to be Black — in culture and in tone — even as Juneteenth is being universalized to be legible. Narratives begin with the pageantry. At a rodeo, the pageantry begins at the back end of a horse.

That is where I stand. More specifically, I stand at the chute where the horses and bulls enter the rodeo arena, as the show begins. Two young Black women casually mount their large white horses with flags in tow. London Gladney carries a Pan-African flag in red, black and green. Amorah Lindsey carries an American flag. Jones-Dixon tells the crowd to stand, men to remove their hats and all to place hands over hearts for the singing of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” known as the Negro national anthem, written in 1900.

Everyone I can see complies. A woman strides to the center of the rodeo and belts out the first two verses. A white horse emerges from the chute, red, black and green flag flying behind a 10-year-old cowgirl. They prance and skid to a halt, a skill that I learn is highly prized in rodeo. As the singer offers the final line, the girl and the horse take off at a gallop, timed perfectly. The crowd erupts.

“That’s a Black rodeo,” the cowboy standing next to me says proudly as we clap.

Throughout the night, the M.C. gently instructs the audience on what the events mean. There is a fair amount of education to get everyone up to speed on when a bull has been well wrestled or a horse skillfully pranced. The real memory work is happening in the crowd. The rodeo is a piece of living art. How the audience interacts with it says as much about how they feel seen in the tableau as anything the organizers could have orchestrated.

Walking around the hall, talking to attendees, I find that people are not talking about freedom as much as they are talking about pride. Even as I press people about the history of Juneteenth, they are more interested in what this all means now, today. “It’s so good for the kids to see this, all the young kings and queens out there,” a woman says as young children clamor for a good view. “This is who we are,” an elderly Black man in full period cowboy regalia tells me when I ask him about his outfit. Even dressed as a historical actor, he is fixed on the here and now. “Look at us,” he says with awe.

Tressie McMillan Cottom (@tressiemcphd) is an associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Information and Library Science, the author of “Thick: And Other Essays” and a 2020 MacArthur fellow.

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