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Cowboys, Cooks, and Comics

Cowboys, Cooks, and Comics

African American Characters in Westerns of the 1930s

(p.102) 4 Cowboys, Cooks, and Comics
Hoo-Doo Cowboys and Bronze Buckaroos
Michael K. Johnson
University Press of Mississippi

Combining action, humor, and musical performance, a series of black-cast film westerns (such as Harlem on Range) starring Herb Jeffries places African Americans at the center of their stories of life on the American frontier. This chapter examines the Jeffries films in the context of the genre that they imitate, pastiche, revise—that of the Hollywood western. The black character in the mainstream western is usually the only African American presence in an otherwise all-white cast. The humor is often derived from minstrelsy, demeaning and hostile. The black-cast Harlem series transforms the all-white space of the western into a space populated with black characters. Although still including comic characters, the Harlem films create an all-black performance space that alters the reception of those figures. They also differ from mainstream film by drawing on the trickster archetype in order to present black comic figures whose wit is purposeful, knowing, and clever.Herb Jeffries

Keywords:   Black-Cast Films, Trickster, Minstrelsy, Hollywood Western

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