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The politics of portraying  Bass Reeves: lawman


Practical Politics

William Loren Katz, a well-regarded historian, wrote one of the first modern biographies of the famous Black American lawman, Bass Reeves, in his text, The Black West (1988). It served as a good, solid body of knowledge for Black History courses in the 1980s and beyond. His newer version, also well-used in high school and college classes, is The Black West: A Documentary and Pictorial History of the African American Role in the Westward Expansion of the United States, printed in 2019.

In both versions he gives a solid portrait of American law hero, Bass Reeves. Yet, in the latest rendition of Reeves’ story, produced by David Oyelowo and Taylor Sheridan out of the Yellowstone production team, Katz’ version is generally ignored, and most of the information is based on African American historian Art T. Burton's book, "Black Gun, Silver Star: The Life and Legend of Frontier Marshal Bass Reeves” (2021). The latter is thought to be a better researched historical treatment.

But is even this version the closest we can get to the truth of the matter? Mr. Reeves was truly a very important historical figure and trailblazer, and was (and is) a very major historical figure still in Oklahoma, the U.S. at large and the old Indian territories. There is an important state bridge named after him and numerous statues and other memorabilia all over Oklahoma and Texas to demonstrate his remembered importance.  In fact, there was no real American westward history without him and the numerous other Black cowboys like Isom Dart, Bill Pickett and Bose Ikard. 

There is currently a new TV series depicting Reeves as a master lawman and one of the pivotal figures in the history of America’s Old West. Called “Lawmen: The Bass Reeves Story,” and brought to us by the Paramount network, the question is, is it close enough to the truth for us to take it as gospel? After all, the previously told history identified Mr. Reeves as the prototype for the old Lone Ranger hero of past t-v fame. That still may be true, too, but during the 1980s and 1990s, many of us claimed a much bigger portion of American history than maybe we deserved.

To begin with, the new Bass Reeves drama is well-crafted and brought to the screen fully formed. Oyelowo’s portrayal of the lawman may end up being the definitive one for a very long time. And yet, there are still important things that are short-changed, ignored or just left out. Sure, Mr. Reeves brought in a record number of prisoners during a 32-year career as a lawman (over 3,000) and did not die in the saddle (he lived to retire) or get shot-up. He was known to speak over 5 different Native American languages and traveled easily among the Native American population. And yes, he had been a slave during his early life and forced to help the Confederate cause during the Civil War, escaped, learned wilderness skills, and was freed by the 13th Amendment. 

He remained a family man throughout his active career (he and his wife had at least 11 children), and he had several successful gunfights (he was a quick-draw and a deadly one).

Is he shown in the series to be emblematic of the courage, sagacity, frontier skills and honest steadfastness that will keep him in the annals of America’s heroes for the rest of this country’s history? He does.

But he was not mythic, he was real, and had blemishes like us all. Those do not always come out in the t-v series. Like very many African Americans of the era, he could not read or write, for example, but he arranged his own accurate system of identifying which outlaw was being sought and virtually always brought in the right criminal suspect. How he devised that system is not well shown in the TV series, nor are many of the very adept wilderness survival skills he perfected. 

He was as important to the early development of this country as a Daniel Boone or a Kit Carson, and without mythologizing him, the series should show that. He was a man who fully captured the times in which he lived and forged a path forward for Americans in general, and Black folk in particular.

Bass Reeves, Black American and straight-up American hero to us all. Well done, brother. Well done.

Professor David L. Horne is founder and executive director of PAPPEI, the Pan African Public Policy and Ethical Institute, which is a new 501(c)(3) pending community-based organization or non-governmental organization (NGO). It is the stepparent organization for the California Black Think Tank which still operates and which meets every fourth Friday.

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