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Literature: Re-riding Black History

by Paul Wilner

Brianna Noble and her horse, Dapper Dan, at DeFremery Park in Oakland in 2021. | Photo courtesy of Gabriela Hasbun.

Gabriela Hasbun changes the lens on rodeos, race and representation.

“How did the West get built?” asks San Francisco– based photographer Gabriela Hasbun, whose just-released book, The New Black West: Photographs From America’s Only Touring Black Rodeo, brings to life a vibrant African American culture that has been hiding in plain sight. “Was it on the backs of Black people and other immigrants? We don’t really get to hear their side of the story.”

The handsome Chronicle Books volume displays Hasbun’s vivid full-color shots of the Black cowboys and cowgirls who gather for the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo, held locally at the East Bay’s Rowell Ranch Rodeo Park and named for the legendary Black cowboy who was inducted into the Rodeo Hall of Fame. For Hasbun, who does freelance commercial and editorial work — including a cover shot of United Farm Workers pioneer Dolores Huerta for the Gazette last year — the book was more than a dozen years in the making.

The photographer quickly fell in love with the panoply of colorful characters at this celebration of Black culture.

 

The New Black West: Photographs From America’s Only Touring Black Rodeo
(Chronicle Books)
A 12-year effort, the photographer’s first book — which includes Brianna Noble and her horse (top right) — celebrates diversity in the rodeo arena.

They include Brianna Noble, whose appearance with her Appaloosa, Dapper Dan, at a Black Lives Matter protest in downtown Oakland in June 2020 went viral. “People don’t see me most of the time,” Noble shares in the book. “The only time in my life I haven’t been ignored is when I’m sitting on a horse. Nobody can ignore a black woman on a horse.” She also founded Mulatto Meadows, an East Bay equestrian nonprofit.

And Denesha Henderson, featured on the The New Black West’s cover, who carried the African American flag at the 2008 opening ceremony, which always includes a rendition of the Black national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

There’s also Mr. Theus, a rancher and former Oakland hairdresser who has attended all Rowell Ranch events since the rodeo there in 1986 (two years after the rodeo was first held in Denver in 1984), and owns saddles formerly belonging to Roy Rogers and Gene Autry.

Hasbun’s images are striking. Rather than static head shots, she captures the bling things of a new generation: from the elaborate acrylic nails of Deirdre Webb to cowboy Pat Davis’ Louis Vuitton saddle made just for his Belgian draft horse, Hercules, and barrel racer Kysariah Brinson’s custom hat featuring a drawing of her horse, Chad. “My mom actually drew Chad out and took the hat to a tattoo shop in downtown Oakland to get it airbrushed,” Brinson tells Hasbun in the book. “I don’t like to dress boring. I like to bling and shine.”

Gabriela Hasbun, photographer and author of The New Black West. | Photo courtesy of Haley O’Rourke.

“It’s important to acknowledge the cultures that have given so much to our communities, find space to let them in, and celebrate the positive things they’ve contributed.” — Gabriela Hasbun

“There’s a lot of fashion,” Hasbun says. “The more awards you’ve earned, the bigger the champion you are, the fancier your belt buckle.” She emphasizes that the event has been not just a subculture, but an important part of Black life in the Bay Area for years.

“People are like, ‘Where did all these people come from?’” adds the author, who was born in El Salvador. “They’ve all been here. If you’re not looking, you’re going to miss them. … It’s important to acknowledge the cultures that have given so much to our communities, find space to let them in, and celebrate the positive things they’ve contributed. Let’s change the narrative and give people a little bit of help.”

The Bill Pickett Rodeo International returns to Rowell Ranch Rodeo Park July 9–10, 2:30 p.m.; advance tickets from $22. billpickettrodeo.com

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