Madagascar was the most interesting country he visited , believes NCAA student athletes should make money for playing. He has an amazing story about a pickup basketball game against a NBA legend. ”Author of “The Compton Cowboys” Walter Thompson-Hernandez goes Beyond the Mic.
We’re joined on the Starline by a former multimedia journalist for the New York Times, 2019 Whiting Award Winner and Author of “The Compton Cowboys” Walter Thompson-Hernandez , welcome…
Let’s go Beyond the Mic …how has your travels covering global subcultures influenced your interest in the rich subculture of the inner city black cowboy?
When the video for Lil Nas X, “Old Town Road” came out there was the rediscovery of the black cowboy. But as you embedded yourself with this amazing and little known group of people, what revealed itself during the research of this book?
You were drawn back to write this book after you first wrote about the Cowboys for the New York Times . The people are rich, layered and nuanced. Which of their stories touched you the most?
How many of the Compton Cowboys do you keep in touch with on a daily basis?
How important was having a young edition of the “Compton Cowboys” made available for young readers?
Time is running out, so it’s time for the Rockin’ 8 ,
8 random questions, answer with the first thing that comes to your mind: No Pressure
1. In your travels which country was the most interesting?
2. Which was more nerve wracking, your 1st Tedx talk or turning in this manuscript to your publisher?
3. Do you believe student athletes should get paid?
4. How many languages do you speak and which ones?
5. Last book you read?
6. Place you go to relax?
7. Best basketball player you went one on one with? (He played on the Mexican Olympic Team)
8. When do you expect the movie version of the book to be finished?
Journalist, jump shooting, horse riding and award winning author of the Compton Cowboys ,Walter Thompson Hernandez , thanks for taking the time to talk with us today.
And that my friends is Beyond the Mic.
A conversation with Walter Thompson-Hernández, author of THE COMPTON COWBOYS – Provided by Publisher/Promoter
Q: What inspired you to write a book about the Compton Cowboys?
WTH: I was inspired to write this book in large part because of the current cultural and racial climate. This book challenges so many of the prevailing narratives about blackness and black people. And I hope it can encourage readers to look beyond their own preconceptions; I hope they can see a bit of themselves in the book and simultaneously learn about the world of black urban cowboys and cowgirls.
In the Beginning…
Q: In the prologue, you recall a transformative moment of seeing black cowboys riding through Compton when you were a child. Can you tell us a bit more about that memory and why it was so impactful?
WTH: It was such a big moment for me. I remember being incredibly shocked at the sight of black cowboys. I never learned that black people could be cowboys in school. It felt like so many of my classmates and I had been lied to… was one of the most transformative moments in my life. It made me want to ask so many questions. I’m still asking the same questions I had as a child that day.
Q: You write in the book that the Compton Cowboys are “on a mission to eradicate stereotypes about black cowboys and reinsert themselves and others back into the history books.” What do they most want people to know about black cowboy culture and the ethos of their group?
WTH: The Compton Cowboys want people to know that black people can also be cowboys and cowgirls. They also want people to know that they are not the first to do it – that they are a part of a lineage that extends back hundreds of years.
Deep Intense Moments
Q: You introduce readers to various members of the Compton Cowboys and share tremendous detail of both their everyday routines and some of their most intense life experiences. How much time did you spend embedded with the group to capture such vivid portraits of these riders?
WTH: This book is an ethnographic project. It required spending a great deal of time with the Compton Cowboys. Over the course of seven months, I spent nearly every day with them. Some days I arrived at the ranch at 5 a.m. and wouldn’t leave until 5 p.m. in the afternoon. I spent most of my days learning and asking questions and observing the lives of everyone in the group. Attended funerals, baby showers, lunches, dinners, birthday parties, and other events related to the members of the group. I became deeply embedded in their lives and vice versa. Many of the scenes in the book wouldn’t have been possible to have documented had I not spent a great deal of time with the cowboys. I also spent an incredible amount of time driving and walking through the streets of Compton in an attempt to understand the city.
Q: What were some of the key insights you gathered from your discussions with the cowboys?
WTH: I learned so much. Each cowboy wanted to ensure the survival of cowboy culture in Compton for future generations. They wanted to make sure they weren’t the last cowboys and as a result were very invested in working with Compton youth. It seemed like they were eerily aware of this reality every time they saddled up – there was something inspiring and melancholic about observing it all.
Refuge from Drugs
Q: The slogan of the Compton Cowboys is “Streets Raised Us. Horses Saved Us.” Can you elaborate on how the ranch was a refuge for riders amid the gangs, violence, and drugs that have permeated Compton in recent decades?
WTH: The ranch is located in between rival gang territories and some horse riders have been the victims of gang violence. Most of the cowboys have friends or relatives who are involved with gangs and the threat of death is never too far away. Sometimes it exists around the corner. Sometimes it’s right outside of the ranch. The ranch often acts as a place of refuge and safety because of these factors. It’s one of the only places where the danger of Compton’s streets doesn’t exist. It’s a safe haven.
Q: Most of the current members of the Compton Cowboys began their riding lives as part of the Compton Junior Posse, an organization started in 1988 to provide Compton’s youth with an alternative for gangs and violence. Tell us bit more about the origins of that youth riding program. And what impact did it have on the lives of the current Compton Cowboys members?
WTH: The Compton Junior Posse was started in 1988 by Mayisha Akbar who wanted to provide her sons and their friends with an alternative to gangs. It quickly developed into a full-fledged non-profit organization that grew over the years. Nearly every member of the Compton Cowboys got their start as members of the Posse. It’s where they first learned how to ride and care for horses. It established a community of horse riders and friendships that continue to this day.
Q: A huge challenge for the group is maintaining funding to keep the ranch and youth program operating, which causes quite a bit of stress and worry for the group’s leader throughout the book as he works to keep the legacy of the ranch and youth program alive. What’s the status of the youth program today?
WTH: There is a new youth program on the ranch which is being led by the Compton Cowboys. They are beginning to attract more young people to the ranch while continuing to struggle to secure funding and resources for their programs. They currently meet on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays to teach children how to ride as well as provide workshops and academic training. It’s very beautiful to watch.
Q: As awareness of the Compton Cowboys has grown over the past few years, what has the reception and response from the Compton community been like?
WTH: I think the Compton community has been very receptive to what the Compton Cowboys have established in the past few years. Randy Hook, the leader of the group, attends monthly city council meetings with the goal of ensuring more resources for the city’s horse riders. The cowboys are always met with cheers and positive words of encouragement when they ride their horses through the city. Young people and adults alike stop them and ask them for photos and autographs. It almost feels like they are local celebrities.
Q: A recurring theme throughout the book is that the Cowboys see riding as a way to find healing and cope with their troubles – from memories of childhood trauma to struggles with substance abuse. Can you elaborate on how the ranch and the connection with horses has been therapeutic for the members?
WTH: Some of the members of the group have or continue to deal with different forms of alcohol or drug abuse. Being around the horses often acts as a deterrent for that type of lifestyle. At the same time, many of the cowboys continue to deal with different forms trauma brought on by exposure to death and violence at an early age. While riding and caring for their horses, they end up participating in different forms of equine therapy that promote mental health. There’s something unique about the way horses provide humans with peace and ease. The softness that exists inside the ranch is often a stark difference to the world that exists outside of it. The effects can also be felt outside of the ranch. The lessons that the cowboys take from the ranch carry over to their homes. There is a ripple effect.
Q: What was the most difficult aspect of researching and writing this book?
WTH: One of the most challenging aspects of writing this book was dealing with the daily exposure to trauma and violence. I spent so many hours with each of the cowboys and for a lot of them it was the first time describing the traumatic experiences they have faced—and continue to face—throughout their lives. As a journalist, I am required to ask people tough questions about their lives. It’s something that I have grown accustomed to over the years. But it was especially challenging to hear about experiences related to sexual violence, death, murder, and loss during this book writing process. It made me reflect on the trauma that I have faced in my own life and that which other people of color face on a daily basis. I began to see a therapist midway during the book, which became very helpful to process it all.
Q: This story also carries a personal element for you. You grew up not far from Compton as a child and spent a great deal of time with the Cowboys at the ranch when writing this book, ultimately forming intimate bonds with each person in the group. Can you elaborate on what it was like writing as both a participant and an observer, and what this project meant to you personally?
WTH: This project took so much out of me. I felt like I had such a big responsibility to tell this story in the most honest and respectful way. It’s true that I was both a participant and an observer. I am both a person of color who has experienced the world in much of the same way that the cowboys have. And I was also an observer, the writer of the book, which required me to document their lives. At times it felt like the lines were blurred. Other times, it felt like there were clear lines of demarcation. This project also made me deeply reflect on my own experiences in the area and the privileges I’ve been granted along the way. I feel very grateful that I was able to tell this story.
Q: There’s currently a growing awareness of black cowboys throughout the U.S. in music and popular culture. From Lil Nas X’s smash hit “Old Town Road” to Solange creating a visual album honoring experiences of black cowboys in Texas. And the Compton Cowboys themselves have recently been featured in advertisements for brands like Guinness and McDonald’s. Can you elaborate on why it’s so important to the group to continue promoting black cowboy culture to new audiences?
WTH: We’re living at a time when the experiences of black cowboys and cowgirls have really exploded in popular culture and media. It’s important to tell stories like these because it shows the world how vast and beautiful the black experience is. There’s no one way to be a black American in the United States, and I hope a project like this can shed light on the lives of a group of friends from Compton who happen to be black and happen to be cowboys.
Q: You describe the book as “a story about the power of friendship, love, pain, and the need to have spaces where we go to find healing.” Given the cultural moment the story exists in – during one of the most racially and politically divisive moments in modern history – what insights do you most hope readers will take away?
WTH: I hope readers can understand that at the end of the day, the Compton Cowboys, like other humans around the world, are just trying to belong in a world that tells them that they can’t. I think that’s a very universal feeling.