TV review | The catching up of black cowboys and astronauts

Beyoncé created excitement last week by releasing a country song, “Texas Hold ‘Em.” Striking because the black superstar usually only sings R&B and American country music is considered a white, conservative genre. More something for Trumpians. Beyoncé in her cowboy hat (no, she wasn’t on TV, this is a side track) is not the first black artist in country, but country’s black roots have been carefully scrubbed from history.

The alert reporter Danny Ghosen had of course already anticipated the rise of black cowgirls, so he filmed for his series Danny and the Americans (NPO 3) a black rodeo in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. No white men but black women are in charge here. With colorful braids under their cowboy hats, they try to stay on a wild bucking horse for as long as possible. A rider has her six-year-old daughter with her. He also rides those huge horses.

They have always cared for cows and sat on horse backs, the women tell Ghosen. Just like the black cowboys of the 19th century. Rodeo came from those predecessors: black shepherds were often used to break in wild horses. The women say that ‘cowboy’ was a derogatory name for black cowherds. Their white colleagues were called ‘cowhands’. The later cowboy films painted all faces white. Now black cowboys and rodeo riders are still claiming their place in culture.

Black astronauts

Black cowboys at the American frontier. What about the final frontier? The space? That leaves the documentary The Space Race to see. It’s dedicated to black astronauts. They too were erased from white history. A black man on the moon? It could have been. Astronaut Ed Wright was already ready.

For his space program, President Kennedy wanted one black poster boy to show that he took civil rights seriously. So Ed Wright was put into test pilot school. But the white school did not accept that. Out of racism and because Wright was pushed in at the behest of the White House. “Washington is shoving a n***** down our throats,” the leadership thought, so no one at school was allowed to talk to Wright. It only made him more determined to get to the moon. But then Kennedy was assassinated and he lost his patron. Wright was pushed aside.

Then followed the twenty white years in space travel as we know it. African Americans turned away from NASA. Black protesters stood at the Apollo 11 launch. Singer Gil Scott-Heron wrote the protest song Whitey on the Moon. Why all that money towards technological progress while the US still had a lot of work to do in social injustice? Thanks to the art movement Afrofuturism, black Americans could still dream of space travel. In The Space Race we see funk pioneer George Clinton stepping out of his self-made Mothership in platform heels.

When the space shuttle was conceived, NASA wanted to promote it as a scheduled flight for ordinary people. So for the first time, women, Asian and black Americans were also able to participate. The first African-American astronaut was Guion Bluford in 1983. More followed, now twenty.

During the Black Lives Matter movement, black astronaut Victor Glover took a poster of the murdered George Floyd into space. To support him, his predecessors started an app group they called ‘Afronauts’ – apparently Glover had range in space. In the documentary they explain why the visible presence of black astronauts is so important: “We are symbols of what we can achieve as a people, regardless of what other people think of us.”