New York Times reporter Walter Thompson-Hernández has forcefully portrayed a group of African men and women, the Compton Cowboys, who continue a centuries-old tradition of working as black cowboys. The author spent a year chronicling the lives of 10 black riders who have maintained the small Richland Ranch in a formerly semi-rural area of Los Angeles. The Compton neighborhood is primarily known for its rap stars N.W.A. and Kendrick Lamar and for its high murder rate—35 homicides were reported in the neighborhood in 2016, twice the average rate for the U.S. in that year.
Normally, whenever Anthony Harris walks to a neighborhood store in Compton he faces the risk of being stopped by the police and searched for drugs and guns. But, when he and other members of the Compton Cowboys ride their horses to the store, they receive a far different reception. “They don’t pull us over or search us when we are on the horses,” Harris explains. “They would have thought we were gangbangers and had guns or dope on us if we weren’t riding, but these horses protect us from all of that.”
The author reports how the founder—spirited and indomitable Mayisha Akbar—established the Compton Junior Posse youth organization in 1988 to provide neighborhood teenagers with a safe alternative to the violent streets. Her original goal was to connect them with the historic legacy of black cowboys who helped settle the Wild West. In the years since, those who join find the ranch provides respite from violence, healing from alcoholism, and a place to reenter society after incarceration. As they discover their love of horses, these ranch hands find freedom, status, and protection.
Mayisha’s 1988 youth organization is providing the current leaders of the Cowboys: Randy, Mayisha’s nephew, who faces the formidable task of reimagining the Cowboys for the present generation; Anthony, a former drug dealer and inmate, now a husband, father and mentor; Keiara, a single mother chasing her vision of winning a national rodeo championship; and a tight circle of black men and a few black women trying to reverse the negative stereotypes of African American young people in the Compton neighborhood.
Thompson-Hernández paints a picture of a unique Los Angeles urban community in all its complexity, heartbreak and recovery. This unflinching and sober account is a compelling record of an often overlooked or dismissed subculture of the U.S. But it is also a broader story about compassion and camaraderie that leads to the transformation of troubled youth.