In 1955, little Black girls had no counterparts on television. Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, was a buxom blond in a leopard bathing-suit who ruled the African jungle. Sky King had Penny, a mischievous teenage blond with a pouting mouth and big blue eyes who didn’t look like me either. So, I latched on to Annie Oakley, played by Gail Davis. Maybe it was those two braids that she tossed around her head as she jumped on her horse, Prince, or that fancy cowgirl outfit, but looking back I think it was her power that drew me in. Annie was the sheriff’s niece and everyone did what she said or they’d get a butt kicking for sure.
I tried to wear my cowgirl suit to school, but my mother wouldn’t allow it. I did take my lunchbox to school every day and once I showed it to the class during Show and Tell.
Every day after school I’d rush home, change into my cowgirl duds, and go outside with my one six shooter. I’d hide behind the oleander bush on the side of the house and make believe I was capturing rustlers, train robbers, and other bad guys. I’d try to spin my gun around my finger, just like Annie, but sometimes the gun would fly off my finger and knock me in the head. If only I had a horse, I’d say to myself. Instead I galloped about the yard riding my mother’s broom, speaking to it softly while offering imaginary cubes of sugar.
I eventually outgrew Annie, having graduated to the Mickey Mouse Club. Still there were no girls who looked like me, except maybe Annette who had olive skin, curly black hair, and a cute pug nose. She was as close as I could get. Annette later straightened both her hair and nose, trading in her mouse ears for a bikini. Times did change and I saw myself on television, but I was far past the impressionable age and the need for little-girl television role models..
Long after Annie put her guns away, I learned that there were women of color in the old west, Mary Fields of Montana being the most notable. She was known as Stagecoach Mary (although she never drove a stagecoach) or Black Mary. She was a crack shot and only the second woman to drive a U.S. Mail route. The town of Cascade, Montana, loved her dearly and built a monument to her. As long as she lived, she was had free room and board at the local hotel. After the hotel was sold the new owner agreed to the same arrangement – a condition of the transaction.
Mary feared no one, man or beast, even guarding her horses with a shotgun against a pack of hungry wolves during a deadly winter storm. Too bad I didn’t know about Black Mary so I could have pretended to be her.
Author’s Comment: I have always been a big fan of western movies and always aware of the limited diversity, particularly heroes and women. An avid reader, I started collecting books regarding Blacks during the old West. This collection included books on Black cowgirls where I discovered Mary Fields and I was in awe. When I was studying Creative Writing I wanted to write a screenplay about Mary Fields, even envisioned the perfect actress, but time got away from me and it was not written. The lack of diversity in the genre has not changed much. Sharing my dismay over this prompted me to write “My Cowgirl Blues” and share those feelings.