Black Heroes of the Wild West

Written By: James Otis Smith

Illustrated by: Kadir Nelson

For Ages: 7 years & Up

Language: English

Topics Covered: History, Black Historical Figures, Wild West, Colonization, Violence, Alcohol,

Summary: This graphic novel is SO cool! It’s broken into 3 chapters, each covering a Black historical figure that lived out in the west. First, we learn about Stagecoach Mary, who seemed to do a bit of everything. She was born into enslavement, liberated, and moved to Montana when a friend of hers fell ill. She once defended herself in -30 temperatures against a wolf pack for the entire night after her mail delivery stagecoach broke down! My favorite anecdote is that she was the only woman allowed in some of the saloons to play cards and drink with the men. In the next 2 chapters we learn about Bass Reeves and Bob Lemmons, who became well-known in their own right.

The book contains historical photos, and is suited for ages 7 and up. Of course it being the Wild West, there is mention of violence, alcohol, and racism. There is also mention of converting Indigenous people to Christianity and other colonialist topics. I like this graphic novel because it introduces the reader to the idea that not all cowboys were white, and the inclusion of historical information in the back tells more about how what we see as cowboys in the media was not the norm: many of them were Mexican, Native American, and Black. The photos in the back do a fantastic job of specifically naming the tribal nations of the individuals pictured, and discusses interracial relationships between Black people joining Indigenous communities (particularly Seminole). The blending of the topics of Indigenous colonization and forced migration with Black liberation from enslavement can provide powerful historical context for readers to better understand that life in the Wild West wasn’t all saloons and roping cattle. This book bucks the tradition of whitewashed cowboy media that we see, and with it’s exciting comic style and illustrations by Kadir Nelson how can you not want to jump on horseback right after reading?

This book was kindly sent by PubSpotlight and published by Toon Books. All opinions are my own!

James Otis Smith

James Otis Smith is a multi-talented artist whose work spans illustration, comics, motion graphics, and video. Formerly a member of the Act-i-vate Comix collective, he designed and illustrated the children’s book Ancient Lands with writer Jason McCammon, among others. He lives in Brooklyn, NY. 

Kadir Nelson

Kadir Nelson (b. 1974) is an award-winning American author and artist based in Los Angeles, California. His paintings are in the permanent collections of several notable institutions including the United States House of Representatives, the Muskegon Museum of Art, The National Baseball Hall of Fame, United States Postal Museum, the International Olympic Committee in Lausanne, Switzerland, and most recently, the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, the World Trade Center, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, and the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Nelson received a BFA from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, and upon graduating with highest honors, he was summoned by DreamWorks Pictures to create conceptual artwork for Steven Spielberg’s Oscar® nominated feature, “Amistad” and the animated feature, “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron”. He is the recipient of multiple awards from the Society of Illustrators in New York, including the prestigious Hamilton King Award as well the 2020 recipient of the Caldecott Medal and Coretta Scott King Award for illustration. He adds this to multiple Caldecott Honors, Coretta Scott King Author and Illustrator Awards, New York Times Best Illustrated Book Awards, several NAACP Image Awards and an Olympic Art Bronze medal, among others. Mr. Nelson has also created artwork for a host of distinguished clients, including but not limited to National Geographic, HBO, Nike, Disney, Hennessy, and Sony Music, for whom he painted the cover artwork for Michael Jackson’s posthumously released album, “Michael,” which was listed in the Guinness Book of Records® for the largest poster in the world. Nelson’s artwork was also featured on the cover of recording artist Drake’s multi-platinum selling album, “Nothing Was the Same”; over a dozen commemorative US postage stamps honoring American legends, such as Major League All-Stars Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio, NBA great Wilt Chamberlain, and most recently Motown’s Prince of Soul Marvin Gaye, which altogether have sold several million stamps.

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