06-01-2023  6:34 pm   •   PDX and SEA Weather
McClellan's work focuses on Black rodeo culture throughout the country.
Saundra Sorenson
Published: 03 May 2023

A new Juneteenth tradition is coming to the Expo Center: The Black rodeo.

“I think the rodeo is the most tribal element of American culture,” photographer and organizer Ivan McClellan said. “Everybody rodeos, and I think people are compelled to do it culturally because it’s an extension of agriculture. It’s an extension of activities that you’ll see on a working ranch. It’s a lot of fun, it’s an exhibition of talent and skills that are extraordinary, it’s a level of athleticism that you don’t see often.”

Next month, the Eight Seconds Juneteenth Rodeo will bring to Portland what exists as a vibrant but largely overlooked culture: competitive riders of color. 

“We thought, why not bring (the Black rodeo) to Portland, the whitest city in America, and use this to arouse consciousness?” Gresham City Council Member Vince Jones-Dixon told The Skanner. “Encourage and challenge the community to think about the gifts, their own gifts, and explore them and then share them with us? You don’t have to be just a hip hop artist or a city councilor or a basketball player or anything like that – figure out what lights you up, challenge the community to do that.”

juneteenth portland rodeo fullPhotographer Ivan McClellan in Rowena Crest, Oregon.
Jones-Dixon approached McClellan with idea less than a year ago, and the Juneteenth Rodeo is quickly recruiting 50 of the best Black rodeo athletes from around the country – including sisters and Colorado-based barrel racers Aleeyah Roberts and Savannah Roberts, and bullrider Kamal Miller of California – to compete for a total of $60,000 in prizes spread across five events.

“We have barrel racers from Shreveport and Mississippi, we’ve got folks coming up from Houston, a bunch of cowboys coming up from Oklahoma – people are trekking over the Rockies to come and take their crack at this event,” McClellan said.

Music will be provided by DJ O.G. One, official DJ for the Trailblazers.

Eight Seconds

McClellan’s interest in the rodeo began in 2015 when he bumped into Black documentarian Charles Perry at a party. Perry told McClellan about the project that would later become The Black Cowboy and invited the photographer to attend the country's oldest Black rodeo, the Okmulgee invitational in Oklahoma, that summer.

Visiting that rodeo, Ivan McClellan says, “disrupted my definition of home and my feelings about home, and made it a place of pride and a place of independence and grit.”

“I grew up in Kansas City, I grew up around Black people that farmed, and that raised cattle,” McClellan said. “We had five acres of land behind our house that we would run around and pick blackberries and catch fireflies. Mr. Wills down the street had cows, Brett and them had chickens, my grandma grew vegetables. And I just didn’t think much about it, and was really eager to get out of there because it just didn’t feel like it resonated to me. When I went to the rodeo and saw Black cowboys, I realized that a lot of the folks that were at that event in Oklahoma lived blocks away from my house in Kansas City, and went to rodeo every year for their family reunions.

“For me, being able to call Mr. Wills and Brett and all those folks cowboys now, to have a name for them, was something that I care about and relate to in a deep way. So that’s the main reason why I do the work, it’s just about identity and about my relation to home.”

An Oklahoma native, McClellan admits he had long assumed Black cowboys were a pop culture comedic device, "like Sheriff Bart in Blazing Saddles." He quickly learned about not only their prevalence, but their influence: Historians estimate that up to a quarter of the cowboys making the trip out west after the Civil War were Black, and that the name "cowboy" itself began as a slur for slaves in Texas who worked with livestock.

McClellan immersed himself in photographing the rodeo culture of Oklahoma where, he writes, "It’s rare to see younger cowboys in starched button-downs and cowboy hats, many opting to ride their horses in shorts, gold chains, tank tops, and braids. Young horsemen and women have Instagram followings in the thousands sharing their own music, photos with cash, cars, and posts of them competing.”

“I was blown away to find thousands of Black cowboys there with their own swagger, their own style,” McClellan told The Skanner.

“To see Black culture represented in a way I didn’t even know existed was phenomenal, and really changed my life.”

His “Eight Seconds” project began as a popular Instagram account and online photo essays, featured in ad campaigns for popular western style brands like Wrangler, Stetson and boot retailer Tecovas.

“A lot of these brands, before we came along, were completely homogenous and were just white,” McClellan said, “and now you see a lot more Black athletes getting elevated.”

His work, he says, is to remedy the idea that the West was purely the domain of the Marlboro Man.

“It’s to say a Black man or a Black woman can be noble and gritty and brave and all of these things we associate with cowboys,” McClellan said.

“We can, through putting this imagery out in the world, start to transform the stereotypes around this icon and people can say ‘cowboy’ and automatically see a Black person. I think that matters.”

Fresh Format

What Dixon and McClellan organized in an impressive six months is an authentic rodeo, with some adjustments – like halving the more than three-hour runtime of the typical rodeo in favor of a tighter event to appeal to newcomers. In place of a rodeo clown like famed performer Avery "Spanky" Ford, the Eight Seconds Juneteenth Rodeo will kick off its inaugural year with a comedian who will interact with the emcee.

“Typically the rodeo clown runs from bulls and jumps in barrels – we’re not going to make our comedian do that,” McClellan said. “His life will not be in danger in any way. He’ll entertain the crowd, be the voice of the novice – a lot of people at the rodeo will have never been to a rodeo, and the comedian can be their voice.”

The rodeo will also exclude some of the more controversial competitions.

“I can’t speak about (rodeo) without talking about the pressures on the format,” McClellan said. “Animal rights activists want it gone. There’s an outright ban in the works in California, and I’m sure that that’s going to make its way up here eventually as well. People don’t like the exploitation of animals; they think that it’s cruel, they think that it puts the animals at risk. And I don’t disagree with them in some areas. We’re not doing calf-roping in our event, because I think that it’s too rough on the animals.”

Still, he said, “I think these traditions shouldn’t be lost, and I think that there’s something really beautiful about celebrating what our ancestors did to survive, and its exhibition of a lot of those activities.”

Keeping Rodeo Alive 

Jones-Dixon hopes that with the success of an educational and entertaining rodeo, attendees will be inspired to fully embrace their own passions.

“One of the things we struggle with here in the Black community, from my observation in my lifetime and also from serving on the city council, is knowing who we are,” Jones-Dixon said. “We tend to try to fit in or assimilate. Ivan found himself through his photography and through the work he’s been doing, and I found myself working in the death care industry and serving on city council and (trying to bring voice to that). Our collective interest is really igniting the hearts and the minds of everyone within the community, and a lot of times you need to see an example of that.”

The rodeo organizers are offering five scholarships for riding lessons to young attendees who may never have been near a horse.

“Mine and Vince’s vision is that in 10 years, we’ll not have to bring all of our athletes from out of town, that we’ll start to create a generation of athletes that are locally grown and locally trained, and we start to really crank out Black cowboys from Portland. Cowboys that aren’t scared of the rain.”

The Eight Seconds Juneteenth Rodeo is Saturday, June 17 from 3-10 p.m. at the Portland Expo Center (2060 Marine Dr W). For more information, visit expocenter.org/events/8-seconds-juneteenth-rodeo.

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