Ropin' and ridin': rodeo in Brooklyn
`I DON'T want to be a cowboy,'' declared Lavar Butts, aged 9, as he watched a two-ton Brahman bull toss a rider to the ground and step on him for good measure. ``I don't want to die before I'm 10.'' Lavar's buddy, Ecliff Jackman, looked at the bull, with its down-turned horns and frothing mouth, and concluded that he wouldn't climb aboard the beast for $1,000, not even for the big brass belt buckle that the best all-around cowboy gets to wear.
Astride a police barricade, Ecliff said that he had hoped to go to Coney Island on this recent sultry summer Saturday. But when he heard that a rodeo had come to the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, well, he just had to stop by and check it out. They don't get too many cowboys in these parts, except on television. Fact is, a few of these city dudes wouldn't know a doggie from a goat, or a horse from a big dog.
About 3,000 folks filled the wooden bleachers behind Boys and Girls High School to watch these real, live cowboys ride, rope, race, and 'rassle as the Black World Championship Rodeo made its fourth annual visit to Brooklyn. For one day, ``Bed-Stuy'' became home on the range for some 40 cowboys and 10 cowgirls.
Elevated trains clattered by as steers galloped across the high school's football field. Rap music thundered from a 2,000-watt sound system - no Willie or Waylon for this hoedown. The fetid aroma of manure mingled with the sharp scent of hot dogs (all beef) sizzling on an outdoor grill.
In between the calf ropin' and bareback bronco bustin', cowboys gave some youths riding demonstrations and history lessons. They spoke of black cowboy heroes like the mountain man James Beckwourth, who discovered a pass through the Sierra Nevadas to California, and Bill Pickett, who is credited as the inventor of bulldogging.
Ray Solomon, a bull rider who looks the part in his straw cowboy hat, white cowboy shirt, big leather belt, and blue jeans tucked into boots with star-shaped spurs, remarked that sometimes children look at him and say: ``You're not a real cowboy. You're black.''
As he eyed a metal stock pen packed with mud-splattered Brahman bulls, Mr. Solomon conceded that the youthful challenges to his authenticity are painful. Yet he cast no blame. ``Kids get their image of a cowboy from the movies,'' he said. ``We're trying to show that cowboys weren't born on the TV screen, that black cowboys played a big role in the history of the West.''
Solomon didn't tell the kids that he's from Brooklyn, or that during the week he works as a subway token clerk. Nor did he tell them that he's been riding horses since he was a 12-year-old, walking thoroughbreds at the Belmont Racetrack. He certainly talked like a cowboy, mixing a fondness for machismo and daredeviltry. ``I like the thrill of bull riding,'' he explained.
As the calf roping got under way, Jim Harvin expertly coiled a lariat, waiting his turn. He, too, lives in Brooklyn when he's not touring the country competing in the roping, bareback, and bull-riding events. The inner-city rodeos have a special appeal for him.
``Instead of hanging out on street corners, the kids are seeing a skill put to practice,'' said Mr. Harvin, who has heard many a city kid mistake a horse for a big dog. ``The mystique of horses captures their attention. They see for themselves that cowboying is an art form.''
Out on the rodeo circuit, Harvin is rarely teased for being a cowboy from Brooklyn.
``Horse people are a different breed,'' he explained. ``It doesn't matter whether you're black or white, or where you hang your hat. You have horsemanship in common.''
Ahmed Mumford, a bull rider from nearby Jersey City, N.J., said he doesn't taunt the cowboys from Arkansas, Texas, and Oklahoma about their concerns over coming to Brooklyn. ``They get nervous riding the subways,'' said Mr. Mumford, ``but they come here anyway, 'cause they usually clean up all the winnings.''
A bulldogger from Houston, Troy Judge, kicked a steer into a starting chute and declared that his only concern about Brooklyn was whether there would be ``a patch of green to ride on. As it is, it's pretty hard and rocky out there.''
The Black World Championship Rodeo is the concept of George E. Blair, a cowboy from Harlem whose great-grandfather rode in the calvary during the Civil War and later hunted buffalo on the Western plains. Five years ago Dr. Blair, a full-time executive assistant to the chancellor of the State University of New York, staged his first inner-city rodeo in Harlem. The rodeo has since grown into a full-fledged circuit, attracting performers from all over the country to such unlikely cow towns as Philadelphia and Mount Vernon, N.Y., as well as Harlem and Brooklyn.
Blair is a candid straight shooter who harbors no doubt that horses can transform human lives.
``If I had my way, I'd give every kid an opportunity to work with horses,'' he said. ``It teaches an enormous sense of responsibility, and it teaches you how to love something, which can hopefully be transferred back to people.''
``All the things I didn't get to do as a kid, I'm doing now,'' said Joe Veltz, who brought his six nieces, nephews, and daughters from Irvington, N.J., by way of a bus and the A-train. ``When are we gonna see the bullfight?'' asked his six-year-old daughter, Alicia.
After the last bull bucked the last rider, and everybody was heading home for chow and shut-eye, Ecliff Jackman said he wouldn't mind being a part-time cowboy. ``I want to be an astronaut, and a cowboy on the weekend.''
``Well, what if you're on the moon for a weekend?'' asked a nearby youth, Stephen McCoy.
``If they could get the rodeo to Brooklyn,'' said Ecliff's father, Wendell Jackman, ``they could probably get the rodeo to the moon.''