The Lone Ranger was Black
August 11, 2017
Was the Lone Ranger modeled after Bass Reeves, the first black U.S. deputy marshal who worked thirty-two years in the Arkansas and Oklahoma territories in the late 1800’s? He may have been.
History is biased.
“The Lone Ranger was Black: Reintegrating Minority Viewpoints into Historical Fiction” This intriguing title of one of the sessions offered at the Historical Novel Society Conference in Portland drew me in. The session addressed the issue of bias in our history and the impact of that bias on authors of historical fiction. Today we no longer view history as “the truth” but rather as a story told through the lens of the teller. Did you love the Lone Ranger when you were growing up? I did. We assumed he was a courageous (and white) lawman. That’s how the story was told.
Readers of historical fiction express their fondness for this genre because they like a particular historical period and enjoy learning from fiction set in an historical context. Readers also say they want accurate history in the stories they read. Historical fiction writers have a responsibility to the historical record. But what record?
Finding alternative viewpoints.
A key question for authors of historical fiction is how to tell stories and develop characters with lives extremely different from their own given the bias of historical sources. How do we find alternative viewpoints? How can we do justice to the painful experiences of non-dominant characters in our stories?
Most of us have heard the story of Custer’s Last Stand or the Battle of the Little Bighorn. From the Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne perspective, they believed they were betrayed because their treaty rights were ignored after gold was discovered on native lands. White Americans saw the Indians as wild and bloodthirsty and stubbornly refusing to move to the reservation. For many of us, we learned only the white American history version growing up.
Bass Reeves and the Lone Ranger
When we watched and admired the Lone Ranger as children we accepted how he was portrayed. Yet, he probably was based on the real-life story of Bass Reeves. Reeves, a former slave, whose exploits were famous, was imposing at 6’2”. The first black lawman west of the Mississippi, he cut a striking figure on his large gray (almost white) horse, while wearing his trademark black hat and twin .45 Colt Peacemakers cross-draw style. He was never touched by a bullet although he brought in 3000 criminals alive and 14 dead, killed in self-defense. Reeves was called the “Indomitable Marshall.” He left silver dollars as his calling card. Other similarities to the Lone Ranger included his friendship and knowledge of Native American tribes and languages and his use of disguises to capture those he pursued. The racism in our culture probably prevented the Lone Ranger hero from being portrayed as a black lawman.
The historical narrative is actually composed of multiple narratives. We have often learned only one. Most of the stories about homesteaders on the prairie who risked their lives and battled extreme heat and white-out blizzard conditions portray them as white. In doing the research for my own historical novel, “Sarah’s Secret”, I discovered a little-known town in Kansas called Nicodemus which drew freed slaves to homestead in the surrounding area after the Civil War.
Offering an opposing voice
As writers of historical fiction, we have an obligation to our readers to offer an accurate portrayal of both our characters and the historical context. The discussion in this conference session emphasized the importance of deep knowledge and experience of the culture in which our stories are set as well as a recognition of the historical biases of the sources we are using. This is especially important if the writer is writing in a cultural context other than her own.
Writing historical fiction provides us an opportunity to balance the bias of history by including an opposing voice of the non-dominant group in the story. Since my protagonist, Sarah was traveling North by wagon through Kansas to return to Nebraska and her family, I thought it would add interest to the story to describe Sarah and her children unexpectedly encountering a black family in the middle of Kansas living near Nicodemus.
Sarah follows a narrow path with her seriously ill daughter to find help. She discovers a welcoming family descended from former slaves who willingly share their modest home for several days while Sarah nurses her daughter back to health. Her sons have fun with the son of the family. This was also an opportunity to include an opposing voice to traditional bias when Sarah tells her concerned son stories about her own and her father’s rejection of slavery, support for the Union in the Civil War and her family’s generosity toward “Negro” families when she was a child.
Have you been surprised when you learned a different narrative from the “official record”? If you enjoy historical fiction, do you seek out alternative perspectives?
*Thanks to J. James Cotter for leading the session “The Lone Ranger was Black: Reintegrating Minority Viewpoints into Historical Fiction” at the Historical Novel Society Conference, June 2017.
Bev Scott specialized in serving executives and managers as a leadership coach and organizational consultant for over thirty-five years. She taught organization psychology and founded The 3rd Act, a program whose mission supports positive aging. As she grew into her own third act, she started a genealogical journey to uncover the details of her grandparents’ lives. She concluded that the story needed to be told as fiction using the known facts as her framework. “Sarah’s Secret: A Western Tale of Betrayal and Forgiveness,” Bev’s debut novel, is the culmination of her long-held desire tell the family story and confirm the whispered story about her grandfather. For more information, visit www.bevscott.com.