Little boys of my generation played “Cowboys and Indians.” Because of what I saw on TV and in movies, I wanted to be like the men depicted in those visual narratives. For me the West as myth pulled at my notions of masculinity. I wanted to be the hero of a John Ford movie. As a boy, the racial implications of that want had not dawned on me. Neither did I know the movement West brought with it the genocidal murder of the Indigenous people, now turned into a game for boys. In these games nobody wanted to be the Indians because we knew the outcome if not the implication. We played the cowboys and we killed the Indians.
In 1893 Frederick Jackson Turner, in his essay “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” used the term “frontier” as a model for understanding American culture. Turner thought of the frontier as “the meeting point between savagery [Native people] and civilization [White people]” and argued that this point was the foundation for American identity and politics. Americans’ notions of nationalism, democracy, and individualism, as well as a rejection of European ideals, Turner believed, were a result of the frontier. Thus he concluded that America was only unique because of its interaction with the frontier (and the West as it expanded) and therefore “to the frontier the American intellect owes its striking characteristics.”
But I think it was the manifestations in popular culture of these notions of the West and the frontier that promulgated the myth. Beginning with the Western novels of Zane Grey and the works of painter, illustrator, sculptor, and writer Frederic Sackrider Remington, American men and boys became increasingly enthralled by these images of the West. But perhaps the most potent influence was Hollywood and its machinery of dream and myth-making. Through movies, in particular the early films of John Ford and his Stagecoach (1939), and later in television shows (Zane Grey Theater, Rawhide, Wagon Train) the myth of the West was solidified and indelibly inscribed the images of a strong and rugged Western (White) man in the imagination of the boys and men of the late-nineteenth and early- and mid-twentieth centuries.
My new work for Pacific Northwest Ballet, And the sky is not cloudy all day, with its John Adams score so reminiscent of Aaron Copland’s dance scores for Martha Graham, Eugene Loring, and Agnes de Mille is a kind of “nostalgia”. It presents a picture of something that existed only in my boyhood imagination. It is like the ‘dream ballet’ in a Broadway musical. It steps out of time and reality to present a vision free of harshness, where the bloody narrative of the massacre of Native people is not there. There is a tension created by what we know happened and this confection. It is my boyhood dream, a boy from the past’s playtime. Ultimately, however, as we watch, we must ask ourselves to consider and grapple with the myth of the West, the true West and its cruelty, and its terrible legacy… Yet if only for one brief moment, it also allows us to accept those contradictions.
Notes by Donald Byrd, March 2021