by Jacob Gillam
Coyote’s Ballad is historical speculative fiction which delves into the racial history of the American Wild West. Israel Ramses Jackson II, the story’s hero, is a black cowboy. He’s not the only black cowboy in America’s media by a longshot (Django from Django Unchained comes to mind, as does Elmer Kelton’s protagonist in his book, Wagontongue), but he’s my response to the to the erasure of black cowboys specifically, but the whitewashing of the American Wild West generally.
I initially envisioned Israel after reading the BBC article, “America’s Forgotten Black Cowboys,” and historian Mike Searles encapsulated my thoughts aptly within the article:
“‘If something is not in the popular imagination, it does not exist….The American West is often considered the birthplace of America, where Americans were distinct from their European Counterparts….The West was where white men were able to show their courage. But if a black man could be heroic and have all the attributes that you give the best qualities of men, then how was it possible to treat a black man as subservient or as a non-person?'”
Israel is my tiny droplet in the sea of media expanding what a Western (as in the genre, but also the philosophical category) protagonist ought to be: a black man who rejects the racially-motivated termination of an entire species of bovine while outwitting a wily Necromancer from Ancient Minoan along the way.
Griswold Ritter Von Bitterlich, Coyote’s Ballad’s villain, is a recurring character in my historical fiction. He’s a millennias-old Necromancer from North Africa whose flesh has been bleached white by time and exposure—and he ruthlessly exploits his ability to pass as a white man in a colonized world.
Griswold isn’t the villain because he can pass as a white man. He’s the villain because he idly watched the evolution of a global racial caste over thousands of years and consistently sided with the oppressors. He’s the villain because he has all the privileges we can dream of—wealth, power, influence, complexion, gender, eternal freakin’ life—and still acts with all the foresight of a spoiled kid.
The part of me which loves history is always mindful that History is at its best a coercive fiction: there are always narratives compelled to silence in the gaps of every history. If Israel is my effort to give voice to a part of the American West lost to erasure, then Griswold is the gap in Western history which eats the voices which protest and resist the impulses that led to manifest destiny.