The Yeehaw Agenda: The Rise of South-Western Fashions and The Meaning of the Black Cowboy
In When I Get Home, Solange’s 2019 follow-up to her Grammy award-winning album A Seat at the Table, images of Black cowboys are intermixed with images of techno futures and the sprawling metropolis of Houston, Texas. Centering Blackness in the imagery of Southern rodeos, jockeying, and horseback riding, the visual album features Solange and an assortment of others in the aesthetic trappings of the Southwestern United States. In one scene,a sea of Black girls in a field wear white leotards, cowboy boots, and hats. In others, Solange sits on the ground, as other women stand, all dressed in black tube tops and grey snakeskin boots. A continuation of a growing fashion pattern dubbed the “Yeehaw Agenda” by Dallas native and Twitter user Bri Malandro, the fashions and images in When I Get Home traffic in the historical and sartorial traditions of Black people in the South-Western United States. For Solange, herself a Houston born and raised artist, these aesthetics mark a return to the Black Southern glamour and traditions of her hometown. They remind us of the people that are too often forgotten in the imagery of Southern Americana: Black people like my father’s family from Loudoun County, Virginia. Black jockeys, farmers, ranch hands, and rodeo cowboys who are so often erased from or disinvited to the national memory of the South.
In a 2019 interview for The New Yorker, writer Toni Morrison speaks to critic Hilton Als about how the discourse over what the South represents for Black Americans has always been a complex one. Recounting an exchange between Black writers Ralph Ellison and Irving Howe, Morrison, an Ohioan, points out the danger of dismissing the South as solely a site of racist horror and white rural life. “Ralph Ellison said something nice about living in the South, and Irving Howe said, ‘Why would you want to live in such an evil place?’ Because all he was thinking about was rednecks. And Ralph Ellison said, ‘Black people live there’,” Morrison explained. In the world of contemporary music and fashion, the immense success of Southern Black artists like Beyonce, Solange, Janelle Monae, Migos, Megan Thee Stallion, and more, would appear to be a corroboration of Ellison’s rebuttal. If nothing else, the “Yeehaw Agenda,” a constellation of Southern and Western style influences in the imagery of Black singers, rappers, designers, and visual artists, serves as a fashion-forward reminder of just how Black the South is.
In some ways, the popularity of these stylistic references to the period of “Western Expansion,” could be said to subvert ideas about “manifest destiny” and the American exceptionalism that propagated genocide and the expanse of stolen Indigenous land we now call the Western United States (or the United States as a whole). For many, there is something powerful about this fashion’s capacity to ascribe new worlds and possibilities to its subjects, and the “Yeehaw Agenda” serves as a evocative example. And yet, for others, the idea of the Black cowboy as a mere recast of the archetypal white one, suggests an uncritical and deeply troublesome adoption of colonial accoutrements. After all, the cowboy is a potent exemplar of America’s imagination of its own power and right to land possession. Thus, in 2018, when Milandro began tracking these “cowboy fashions” as they reoccurred in popular culture, she did not do so with the intention of asserting the trend’s subversiveness. In fact, she remains unconvinced that it is inherently radical at all. “I don’t think it’s subversive at all! I still don’t know who John Wayne is,” Malandro responded. Her resistance to proclaiming the trend’s power beyond the aesthetic is discerning.
While the resurgence of chaps, leather, snakeskin, denim, cowboy hats and boots amongst a demographic rarely afforded cultural recognition for their contributions to Southern fashion, music, and tradition, is not without its significance, it is important that do we do not misunderstand the differences between the Black South and the white South, and how they came to be. In recasting the Wild West and the Deep South with the Black people who are so often erased from its public face, one is compelled to ask: What does the frontier represent for the descendants of enslaved or colonized peoples rather than settlers? Is their power in this reclamation? Is this worth reclaiming? What lies in the political language of wardrobe?