Bass Reeves (Photo courtesty of U.S. Marshalls)
The answer to this question was quite the surprise to me. Apparently there are people that have known the answer for some time, including the National Park Service (NPS), Bill O’ Reilly and Morgan Freeman, which I will get back to later. First, I have to give you the background on how this all happened because you know I like to tell a story. A few weeks ago while I was at work, I had the great fortune of meeting Amy Sherald, an amazing young artist that has an even more amazing life story that was a juror for our Juried Undergraduate Exhibition. While we were hanging out in my office, she introduced me to the hilarious and intelligent world of Comedy Central’s, “Drunk History Series.” Specifically, she wanted me to see the episode about Harriet Tubman. I had never laughed this hard in a while. I can’t thank her enough for showing me this (Amy, if you are reading this, I owe you FOREVS). The brilliance of this episode had to be shared immediately, so I had to tell folks about it and or show them personally. If you aren’t familiar with the series, the premise is that a comedian or actor is basically drunk, retelling the nation’s history. This inebriated oration serves as the narration of the reenactment by highly recognizable actors; slurring and profanity included.
Anyways, this particular time, I was sharing “Drunk History: Harriet Tubman,” with my father who seemed reluctant to watch it at first. Our humor is different, but he was for sure laughing and my mom even peeped in to watch it again. Afterwards, as I have done every time after I share this episode, I scanned the other videos in the series to see what else may peak my interest because watching them becomes addictive. The humor and the history are on point. The thumbnail that I was drawn to this time was one with Jaleel White, aka “Steve Urkel,” from the old show “Family Matters.” Now, if I were to think about this, about why was I drawn to this one, I would have to be honest. It goes back to the root of all of this. As an African American, you naturally and subconsciously look for yourself. You want to see your story represented on the screen, in the parks, etc. Therefore, I figured if Jaleel White, an African American actor is in an episode, the story must be about an African American person in history. The episode was called Bass Reeves Full-On Dances with Wolves . Click here to watch episode.
Bass Reeves, left at bottom row, and fellow lawmen circa 1900. (Photo courtesy of Oklahoma University).
Bass Reeves, is the answer. The Lone Ranger, the popular fictional, masked enforcer of justice in the wild west for whom there was a radio show, tv show, and several movies made, was most likely based on this real western legend. Born into slaver, Bass Reeves is known as one of the first black Deputy U.S. Marshals west of the Mississippi River. Reeves arrested over 3,000 felons and shot and killed fourteen outlaws in self-defense. Much of the story of who he was and what he was capable of doing as a U.S. Marshall in the hostile, outlaw infiltrated Indian Territory is the thread of the Lone Ranger character. Since there are many great resources already available, I will not reinvent the wheel. I also think it is important that you, as the reader take your own route to discovery, much like I did after watching the original Drunk History episode.
Most importantly, I would like to note that during my route to discovery, I noticed during my Google search that there was a link for NPS associated with Bass Reeves. I clicked on it right away and discovered Fort Smith National Historic Site in Arkansas. For NPS site click here. As you see, in my opening paragraph (and the site), the NPS was hip to Reeves some time ago. This stands as a clear example to the importance of the NPS. Understandably, there is concern about the lack of attendance of people of color at our national and state parks, yet and still, the NPS consistently has been a steward of history including that of African Americans. Our history is there. It just needs to be unearthed and exposed, much like the truth about the Lone Ranger. Last night, I was completely dumbfounded and overwhelmed after watching Drunk History and reading more about Reeves. I thought of how our history has been skewed and manipulated for the needs and desires of those who have the power to create the story. I thought about all the people that championed around this brave superhero type character of the Lone Ranger for decades, his white face hiding behind a black mask when all along it was a black face hiding behind a white mask. The power of inclusion that same story could have had, had the true identity of Reeves been revealed, could have allowed African Americans to see themselves represented with the same reverence that was shown to this white character. We could have found the legend inside us all.
While you conduct your own research, here is one more source that I found very insightful, especially considering the source. Bill O’Reilly Legends & Lies. Click here to watch. It also looks as though Morgan Freeman has a mini series in the works for HBO. Let’s hope that he can finally get it pushed thru the red tape of racial Hollywood politics. I don’t know about you, but if we can’t get Idris Elba as the next James Bond, I think he is the perfect Bass James. Please don’t be upset with me, I know he is British and there are plenty of great African American actors, but can’t you picture him slaying the outlaws?