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Review: The cowboys of Compton, first a curiosity and then a legacy

Compton Cowboys members Charles Harris and Randy Hook during the Compton Christmas Parade.
(Walter Thompson-Hernández)

Back in the 1990s, in certain neighborhoods across L.A. County, if the term “Wild Westpopped up in casual parlance, it had nothing to do with cowboys.

The phrase was insider shorthand, distinct from the euphemistic terms — “urban” or “inner city” — imposed from the outside to denote the neighborhoods black and brown people called home.

In certain parts of South L.A., “wild” was a power flex, a way to self-name. As writer and photographer Walter Thompson-Hernández illuminates in his ambitious new book, “The Compton Cowboys,” the bedroom community of Compton had been many things in its century-long history — an agriculture hub, a brief home base for George H.W. Bush — but by the ‘90s it was “in complete upheaval. Gang violence led to high murder rates, the ‘crack’ cocaine epidemic was destroying families.”

Driven by substandard housing and failing schools, this “upheaval” was nothing less than the destruction of an American dream for the generation of the Great Migration — African American families who, in candid moments, sometimes wondered if they might have fared better back in their ancestral homes.

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At the same time, Compton emerged as a kind of cultural mecca, spawning a visceral brand of rap that rattled out of car radios. Music by groups like N.W.A — who dubbed themselves “street reporters” — became a defiant soundtrack, effectively rewriting a community’s story from the inside out.

If you grew up in or near Compton, you might have grown accustomed to hardscrabble streetscapes juxtaposed against stretches of farmland, but you always paused to marvel at the black men astride horses, boots slipped into stirrups, eyes shielded from the sun by cowboy hats.

Thompson-Hernández first encountered the Compton Cowboys, avatars of another Wild West, on weekend shopping trips with his mother to the Compton Swap Meet not far from their home in Huntington Park. At 6, he was mesmerized: The image of these men, shoulders squared, trotting through a busy urban thoroughfare, lingered well into adulthood. They became the subject of a multimedia project for the New York Times in 2018. “As I watched them ride at dusk,” he writes, “I recognized something inherent in the cowboys who existed in every western film and every hip hop song: these black men were nonconformist, independent, and strong.” What they modeled was pride, another way to be.

Members of the Compton Cowboys wait outside a restaurant.
(Walter Thompson-Hernandez)
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With the raw quality of a hand-held documentary, “The Compton Cowboys” gallops into the origin story of this unique organization and its now-fragile legacy — and also into the personal narratives of the 10 riders (nine men and one woman) who began riding as the Compton Junior Posse — now known as the Compton Cowboys.

The book is structured as a loose collage of portraits rather than a taut, linear narrative, but Mayisha Akbar is its lodestar. The founder of the Compton Junior Posse was raised to push back against assumptions. A shrewd real estate agent who for decades connected L.A. families with their dream homes, she’d been looking to invest in some property for herself. A client suggested Richland Farms, one of the last zoned agricultural areas in Compton. Though Akbar had grown up nearby, her family had migrated from Oklahoma and she’d been nurtured on her father’s stories of rural life. The idea of raising her own children around animals and grazing land appealed to her. It also sparked an epiphany: Why not create a working ranch that doubled as an education — an alternative to increasingly deadly streets.

Like Akbar, the first wave of young people who arrived at the ranch in 1988 had never seen black cowboys in movies or on TV. Nor was cowboy lore part of their classroom curriculum — no inspiring lessons on the showman Nat Love or the rodeo champion Bill Pickett.

Akbar’s makeshift ranch was a proving ground: “[T] he children had to decide between the version of Compton that N.W.A was describing and the Compton she wanted to create.” But she knew the power of images: “[W]hen young black children began to ride horses on Caldwell, it changed the neighborhood and their lives forever.”

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By the time Thompson-Hernández catches up with Akbar, Compton is a vastly changed landscape — far from the one both of them had grown up with. Post-crack epidemic, it was indelibly altered by disinvestment — economic disenfranchisement, falling property values and black exodus. Akbar’s program once served a predominately African American community; it was now 70% Latino; N.W.A had given way to banda from Northern Mexico and the layered social commentary of Compton-born rapper Kendrick Lamar.

A book jacket for "The Compton Cowboys" by Walter Thompson-Hernandez. Credit: William Morrow
(William Morrow)

The future looks less bleak but also less certain. In the months before her retirement, Akbar makes arrangements to hand over her carefully built legacy to a new generation — her nephews. The process is both tender and fraught. While they’ve reaped the benefits of Akbar’s labor, they will have to create a fresh template. In times past the organization relied on donations from wealthy white donors, a network of patrons cultivated for more than 30 years. Now, funding that had been designated to help black children would be controlled and allocated by the grown black men they’d become.

Randy, one of Akbar’s nephews, sees the danger: In a space where life was tenuous, where a stray bullet or a freak accident could end it all in a millisecond, he didn’t want others to have control of the cowboys’ dreams. His proposed approach would focus on education, business, athletics, guidance and therapy. It would put power in the hands of the riders by creating a consortium of black equestrian programs across L.A. and the nation.

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This desire to control one’s story and one’s destiny is at the heart of the story and Thompson-Hernández’s storytelling. With the eye of a photographer, he captures the minute ways a community cedes power to another. Zooming in on granular detail, he fleshes out a neighborhood in all its colors, scents and conversational rhythms. This means there are numerous threads and names to follow, and at times some repetition disrupts the narrative’s flow and urgency. Nonetheless, this is a rare, un-sensationalized portrait of a community fighting to reclaim its turf.

In the end, the author doesn’t deliver certainty but rather something more fundamental. Back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the official news of South L.A. was often controlled by reporters who parachuted in to grab sensationalistic segments before moving on. This book is the antithesis: In words and photographs, Thompson-Hernández reveals a three-dimensionality of people and place that can result only from time, trust and compassion.

George is a journalist and essayist and is at work on a book about Octavia E. Butler’s Southern California.

The Compton Cowboys
By Walter Thompson-Hernández
William Morrow, 272 pages, $28.99


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