It’s not every day that a good book about both geography and history comes along, but Lisa Winkler’s non-fiction epic, A Black Cowboy’s Ride Across America, guides the reader from New Jersey to California. Each chapter portrays the real-life adventure of an African-American teacher, Miles Dean, who rides horseback across the United States beginning September 22, 2007. The mini-biography of Dean spans not only the country, but the centuries of African-American history in various places along the way.
There is not enough room in history books to tell the stories of all the remarkable people who walked this earth. So they leave out those folks who do not specifically advance the historical narrative the editors wish to portray. For example, American children all read about George Washington, the first President of the United States, and they should. Do they also know about Blanche K. Bruce, the first African-American to serve a full term in the U.S. Senate in 1874? Readers travel with Miles and pick up gems of history where they happened along the journey.
In this book the reader experiences the difficulties of the actual horseback ride across motorized America in spite of extensive planning, along with the exuberance of meeting welcoming strangers in every place. Readers learn along with Miles about various famous African-Americans, who were firsts in fields that don’t make the history books, such as horse jockeys or cowboys. Rather than being a chronological history, this is a geographical history. Every locale has its heroes and heroines, and they fit into various historical time frames. The focus of this book is on African-American heroes from each stop along the way, so there might be a Civil War hero, and a country singer in the same location.
In truth children learn history, just as they learn their first language, from those closest to them. They learn about their own ethnicity from their parents and grandparents, and blend it in with their growing life experiences. They hear the stories of the folks in their home territory. Then they learn how those stories fit into the broader scope of history. Somewhere along the way, they begin to pick up an internal timeline. In this book the reader becomes like a child growing up in each site where Miles stops, and learns a bit about each place, whetting their appetite to follow-up and research more about specific people or events later.
Winkler’s mini-biography easily meets the Common Core Standards for English Language Arts, since students will be required to read greater percentages of non-fiction texts. This is a book that will interest students, particularly ones who like horses and cowboys. Teachers are often looking for books that will appeal to disenfranchised students. This book is the perfect hook for African-American males, statistically having the largest percentage of students in this category. Miles, the rider, is the first hero, attempting this difficult trip at age 57, and overcoming obstacle after obstacle, persevering until he completes his goal. Then meeting all the unsung African-American heroes along Mile’s historic epic gives these students a sense of belonging and contributing to the history of the United States that is so essential for creating future citizens of this nation.
As an educational consultant, I think this book has implications that reach far beyond the written word, and the standards we teach. It touches the heart, and motivates young people to emulate heroes. It goes beyond exposing the faults of the country to forgiveness and allows students to see how people of different ethnicities contributed to the success of Miles’ journey. We don’t forget our history or cover it up, but maturely go beyond its faults and take advantage of new opportunities. We stand on the backs of heroes who paved the way for our success, and move forward in appreciation of their sacrifices to create a better world.
I featured Lisa Walker’s blog, Cycling Grandma, in my Christmas Sweater Post earlier in December. You will enjoy visiting her blog as well. A Black Cowboy’s Ride will make an excellent gift for your child’s teacher, a student in your life, a history buff, or yourself. I hope you will enjoy it as much as I have.