A 2020 VLA Graphic Novel Diversity Award Honor Book

Black Heroes of the Wild West by James Otis Smith; introduction by Kadir Nelson
Graphic Historical Book – Grades 3-5

This book supplies information missing from most historical texts by recognizing contributions of African Americans in the Old West. While the graphic sections highlight Mary Fields, Bass Reeves, and Bob Lemmons, the introduction and lengthy end notes add a wealth of extra information.

The introduction by Kadir Nelson, “For a New American History,” should not be missed. It sets the tone for the rest of the book. A timeline, “The Wild West: Key Dates and Defining Moments” and suggestions for further reading including resources appear at the end of the book.

Suggestions for in-class activities:
There are three graphic stories which could be read-aloud, but are better contemplated and imagined when holding the book up close. Before reading them, look at page 58 of the end notes to get historical perspectives about the highlighted individuals.  Perhaps advertise each person’s story while at the same time leaving out the “clinchers” to lure students into the graphic stories when gaining access to the book during independent reading times. 

Don’t miss reading, “Who Were the Real Cowboys?” and other sections of the end notes. It’s important to contradict Hollywood stereotypes with correct information. Add to this, “Mythmaking and the Wild West,” also in the end notes. 

Invite a cowboy, preferably African American, to visit the class and talk about his job. If his horse comes too, meet together outside. After the visit, explore how ranch operations have changed since the mid to late 1800s.

Discussion questions:
This all-inclusive book will offer many topics to discuss; cattle drives (maps), cowboy’s work, barbed wire invention, transcontinental railroad, US  legislation affecting African Americans, Civil War, and more.

Comments by Virginia Lopez, retired educator

Find more information about the book from the publisher here.
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