There were some things in the U.S.A. that were totally incomprehensible to me. One thing that I struggled to understand was how society could be so completely segregated and still one unit. Not only do blacks, whites, hispanics, asian american, etc. live separately, but they are also very anti-authoritarian. Americans apparently never trust their own government, and there are conspiracy theories galore, but you’ll never find a more patriotic people anywhere on the globe.
I didn’t just live in America, but in the black U.S.A. It was interesting to experience this side of the country, not as outsiders looking in, but since I lived on the inside of this community, I gained a unique perspective. One of the more memorable things I saw was still a rather unusual aspect of black America. On a fine September day in 2001 we went to a rodeo in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. In Norway, it’s starting to be rather nippy in the ninth month, but it was still very warm and comfortable in Arkansas. I was looking forward to one of the most American of all American traditions, but it turned out that it was not fully in line with my imagination. Not that that was a bad thing, on the contrary. I had notions of white men with names like Bubba and Billy Bob who were cheered on by girlfriends with names like Bobby Sue and Becky Jo while they cleaned their dry throats with Bud and good old moon shine. What I got to my first rodeo, however, was anything but conventional. All the cowboys were well dressed and black. I bet they even had excellent insurance that covered dental care as well. For a moment, I almost thought I had ended up in the Gene Wilder film “Blazing Saddles.”
I turned to my wife and asked:
“Where are all rednecks (or maybe it’s more political correct to refer to them as a white member of the Southern rural labouring class) with buck teeth and brown saliva from the tobacco running out of their mouths? These are good-looking black cowboys. It’s like looking at glossy pictures of the Ponderosa.”
She said my face was “priceless” and she didn’t laugh any less when I turned around and discovered that I was the only white man on the stands. This was in fact an African American rodeo. Nobody thinks of African American men when they think of a rodeo, but this is due to a lack of recognition of blacks in general. I found out later that one of the best ever in this sport was actually the son of a freed slave, Billy Pickett. Black rodeos are not a new trend, and why would it be? The blacks have probably handled horses since they were slaves, so it’s only natural that they still do. It’s a fact that in the western parts of the United States there were at least 10 000 black cowboys around the time of the civil war. They must have been most of the market.
The reason why they still have separate competitions is because U.S.A. is still a very segregated society. They are all Americans, but that doesn’t seem to count for much because black and white people go to their own churches, (almost) their own schools, live in their own neighbourhoods and not the least, they go to their own rodeos. As I was standing in a small stand in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, there wasn’t much that looked like the Calgary Stampede, the world’s largest rodeo. This was a small club event, more like a cozy little church picnic, but it was really fun!
Oh, and speaking of the churches, they are perhaps the most typical part of African American culture. At least if you count the parts anyone can attend. It is no coincidence that many of the most famous black singing artists in the United States began their careers singing in gospel choirs, as in the African American churches. African American church choirs are beautiful to hear.. They are generally much more expressive than the Europeans and will be happy to comment when the pastor speaks. I got quite a bit blown away the first time I was in a black Baptist church. In the midst of a testimony the musicians on the podium started to play some intense rhythms, while several of the members of the congregations danced, ran and jumped between the benches. It was quite an experience and inevitably I felt a bit like I had a few too many “Norwegian stiffness genes.” I have, after all, grown up in quiet churches, the kind of place where two men would smoothly escort you out of the church if you so much as lifted your hands. Additionally, if you are brave enough to shout Hallelujah it often results in hospitalization. Feedback in Norwegian churches refers exclusively to a screaming sound from the microphone. Any other feedback is almost always the devil’s work.
There is no doubt that black churches are colourful, but that doesn’t mean they had any color appreciation. Blue certainly has a special meaning in the church; because all colors have a symbolic cultural significance. I think light blue symbolizes the sky/heaven, and it’s probably why so many black churches in Little Rock had a penchant for just this. Blue is actually my favorite color, because it can be very nice, but this blue was anything but aesthetically pleasing! The worst example I remember was a church in our neighborhood that had decorated the outside of the windows with this glaring color, that called to you from a few miles away. Some churches were just as loud blue inside as well. It was almost as disturbing to the eye as red is to an angry bull. Hmm ..does that explain some of the informal atmosphere that is often found in the black churches?