Black cowboys of Mississippi 'so much more than just John Wayne or the Marlboro man'

“You either love it here or you don’t."

Photographer Rory Doyle's ongoing project, “Delta Hill Riders,” has been documenting the vibrant African-American cowboy community of the Mississippi Delta for the past two years.

Doyle, who lives in Cleveland, Mississippi, is a transplant to the South and discovering the area’s black cowboy culture was a revelation.

The region faces many challenges: It’s one of the poorest areas in the country, with little economic growth or job opportunity, and a struggling education system. “You either love it here or you don’t,” Doyle said.

But Doyle has made the Delta home, finding a natural affinity for the area and wide acceptance from the community. “If you come here as ‘outsiders’ but you’re committed to staying here, and show that you care about the community, people just embrace you and love you for it, for the love you give back to this area,” he said.

Doyle, a native of Maine, is very conscious of his “outsider” status but also credits that point of view for the incentive to begin the Delta Hill Riders project in the first place, and it continues to feed his vision for the project.

“On the other hand, I’m still a Yankee, right?” Doyle, 34, says, laughing, “I’m still a person that came here from up North and is this outsider who has a different perspective of the Delta than a lot of people who have lived here their whole lives and wouldn’t stop and think twice about seeing these cowboys at the Christmas parade.”

Doyle’s work not only challenges the stereotypes of cowboy culture, but also the African-American community and preconceptions of the rural South. The African-American or nonwhite cowboy has been overlooked historically, although they have always been a part of the cowboy way of life.

Doyle’s documentation of the Delta Hill Riders works to erode the mainstream stereotype, as his images of daily life in the Mississippi Delta are far removed from the romanticized, Hollywood portrayal of the Wild West.

“I don’t want to necessarily erase the idea of the white cowboy but I do want people to know that there is so much more than just John Wayne or the Marlboro man,” he said. “This is a global culture and Hollywood has done a really good job of sharing the white image of the cowboy.”

Likewise, the project sheds light on the contemporary situation of underrepresented subcultures and communities in America, especially in places like the rural South or minority populations.

“I think people are also interested, especially now politically, in hearing or seeing the perspective of rural America. And so we have this positive story about rural America but it’s also black America, and it’s very atypical from a lot of the stereotypes that people have.”

The people Doyle photographs have a fundamental love for riding and caring for horses. Although some do compete in rodeos or horse shows, they aren’t cowboys or cowgirls as a full-time career. They all have day jobs.

The project has taught Doyle that there is a loose definition of who is part of the black cowboy culture and that “it’s not just at the barn.”

Hence, a unique aspect of Delta cowboy life is the lively club scene, where different genres of music and people come together. From R&B to Zydeco, it’s a collision of Delta sub-cultures, and with the younger cowboys, it's a chance to stand out.

“They take pride in being cowboys, they take pride in owning a horse and being associated with that culture, and it doesn’t seem to bother them that they stick out from the other young people in the club who are dressed more like a traditional hip-hop crowd," Doyle explains.

Doyle sees such as especially significant to the project given the contemporary representations of young black men in American society, which often focus on incidents or crime or police violence.

With the Delta Hill Riders project, Doyle hopes to continue to share a positive aspect of African American life that portrays a counter narrative to the mainstream stories of young black men and women.

To see more of Doyle's work on the Delta Hill Riders and the black cowboy culture of the Mississippi Delta follow him on Instagram here.