Trae Q.L. Venerable is a lot of things: a horseman, a houndsman, a writer and an educator, for sure. But foremost, he’s a real-life cowboy who doesn’t fit the image found in most western movies or in country music.
The Kansas City writer is African American and a mix of Choctaw, Cherokee and Black Foot as well as a fourth generation cowboy. He thought he'd do well to write books that honor those previous generations as well as future generations of cowboys of color.
"Grandpa asked if Bo had ever heard of black cowboys," Venerable’s first book begins. "Bo replied, 'Of course not, Grandpa LeRoy … cowboys are only white on TV and there is no such thing as a black cowboy.'"
While he was still a high school student at Olathe North just handful of years ago, Venerable began constructing children’s literature around this idea that cowboys aren’t a homogenous group. His series, so far in three parts with the third coming soon, is called "Grandpa, I Just Want to be a Cowboy."
He has many ranching and farming stories from his family’s long history in the industry, but more than the stories, he says, is "the strong sense of pride in our family, the community that's built the legacy I'm standing on today down in southern Missouri and on the Kansas side."
Bo, the young protagonist of the books, learns from his grandfather about notable black cowboys through history — names like Nat Love, Bill Pickett, and Bass Reeves, the first black deputy west of the Mississippi.
Bo's grandpa tells him that in real life, Bass Reeves was what the Lone Ranger only pretended to be on film. Just as the character is excited to see his own reflection in heroes like Reeves, Venerable has learned that the students he speaks with are excited to see him.
To date, he’s visited 25 elementary and middle schools on his "MidWest CowPoke" tour. He says that when he was a child, black writers didn’t visit his school.
"My heart is for children's literacy," Venerable says. "I'm talking to kids about cowboying. I'll bring saddles, cow skulls, lassoes, but also the talk is about way more than that; it's about letting them see themselves on that stage."
He says children approach him after he reads and want to tell him their stories, which he says is humbling. When kids say they have their own stories, he says, "You sure do. Go tell the world your story."
Venerable notes that holding someone to appearances, even if it's just their clothes, will short-change the other person.
"I consider myself the country Kanye West. I could have some tight Wranglers on, but then, like, with some Yeezys,” he says. Meanwhile, he has a friend who only shops at The Buckle — but get him on a horse, and mall shopping is easily forgotten.
"Your closet doesn't represent what you are. What you do represents what you are," Venerable says. "I remember Grandpa saying, 'You don't have to tell people what you are — it should just show through your actions.'"
Trae Q.L. Venerable spoke with KCUR on a recent edition of Central Standard. Listen to the full conversation here.