Outside magazine, February 1998
In Search of the Racial Frontier: African Americans in the American West, by Quintard Taylor (W. W. Norton, $30). During a spate of racist violence that made national news late last year, a Denver teenage skinhead charged with murdering a black man claimed he did so because the victim "really didn't belong where he was." The notion that blacks somehow "don't belong" in the West has been disturbingly widespread-even, until recently, among historians. According to the long-held logic of scholars, Taylor writes, African Americans "were not an indigenous conquered group, and certainly they were not among the conquerors. Thus black Westerners had no place in the region's historical saga." Seeking to disabuse readers of this grand misreading, the University of Oregon historian examines five centuries of black influence in the West-from Esteban, a Moroccan slave who traveled from Florida to Mexico in 1528 on one of the earliest transcontinental expeditions, to the Supreme Court's landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision in 1954 and the recent Los Angeles riots. To enliven his encyclopedic recounting, Taylor flecks the tale with such intriguing, if obscure, personalities as Pìo Pico, who in the mid-nineteenth century served as the Mexican governor of what is now California, and Oscar Micheaux, a black homesteader who became the first prominent African-American filmmaker. It's an exhaustive historical survey and therein lies its only shortcoming: At times Taylor's account reads more like a Who's Who compendium than a richly textured history, leaving readers wishing for deeper analysis. But he convincingly proves his point that the black history of the West "can be celebrated or critiqued, but it can no longer be ignored."
Waiting for Fidel, by Christopher Hunt (Mariner/Houghton Mifflin, $13). "What I want is soap," announces a Cuban beggar to a bewildered Christopher Hunt. "Please give me soap. Please do me this favor." In most other places, you don't find panhandlers out hustling for hygiene. But in Cuba-where U.S. sanctions and the Soviet Union's demise have caused chronic shortages of even the most basic provisions — absurd vignettes such as this one quickly seem normal. All of which intrigues Hunt, author of Sparring with Charlie (a humorous account of his travels, via Russian motorcycle, through post-war Vietnam). In his equally odd and funny new book, 35-year-old Hunt embarks on a half-serious quest to find Fidel Castro, hitchhiking his way along the circuitous route the young revolutionary took during his 1959 victory march. On the way, Hunt encounters a wildly idiosyncratic cast of characters, including a teenage smuggler swathed in bags of contraband coffee, a Leninism-professor-cum-small-time-thug, and the now-decrepit actor who played Grandpa Munster on TV. Given Hunt's appetite for the bizarre, it's not surprising that sociopolitical analysis takes a back seat to more spontaneous observations of day-to-day Cuban life, from the rich culture of bootlegging to the ubiquitous sugarcane carnival. Waiting for Fidel is a campy postcard from a resilient island engaged in a drama that's equal parts tragedy and farce.
Photographs by Clay Ellis