09 Feb 5 Questions with Zaron Burnett III, creator and host of Black Cowboys podcast
Telling the underrepresented stories of Black Cowboys: Podcast creator Zaron Burnett III shares fascinating true stories during Feb. 17 lecture at Eiteljorg
By Brooke Sullivan, Eiteljorg marketing and communications intern
Zaron Burnett III, creator and host of the Black Cowboys podcast on iHeartRadio will speak about his life and work at the Eiteljorg’s annual Leon Jett Memorial Lecture at 6 p.m. Thursday Feb 17. Burnett, who started his career in Hollywood as a screenwriter, is now an investigative journalist, long-form feature writer, essayist and podcaster. As a staff writer for MEL magazine, he writes about a range of topics including, crime, culture, politics and race.
Raised with the remarkable stories of Black cowboys, Burnett shares them now in his podcast in the hope of people learning a “bigger, bolder, and braver story of America.” In anticipation of the upcoming lecture, Burnett sat down with the Eiteljorg and answered a few questions.
What prompted you to start sharing the stories about Black cowboys that you yourself were raised with?
“…iHeartRadio reached out to me about doing a podcast, and I pitched them the idea of Black Cowboys. I explained that I had a very personal connection to the material because my father told me these (accounts of Black cowboys) as bedtime stories. I know firsthand how much it helped me know about the past of Black people and to have a proud connection…. I had an idea of free Black people existing in America, and I wanted other people to have that same understanding and sense of pride and the same sense of place…”
What kind of reaction have you received from regular listeners of the podcast?
“It has been predominantly positive. I’ve got a couple of people who are just, you know, mad and sour-faced. But for the most part, the emails and messages I received have been nice… Some people had told me how much it meant to them to be able to drive across the country and share these stories with their families while they’re driving, (with their) young children who were seeing that land and hearing these stories at the same time… So, I was very touched by the fact that it connected with so many people and also made a lot of people curious to learn more, which ultimately was my greatest hope.”
How has your background as a journalist shaped your approach to creating this podcast?
“I was a screenwriter before I was a journalist. So I learned how to tell a story through Hollywood, the three-act structure, and all the expectations of the hero’s journey and those classic archetypes of storytelling. And then, I became a journalist, and I learned the responsibilities of the journalists, and how the storytelling structure is slightly different. So then combining those two for the podcast, I wanted it to feel like an audio movie, but I wanted to have the responsibility of journalists so that all of the facts were checked, everything was correct…. So basically, it was a synthesis of my two past writing cells that make up the podcast.”
What do you hope the audience members will take away from your upcoming lecture?
“I would hope audience members would take away a better, bigger, bolder, braver story of America that exists and is here. We must connect to it because it tells us who we are and how we can be our best selves — because we can see how people have overcome things of the past, identify with them, and understand that the challenges we face now are nothing new.”
So what is next for you and your podcast? Or are there any new projects on the horizon?
“On Feb. 15, I have a new show launching with my co-host Elizabeth Dutton. It is called Ridiculous Crime, and we will tell stories about ridiculous crimes to each other. The stories are outlandish, like imagine a 16-year-old boy who breaks into a luxury car dealership and steals Guy Fieri’s bright, yellow Lamborghini, and does this to impress a girl at his high school? Those are the types of stories we will tell. Then we’re talking about a possible season 2 for Black Cowboys. However, it may be a different set of Black historical figures… It may not be Black cowboys, in particular, (but instead) Black explorers, Black mariners or Black aviators”
Bonus Question: Does the lack of representation in Hollywood contribute to the lack of awareness of Black cowboys?
“I would say it is a major root cause, because often when people imagine history, it is based on the movies, and TV shows… We believe that these stories are being packaged honestly. So, when you see an all-white West, you don’t question that that maybe isn’t accurate, and since you know history is not respectfully and honestly taught in public schools, our cultural understanding comes from movies, TV shows, and so forth…but it is a shame that we don’t tell the stories of this country, because the stories of this country are compelling.…”
Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Join us at the Eiteljorg at 6 p.m. Feb 17 for the Leon Jett Memorial Lecture, featuring Zaron Burnett III. One of a series of spring lectures at the Eiteljorg, this lecture honors Leon Jett, the Eiteljorg’s former manager of public programming who sought to create diverse multicultural programs. The lecture is offered at an affordable discounted rate: Museum members are $10, non-members are $15. To purchase a ticket visit Eiteljorg.org/Events.
Listen to Zaron Burnett’s Black Cowboys podcast here: https://www.iheart.com/podcast/1119-black-cowboys-77440172/
Zaron Burnett’s Recommended Reading List:
- “Black Indians” by William Loren Katz
- “Black Gun Silver Star” by William Loren Katz
- “Black Cowboys in the American West” by Glasrud, Searles, and Broussard
- “Black Cowboys of the Old West” by Tricia Wagner
- “A Land So Strange” by Professor Andres Resendez
- “Bill Pickett Bulldogger” by Bailey C. Hanes
- “Stagecoach Women: Brave and Daring Women of the Wild West” by Cheryl Mullenbach