My thanks to Lisa Winkler for stopping by Tribute Books Reviews & Giveaways for a guest post about her book, On the Trail of the Ancestors: A Black Cowboy’s Ride Across America.
Growing up in a rural Connecticut town, I rode horses. There was a stable up the street from my house that I rode by bicycle to for weekly lessons. I remember loving the animals, the riding and grooming of the horses. By the time I entered high school, I stopped horseback riding as sports, clubs and boys took over my interests.
By the time I met Miles Dean, I was working as a literacy consultant in Newark, NJ. During my first year of this five- year grant position, he had embarked on his epic journey; riding his stallion Sankofa from New York to California to celebrate the contributions of African Americans in US history.
I taught middle school students, mostly in urban areas. For these students, horses were something they saw infrequently in parades and I knew they hadn’t heard of the many heroes Miles had honored with his journey. Fascinated by Dean’s childhood dream to ride a horse and his mission to follow the trail of African American ancestors, I offered to tell his story.
Since I didn’t go on the journey, I created some scenes. However all the people mentioned- both in present day and historical, are real. I had traveled with my family as a child and remembered the diverse geography of the nation. I further informed my writing through reading and research, particularly about the black jockeys, cowboys, US Deputy marshals, and others. Miles kept a diary, however it was inconsistent and without many details. He joked, “Had I known there’d be a book, I’d have written more.” So I pulled as much information as I could from him, interviewing him again and again and also talked to others involved with his journey.
The more I read, wrote, revised, edited and rewrote, the more convinced I became that this story reveals elements of our country’s history and reinforces how our history is one that is shared by many cultures. It’s my hope that this little book will enlighten others about these unsung heroes. Miles Dean dreamed of riding a horse from a young age. His story shows how dreams can come true; though it’s not overnight. He suppressed his dream well into adult life, not thinking he’d ever be able to ride a horse.
On the Trail of the Ancestors: A Black Cowboy’s Ride Across America became my dream. The book transformed many times. I began writing in first person then switched to third, finding that perspective enabled me to bring the story to life beyond a recapping of his diaries. I bounced around many titles, playing with the various key words. I think this one, albeit long, combines the dream with the mission. I’m now writing an educators’ guide to accompany the book that will be available free on my website. (also in progress).
About the Book
Miles J. Dean, a Newark, NJ schoolteacher, rode his horse from New York to California to celebrate the contributions African Americans made in the settling of the United States. During his six-month, 5,000-mile journey, Dean, a 57-year-old African American, addressed people along the way at schools and colleges, community organizations, and penal institutions. He met hundreds of Americans through informal encounters at campgrounds, Wal-Mart parking lots, restaurants, and country stores. With each, he shared his reasons for the journey and inspired others to fulfill their dreams. Growing up in Brooklyn, New York, Dean first learned about cowboys from watching television. Like any boy at that time, he wanted to be like those heroes and pretended to be a cowboy. He galloped through the streets on his bicycle, ambushing outlaws on street corners. Although Hollywood helped keep his dream alive, the cowboys on TV didn’t look like Dean. At age 23, he saw Sidney Poitier play a cowboy in the 1972 film, Buck and the Preacher, and realized he too could be a cowboy. He deferred his teenage dream another 10 years before he could afford riding lessons and eventually bought his first horse. But the film inspired him to explore the African American history he never learned in school, specifically the contributions made during the 1500-1800s when horses were the primary means of transportation. He knew he wanted to make a cross-country journey and retrace the steps of these early pioneers; it was just a question of when. On September 22, 2007, Dean brought his horse, Sankofa, a 12-year-old Arabian stallion into New York City and rode to the African Burial Grounds, in lower Manhattan to begin his journey. Granted an unpaid leave of absence from his 5th grade social studies position, he embarked on this odyssey he had dreamed about for nearly 35 years. Six months later, Dean completed the trip with a celebration at the California African American Museum in Los Angeles. In between he visited several historical monuments, paying homage to history’s forgotten heroes, including the black jockeys at Kentucky’s Churchill Downs and soldiers at Tennessee’s African American Civil War Cemetery. His travels through Memphis and Little Rock evoked his own memories of growing up during the Civil Rights Movement. His ride through the harsh deserts of the Southwest and across California’s formidable Chocolate Mountains allowed him to re-enact the conditions and perils faced by early cowboys and marshals. On the Trail of the Ancestors: A Black Cowboy’s Ride Across America recounts how one man followed his childhood dream. Dean’s commitment to his journey helped him battle a brain tumor; his gratitude to his ancestors fortified his resilience; and his integrity to honoring heroes in history via his horse kept him on road. This book chronicles Dean’s cross-country journey and introduces readers to people from all cultural and social backgrounds. Dean’s many encounters with strangers who assisted him, his meetings with students, his participation in local community parades and other events as he traveled bring to life the complex tapestry of the country. As Dean travels from state to state, the reader learns about African Americans who contributed to US history. Dean’s relationship with his horse Sankofa provides insights about what it is like to ride a horse for six months. Whether navigating dangerous terrain and city traffic, riding long distances, handling medical problems for him and the horse, or facing the challenges of acquiring the four relief horses, his anecdotes regale readers with the visceral pleasures and difficulties of such a journey. Dean’s story demonstrates that an ordinary person can accomplish the extraordinary.
Price: $2.99 ebook, $12.95 trade paperback
Pages: 150 pages
Genre: black history memoir
Release Date: February 11, 2012
About the Author
While enjoying dual careers as a journalist and then educator, Lisa Winkler had no plans at all to become an author – until, at least, she met Miles Dean. That chance meeting resulted in Winkler writing the most recent and enthralling Black History memoirs – On The Trail of the Ancestors: A Black Cowboy’s Ride Across America.
Earlier in April 2009 Winkler had written an article titled “The Kentucky Derby’s Forgotten Jockeys” about African-American jockeys for the Smithsonian Magazine website. That interest in black history ramped up 1000 percent when she met Miles Dean and he began to share with her just part of his adventures riding a horse from New York City to California. The subsequent agreement to write a book led Winkler through several exhaustive interviews with Dean, a mountain of research, and discussions with several black scholars – culminating in publication of her first book in March 2012.
Born in New Haven, Connecticut, Winkler lived in London from 1982-87 before moving to New Jersey where she now resides. She earned her BA degree from Vassar College in 1978 and an MA in Education in 1992 from New Jersey City University.
A former freelance journalist and reporter for the Danbury News-Times in Connecticut, she has written several magazine articles, essays for book anthologies, several study guides for Penguin Books, and still writes for Education Update, an education newspaper based in New York City.
Winkler was a middle school language arts teacher for more than 10 years and has just completed a five-year grant position under No Child Left Behind in Newark, New Jersey.
The author has three children, two daughters-in-law, and three grandchildren. She serves on the Board of Trustees for the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey as head of the education committee. She is an avid cyclist, knitter, cook, and reader and loves the theater, museums, and yoga.
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