My aunt, my mother’s twin, had a black lawn jockey on her front lawn. It appeared some time in the 60s in the midst of the Civil Rights movement. My cousin, my aunt’s daughter, told me that actually her mother had had two. One was vandalized (smashed) by someone. Then my aunt got another and painted it with polka dots on his clothes, white hair and eyebrows like an old Uncle Tom, and a garish, cartoony face. My cousin lives in her childhood home and said the (second) lawn jockey was still in the garage. She sent me this photo of it this morning.
My family was liberal, at least I felt certain my father and mother were. They were open-minded and always told me that black people were equal to everyone else. But I don’t think they ever said anything to my aunt about the lawn jockey on her front lawn.
The fact that my aunt got a second one after the first had been vandalized is incredibly disturbing to me. Was she daring the vandalizer to come back? Was she telegraphing to the vandalizer that she would win this? That whites always do? And why did she paint the lawn jockey in the way she did? It seems obvious to me she was mocking black people, but I’m not entirely sure she saw it that way. I think she thought it was humorous, not racist mockery. Why was my aunt trying to evoke attitudes of the “Old South” on Bowen Road in Toledo Ohio in the 1960s?
Brown v Board of Education 1954, Emmett Till 1955, Rosa Parks 1955, Little Rock Nine 1957, Woolworth’s lunch counter 1961, Freedom Riders 1961, Birmingham church bombing 1963, March on Washington 1963, Civil Rights Act 1964, Selma to Montgomery March/ Bloody Sunday 1965, Voting Rights Act 1965, Assassination of Malcolm X 1965, Assassination of Martin Luther King 1968. This lawn “ornament” was not a random purchase. There was intention here.
I don’t know exactly when she first put the lawn jockey in front of her house (as it is unclear when it got permanently put into the garage), but it is clear I remember it. I remember it because it bothered me, but I doubt whether I said anything to my aunt either. I remember the polka dots and the garish face making me feel as if she had made a burlesque out of the serious idea of equality. I hadn’t remembered the white hair until I saw the photo this morning. I have a very vague memory of talking about it with my parents or maybe I just remember my parents talking about it in the car. Or maybe none of us said anything about it. Maybe we just “thought” our responses to it. And why is it still in my cousin’s garage?
On Facebook, someone described that before the Civil War, black lawn jockeys were put in front of houses as signals for the Underground Railroad. Different signifiers were tied to the jockey or colors painted on them to signal safe houses or safety information in general. This, of course, was not why my aunt placed one on her front lawn. Was she signaling her fear of what she saw as the world changing in a way that made her uncomfortable? She clearly felt safe to publicly broadcast her disdain for black people. What pushed her–twice— to do that? These many years later, I understand she was simply demonstrating her privilege and superiority in a system steeped in racism. And so were my parents (and her neighbors) by not saying anything to her. We were all demonstrating, what Robin DiAngelo describes as, white solidarity.
My aunt had an African American cleaning lady, Josie, who came to her house weekly and ironed my aunt’s family’s clothes as well as cleaned her house. What did Josie think when she saw this jockey on my aunt’s front lawn? I have this fantasy that Josie came home one day and told her family about the lawn jockey and one of her kids got a bunch of his friends together and they drove to my aunt’s house and trashed the jockey. I hope so. I wonder why they didn’t bother with the second one. I have some shame why I didn’t bother with it either.