In a Simple Lawn Ornament, Echoes of Slavery, Revolution
Sunday, September 17, 2006
He strides toward you, dwarflike: Please take this . . . this empty ring . . . this lantern . . . this hand. . . .
He watches you, eyes baked in the sun, as if waiting for a reply.
He says something about race, without saying a word.
Driving along the outskirts of Washington on a late summer afternoon, you sometimes spot a head peeping out of a ragged patch of black-eyed Susans, and you wonder: What is that lawn jockey doing there? Who put him there? Why?
Plaster saints -- we know what those stand for. On a more whimsical note, the same goes for the garden gnome, the stag, the Dutch girl with the fishing rod.
But the lawn jockey? He's a ghost from the days of plantations and magnolias, fox hunts and manorial estates.
To some, particularly African Americans, the lawn jockey is a pint-size monument to repugnant stereotypes, a holdover from the days of slavery and Jim Crow, an artifact of racial prejudice alongside Aunt Jemima.
But others, including some historians and collectors of African American memorabilia, say the lawn jockey has been misunderstood. They say his origins can be traced to a legend of faithful duty during the American Revolution. They say he guided slaves to freedom on the underground railroad. His appearance has evolved over time, reflecting changes in the stature of blacks in U.S. society.
When you see one, he raises the question, especially if he is black: Should he be there? What's his story?
Forty-five years ago, Mildred Kehne, 85, and her husband bought two black lawn jockeys at a roadside store near Hagerstown, Md. They paid $10 for each and put them on posts flanking their driveway in New Market. Neither thought the lawn jockeys would be insulting to anyone, she said. Her husband, Joseph, who died last year at 86, just liked them.
"We had seen them at other places on posts, and he said, 'I think I'd like to have a pair of those on my posts, too,' " Kehne said.
And there the "jockey boys," as the Kehnes called them, stood for about 10 years. Then one morning, as if in a fairy tale, the Kehnes woke up to find them changed.