The Lawn Jockey: A Beacon of Hope and Freedom?

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Caution: This may be a difficult post to read. But, please read anyway.

I have grown up having been taught that the lawn jockey is a symbol of racism towards Black Americans. In fact, my father told me that there were laws passed in the 1960s banning the display of lawn jockeys, and if they were displayed, they had to be painted white.

Whenever I see a lawn jockey, I shudder. In fact, there is a lawn jockey of a slave prominently displayed near the home of the parents of a childhood friend of mine. Whenever I would go to her house to play, I would have to pass by that house and see that lawn jockey. Talk about stealing someone’s joy.

There appear to be conflicting accounts as to the origin and symbolism of the lawn jockey. One is the account with which I and many other Black Americans are well-acquainted (see above). The other is this account. And then there’s this account.

However, after having conducted an Internet seach re: the history and meaning of the lawn jockey, I learned, to my utter dismay, that there are actually companies which manufacture and sell these things. As you scroll down the page, you will see two such examples of “hope and freedom.”

Tell me this: How are “Jocko” and a watermelon- eating caricature of a black child symbolic of hope and freedom? They’re even described as “adorable”. Yuck!

You want one more example? To be called a lawn jockey is not complimentary for a Black American. Check out The Field Negro’s blog for those on Lawn Jockey Alert.

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12 thoughts on “The Lawn Jockey: A Beacon of Hope and Freedom?

  1. Uh, right. I read what you link to, and I find it as plausible as the arguments about why Little Black Sambo and the Tar Baby aren’t racist images. Neither started that way, but their beginnings have little to do with how they’re perceived now. And isn’t that what matters?As to painting them white: I find that even worse; whitewashing a racist symbol doesn’t fix it. It still says, “I have a little black lackey watching my front door, but I’m faux-politically-correct enough to paint him white. But look at his lips and his hair if you want to know where things still really stand.”Miss Profe, I’m interested to know what you think about the use of a certain word in “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Huckleberry Finn”. Contact me privately to discuss the former, if you like, because there’s a particular story about it (which was covered on NPR a few years ago).

  2. Here’s another comment to get you my email address (your comment doesn’t give me yours). If you don’t get it, just go to my blog and click on the link at the top of the page, to my work-related web page. You’ll find my email address there, at the bottom. (And you can delete this comment when you’ve got it….)

  3. If the origin described in the two accounts is correct, then how/why did perceptions change over time? As for the kid with the watermelon… If he was eating an ice-cream cone would he be adorable? Is it offensive to imply that black Americans like watermelon? What about fried chicken, okra and greens? Is it offensive to suggest that Italian-Americans like pasta and Mexican-Americans like beans, tortillas and rice? How about the suggestion that Minnesotans like hot dish, cheese curds, pickled herring and fried food on a stick? I like reading your blog because I am truly interested in learning how not to be prejudiced. I am never intentionally racist, but like anyone else, I sometimes generalize.

  4. I am a white woman who spent the bulk of her childhood in the South. Thankful for having progressive-minded parents to help me set the record straight, I listened to more than my fair share of the “white entitlement” jaw-flapping. That said, I have always found the lawn jockey to be an offensive symbol. Why? Because they were always displayed prominently in front of the homes of affluent white families who, in my opinion, were always more inclined to reminisce on the good old days of classes divided (okay, slavery), than on the notion that the lawn jockey represented a symbol of freedom (freedom for whom?).Regardless of what these websites purport, I simply do not buy into the notion that to decorate one’s home with lawn jockeys is innocent. I think the legend, if it is indeed true, is simply an excuse for white people to flaunt their prejudicial views and give them justification for harboring racist attitudes. Called on the carpet about the meaning of Jocko, I can easily imagine some genteel old dame lifting her nose in the air snorting indignantly, “What? Don’t you know your history?”

  5. Miss Profe,Thank you so much for putting this information out there. This is another example of how we in the black community are so disconnected from our history, one because many of us feel that we have “arrived”, and no longer have to deal with our past, and two because many feel ashamed and do whatever they can to “get over it”. It is ironic, because that is what many whites tell blacks to do. Have we become programmed?A. Philip Randolph said it best. “Those who do not remember their history, are doomed to repeat it.” We will continue to suffer as a people as long as we allow the established order to guide our future by determining our present and writing our history. We must empower ourselves, and like the slogan for the aftermath of 9/11, “never forget.”I also think that The Field Negro is a great name. It is a constant reminder to us, and I hope everyone checks out that blog.On that note, there is a new publication out of Chicago called The New Negro Magazine that I believe everyone needs to check out. Their title is controversial amongst those who again want to avoid their past, but based on that argument, the NAACP should change their name as well, right? You can read them online at http://www.newnegromagazine.com.Let us forever be vigilant and remember another quote from A. Philip Randolph that “Freedom is never given; it is won.”

  6. Karrie Said: If the origin described in the two accounts is correct, then how/why did perceptions change over time? As for the kid with the watermelon… If he was eating an ice-cream cone would he be adorable? Is it offensive to imply that black Americans like watermelon? What about fried chicken, okra and greens? Is it offensive to suggest that Italian-Americans like pasta and Mexican-Americans like beans, tortillas and rice? How about the suggestion that Minnesotans like hot dish, cheese curds, pickled herring and fried food on a stick? I like reading your blog because I am truly interested in learning how not to be prejudiced. I am never intentionally racist, but like anyone else, I sometimes generalize.Karrie, this is why it is important to gain a historical context.To answer your question: the thing re: watermelon is a stereotype, i.e. that all people who are Black like and eat watermelon, fried chicken, greens and okra. While lots of Black folks do like and eat these foods, just because they are Black doesn’t make it so. What makes the watermelon association so sinister is that it is based upon a caricature created by Whites to denigrate the humanity of Blacks.This piece may help to provide the needed historical context to explain the racist associations with watermelon as it pertains to Black Americans:http://poynteronline.org/column.asp?id=58&aid=42722

  7. My parents used to take me to dine at 21 in New York City. Lawn Jockeys line the stairs and outside entrance. I remember when their faces were all painted white. It had never occurred to me that they had been deemed racist, I just thought they were ‘sporty’.

  8. The story of Jocko is touching, but several problems with the story make it likely that the legend of the lawn jockey is just that: an urban legend. It is unlikely that the original story, from the George Washington era, is true for a few reasons, enumerated by Mount Vernon’s librarian Ellen McCallister Clark in her letter to Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library: * No record of anybody by the name of Jocko Graves, nor any account of somebody freezing to death holding Washington’s horses, exists in the extensive historical record of the time. * The Mount Vernon estate was inventoried and described by a multitude of visitors, and there has never been any description or evidence of any such statue. Further, it is hard to credit the stories about the Underground Railroad using lawn jockeys as signals, for the following practical reasons: * Red and green as signal colors meaning “stop” and “go” (or “danger” and “safe”) date back to World War I railroad signals. Signals before that time were not standardized well enough to be useful. * Slaves would almost certainly have been moved at night, when it is hardest to make the distinction between red and green. * Telling the difference between a lantern hung far out on a statue’s arm or in close would be difficult at a distance; it would be impractical if not impossible to read this signal without approaching dangerously close to the lawn jockey. Another blow to the story’s authenticity comes from Kenneth Goings, chair of African-American and African Studies. His text Mammy and Uncle Mose is often cited as a source of the Jocko story, but he gives little credence to the story. He is quoted as saying “I don’t think that (lawn jockeys) can be reclaimed. They are meant to evoke that Old South, grand plantation, Gone With the Wind mythology, and I’m not sure they can evoke anything else.” The text describes the origins of such memorabilia, and another quotation from it refers to the lawn jockeys’ use as status symbols among whites. His opinion of the statues is decidedly negative.While the number of sources online offering the Jocko story far outweigh the number of sites trying to set the record straight, the details of the Jocko myths vary wildly between retellings, and no definitive source is ever given. While it is impossible for me to plainly refute the story, it seems unlikely to me that any such person as Jocko existed. Like the Underground Railroad Quilt Code, I also believe the lantern-and-jockey code to have been fabricated after the fact.

  9. Yeahright,I appreciate your visiting my blog, and for providing a very detailed account re: the lawn jockey. I especially appreciate the scholarly references attesting to the lack of historic authenticity of “Jocko.” As I alluded in my post, I had my doubts re: the “Jocko” stories.

  10. I heard somewhere that the origin of the lawn jockey came about when George Washington was crossing the Delaware. On the other side was a little black boy, most likely a slave, who waited on the banks of the Delaware with Horses for Washington. The little boy held a Lantern for Washington to find him and froze to death. If anyone can confirm this it would be much appreciated. Im not sure how that would have transformed to what is now know as the Lawn jockey but I do believe it to be of racist origin and people who don’t know that are just plain ignorant.

  11. Slender9 – I don’t know if you read through all of the previous comments. However, the comment posted by yeah, right answers the questions you raised.

  12. I have been thinking about this recently and just came across your blog. So, the lawn jockey–racist, or cultural marker?You see, as an African American gay male, I have another historical time line to compare/contrast with. So, here goes. Prior to the 1950′s, homosexuals were occasionally hinted at, but rarely ever acknowledged or recognized as existing, much less being humans with feelings, rights, or personality. Beginning about the 50′s and 60′s and well into the 80′s, gay people were portrayed in literature and the media as the ‘tortured soul’, the ‘drag queen’, the ‘flamboyant neighbor’, or the ‘funny (haha) relative’. Today, such a portrayal is seen as anything from limited to downright offensive, even if some gay people do fit such a stereotype. Now, we expect gay people to be viewed as whole persons at least most of the time.But what about “Bosom Buddies” and “Uncle Arthur”? Well, today I see them as the first signs of acknowledgment and visibility of a marginalized (even invisible) society. While I would not want to promote the continuance of such images, I am not ready to demonize them for the valuable role they played at th time in the culture of the age. I will still laugh when Gene Kelly cross dresses and snicker at Mr Humphries in “Are You Being Served”, knowing that such characterization paved the way for nation to be ready for more fully developed characters in the years to come. In a similar vein, prior to the 1800′s, black individuals were occasionally hinted at, but rarely ever acknowledged or recognized as existing, much less being humans with feelings, rights, or personality. The majority of the pre-1800 documentation we have refers to ‘property’, ‘holdings’, slaves, etc. Beginning around the 1800′s they began to appear in print, cartoon, and cultural art as the ‘Mammy’, the ‘field hand’, the ‘kind uncle’, the ‘tricky rapscallion/tramp’ or the ‘mischievous kid’. Today, such a portrayal is seen as offensive, even if some black people do fit such a stereotype. Now, we expect all people of color to be viewed as whole persons at least most of the time (some sitcoms, sadly, stand out as exceptions).But what about “lawn jockeys” and Al Jolson? Well, today I see them as the first signs of acknowledgment and visibility of a marginalized society. While I would not want to promote the continuance of such images, I am not ready to demonize them for the valuable role they played at the time in the culture of the age. I will still love watching Butterfly McQueen and read Uncle Remus’ account of “Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby”, knowing that such characterization paved the way for nation to accept African Americans as full-fledged humans in the years to come.

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