When Did We Become Lawn Ornaments?

I had just moved to beautiful Manatee County, Florida.

I decided to walk around my new neighborhood, where I had just purchased a mobile home. While strolling along, I began thinking about how I was going to landscape my front lawn to create some variety in my surroundings and alter the outer appearance of what is usually a nondescript rectangular structure. I wanted to create a lush retreat keeping the surrounding area cool from the thorn and thirst of the sun as well as provide some privacy.

My senses were being flooded with ideas while walking along, from barrel, prickly pear and hedgehog cacti to flowering trees, tropical plants, colored gravel, water fountains, and a variety of lawn decorations: birdhouse, flamingos, flags, and even a weather beaten concrete Indian statue — made up of a mixture of water, paste and aggregate — the “brave” took its place of honor as a cherished garden perch for song birds and dogs needing to relieve themselves. To me, it represented hegemonic subjugation and cultural degradation of Native people. I decided to talk to the home owners, who had also placed an Atlanta Braves banner next to it. The banner was mounted a pole that included a wooden plaque with the words “My Tribe” inscribed on it.

It made me remember “Joko,” the 18 century black lawn jockey, dressed in jockey’s clothing and holding one hand as thought taking the reins of a horse, the other hand with a ring for hitching horses, and in some cases a lantern, was intended to be placed in front yards, similarly to garden gnomes, and favored by those wishing to evoke the Old South – a sign of a good host or equestrian ambiance.

The cartoonish young black boy (Joko), often with exaggerated features, such as big eyes; large lips painted red; a large, flat nose, curly hair and with skin painted gloss black, became racially insensitive by the late 20th century. Many remaining samples have now been repainted using pink paint for the skin while the original sculpture’s exaggerated features remain.

However, some accounts of the figure’s origin cause some to see the statue as representing a hero of African American history and culture. According to the River Road African American Museum the figure originated in commemoration of heroic dedication to duty: the “lawn jockey” actually has its roots in the tale of one Jocko Graves, an African-American youth who served with General George Washington at the time that he crossed the Delaware to carry out his surprise attack on British forces at Trenton, NJ. The General thought him too young to take along on such a dangerous attack, so left him on the Pennsylvaniaside to tend to the horses and to keep a light on the bank for their return. So the story goes, the boy, faithful to his post and his orders, froze to death on the river bank during the night, the lantern still in his hand. The General was so much moved by the boy’s devotion to his duty that he had a statue sculpted and cast of him, holding the lantern, and had it installed at his Mount Vernon estate. He called the sculpture “The Faithful Groomsman.” The most frequently-cited source for the story is Kenneth W. Goings in “Mammy and Uncle Mose” (Indiana University Press), though he regards it as apocryphal. The story was told as well in a 32 page children’s book by Earl Kroger Sr., “Jocko: A Legend of the American Revolution.” Moreover, there is a 13-page typescript titled “A Horse for the General: The Story of Jocko Graves” by Thomas William Halligan in the archives of the Alaska Pacific University/ University of Alaska-Anchorage consortium library.

Charles L. Blockson, Curator Emeritus of the Afro-American Collection at Temple University in Philadelphia, claims that the figures were used in the days of the Underground Railroad to guide escaping slaves to freedom: “Green ribbons were tied to the arms of the statue to indicate safety; red ribbons meant to keep going … People who don’t know the history of the jockey have feelings of humiliation and anger when they see the statue…” Blockson has installed an example of the statue at the entrance to the University’s Sullivan Hall, “Jockey statues marked Underground Railroad” (Loudounhistory.org).

Neither the Revolutionary War nor the Civil War legends are corroborated by historical records. Mount Vernon’s librarian Ellen McCallister Clark wrote in a 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.” Nor do any of the many historical inventories and descriptions of Washington’s estate mention any such statue. Moreover, stories about the Underground Railroad using lawn jockeys as signals are rendered suspect by the fact that red and green as signal colors meaning “stop” and “go” (or “danger” and “safe”) were standardized by railway signals during the World War I era (Everything2.com.).

After grilling my new neighbors they said, “The Indian mascot was not being used in a negative way. Really? The owner simply said, “He liked the team.” I explained, mascots based on Native Americantribes (or Early depictions of African American men and women usually confined to demeaning stereotypical images of people of color—such as loyal servants, mammies, and butlers) are particularly contentious, as many argue that they constitute offensive exploitations of an oppressed culture.

From 1912 to 1989 the Braves logo consisted of the head of a Native American. From 1912 to 1956 it was a Native American with a headdress, and thereafter a laughing Native American with a mohawk and one feather in his hair. In 1990 the logo was changed to just the word “Braves” in cursive with a tomahawk below it.

In addition, several Indian tribes have actually come out in support of keeping the names. For example, the Utah Utes and the Central Michigan Chippewas are sanctioned by local tribes. Similarly, the Florida State Seminoles are supported by the Seminole Tribe of Florida in their use of Osceola and Renegade as symbols. FSU chooses not to refer to them as mascots because of the offensive connotation. This has not, however, prevented fans from engaging in “Redface”–dressing up in stereotypical, Plains Indian outfits during games or creating offensive banners saying “Scalp ‘em” as was seen at the 2014 Rose Bowl.

The next time I had strolled by the house, the banner was gone. I wonder if it was something I had said!

Julianne Jennings (Nottoway) is an anthropologist.

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