Thursday, September 21, 2006
I have heard that some real estate agents sometimes give advice to "de-black" homes when selling them: take down pictures of Malcom X, certainly; pack up the books on civil rights and race riots; probably even hide the posters of Martin Luther King. I understand the point behind the advice: home sellers want prospective buyers to be able to imagine themselves in the space.
I wonder if real estate agents ought also to tell sellers to de-politicize their homes more generally. I was led to this observation when I saw a lawn jockey in the backyard of a really lovely home during an open house. Of course, I'm looking for a good deal, so it doesn't deter me from purchasing the place. And who knows about the meaning of the lawn jockey to the owners of the house: maybe they kept it as a reminder of the bad old days. Observers often make different things out of monuments.
So that set me to wondering about this little piece of Americana. Apparently, they were cast in concrete or iron. Want one? Check out ebay's listings. I thought the lawn jockey had gone out of fashion back in the 1970s, or perhaps even earlier. However, a quick check of ebay and other internet sites suggests that they're still being made. Yes, still being made, not just sold. Some are even of white jockies. Hmm. No disputing taste, is there?
That led me to some further investigation. Dig this: they're not symbols of white supremacy, but tributes to faithful slaves--and perhaps memorials to the underground railroad, because they were used to give signs about where fugitive slaves could find safety. Never heard that one before, but it's all over the internet (and here). (My colleague at the University of Alabama, Micki McElya, has a brilliant book coming out shortly from Harvard on faithful slave monuments, by the way. It's worth a read.) I'd like to see some more research on this one; it has all the ear marks of legend, to me--and to this person, as well.
The photograph, of a nineteenth-century cast iron jockey, is from the University of Virginia's outstanding website on American studies.
UPDATE: Carl Christensen sends along this article from the Washington Post on lawn jockeys as well. I'm somewhat surprised at the credence they give to the "lawn jockey-as-part- of-underground-railroad" story; I'm also surprised by how little credence they pay to the lawn jockey as monument to the era of slavery and Jim Crow. On the latter point, see this letter to the editor.
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