Haunted by Crimes of Racism: On Lawn Jockeys in a Northeast Ohio Suburb
I’m a white man looking in a black man’s eyes
Wishing I’d never been one of the guys
Who pretended not to hear another white man’s joke
Old times ain’t forgotten
Jason Isbell, “White Man’s World
Walking back to my apartment after a run, I noticed a garden gnome sized statue with a lamp in its hand. I approached for a closer look and my suspicion was confirmed: the statue looked like a caricature of a black male, an older boy. I’d never seen anything exactly like it, but the blackface characteristics were apparent. It looked similar to the “pickaninny” caricatures I’d seen in old ads. An American flag hung above the garage of the suburban house.
My first, unfiltered thought was: the statue should be shattered. Then I became more self-interested, thinking: if I smashed it and was caught, I’d be in a bind financially with court costs, property damages, etc, because I was on a part-time income. After considering my financial situation, I wondered whether the statue could be some version of the Danish “Black Pete” character. Could the person(s) who displayed it think the statue is just an innocuous piece of Christmas kitsch? This last thought pushed me to investigate further, but I couldn’t find the right set of key words to make Google cooperate. The statue definitely looked like some sort of racist symbol, but it didn’t seem to depict Black Pete. So what was it? I decided it must’ve been a rare version of Black Pete, or a similar character from another country. The statue looked so foreign, I decided that it literally had to be.
A few days later, after another run, I saw the statue again and became far less sure of its origin. I realized I couldn’t walk past the statue a few times a week and not know, so I sat down on a curb and used my phone to search again for information on the statue. It look so long I had to move down the curb to sit in the shade, but I found something after I decided to simply describe the statue, searching for something like “racist statue with red hat and red shirt.”
What I’d seen is a lawn jockey. It’s a figure with a contentious, largely unsubstantiated history. Some see it as a completely racist symbol, others think it upholds positive historical memories of black struggles in America.
To start with, there’s a legend that the statue was based upon a story about a young boy named Jocko Graves. In the story, George Washington had asked a young black boy to tend horses and keep a lantern lit so his army could find its way back across the Delaware River; Jocko did this, but froze to death in the night, his hand still clutching the lantern when he was found. Washington then supposedly ordered a statue made of Jocko—named, in some versions, “The Faithful Groomsman”—which was placed on the grounds of Mount Vernon, the plantation home Washington and his ancestors had lived in.
On the one hand, the name Jocko sounds like it could’ve been applied to a statue built around the time of the Revolutionary War, as the name seems derived from the words jocular and jockey, the meanings of which coincide with racist depictions of black people as inherently joking tricksters. But on the other hand, the statue more likely could’ve originated long after the Revolutionary War. Not only does the lawn jockey actually wear the clothes of the sportsman, but large numbers of black men—many of them former slaves—worked as jockeys in the later nineteenth century. There were so many, in fact, that half of the first twenty-five Kentucky Derby races were won by black men (before they were essentially forced out of horse racing in 1921). But even if any of this origin story were true, I think it’s obvious that it wouldn’t be enough to justify displaying lawn jockeys today.
The more complicated and also more likely story is that lawn jockeys were used to convey secret messages to escaped slaves on the Underground Railroad. This story has it that lawn jockeys had ribbons tied around their arms to signal whether a nearby building was safe or not: green ribbons for safety, red ribbons for danger. This potential part of the lawn jockey’s history has been argued as true by some prominent black Americans. One of these is historian Charles Blockson, who has a collection of African-American artifacts named after him at Temple University’s library. He claims that in tracing the life of an ancestor of his, an escaped slave, he discovered this use of the lawn jockey. But before that, Blockson admits he thought they were purely racist symbols, claiming that he and others “would go around the neighborhood, and go places where they had those men and try to destroy them, because they were humiliating.”
Though there is the possibility that lawn jockeys have been used for nobler purposes, it still seems safe to say the majority of black citizens in the United States don’t have positive feelings about lawn jockeys, regardless of the veracity of either the Jocko story or the Underground Railroad one. David Pilgrim, curator at the Jim Crow Museum, wrote: “given that slavery lasted more than two hundred years, it is likely that [ribbons on lawn jockeys] happened at least once. Nevertheless, there is little evidence that this practice was widespread.” However, though there is “no consensus on the jockey's origin,” Pilgrim yet does “believe that there is a consensus view in African American communities that black lawn jockeys are demeaning relics of a racist past.” He adds that “[t]hey may not have started out with a racist meaning—or always had that meaning—but that is the meaning they have today.” I completely agree with Pilgrim’s assessment, and feel it contextualizes why I had the urge to break the lawn jockey I saw. It was as if I had assumed it’s more criminal to display a racist object than to destroy one.
There’s a common notion that in certain areas of the United States (mostly states in the south) racist things like lawn jockeys will appear far more often, at least in white neighborhoods. But though the city of Parma and its nearby suburb Parma Heights are overwhelmingly white, when I decided to move to this area I didn’t expect to find something as blatantly demeaning as a lawn jockey. I figured that Ohio as a whole is far less outwardly racist, at least compared to rural areas of the deep south or even some east coast areas. But then, I didn’t even know what a lawn jockey was, and wasn’t aware of its ambiguous history. I’d not had the most opportunities to run across one to learn this history, though—I’d lived in a mostly black neighborhood of Dayton, Ohio until I was twelve. And when my immediate family lived in a mostly white, lower-middle class suburb during my teenage years, I still never saw one. What’s more is that even though my family is from the coal mining region of eastern Kentucky, not even an older relative ever displayed any sort of racist object that I know of (but during my visits I’d certainly overhear racist remarks once in a while).
When I planned to move to the northeast Ohio area to attend graduate school, I almost chose to live in Lakewood, but some research online indicated Parma had very low crime rates (which ended up being supported in 2017 when the National Council for Home Safety and Security named it one of America’s one hundred safest cities). Safety important to me because the crime was pretty bad where I’d grown up in Dayton, so much so that I remember hearing gunshots once every couple weeks in the summer before my family moved. I was just twelve at the time, so how often I truly heard them might very well be skewed. What is fact, though, are these two illustrative occurrences: my mom and grandma were mugged in our driveway, and my neighborhood’s elementary school suspended a sixth grade boy for just five days after he’d hid a bowie knife, a shotgun, and shotgun shells in some bushes on the school grounds. I don’t know all the details of this near shooting, but it shook up the school’s community enough that a prominent local news broadcaster came to speak to students. Soon after these events and others, my parents thought it best to bear the extra financial burden to live in a suburb.
Because of the body’s visceral reactions, personal experience of crime and violence can affect a person more than just hearing numbers about it. As such, I’ve almost always lived in suburbs or smaller towns since I’ve been an adult, often trading safety, I’m aware, for the experience of non-white cultures. So when I found an apartment in Parma Heights with cheaper rent than anywhere I’d found in Lakewood (which, along with its reputation as progressive, is also overwhelmingly white), I decided that I could deal with what I’d heard about the Parma area’s lack of progressive politics. I wasn’t exactly making bank with a stipend from my graduate assistantship, and my parents had absolutely no money to help me with anything. I’d had to get food assistance days after I’d moved, and I’ve been there since to live cheaply.
But since I do live in the Parma area, I feel a responsibility to bring things like the presence of lawn jockeys to light—rather than, say, inertly embracing shame about where I feel it’s best for me to live (and definitely without shaming anyone else for where they feel is best). Just as someone living in a gentrifying Cleveland neighborhood has a basic responsibility to point out signs that others might soon be forced out to make way for white, wealthy or middle-class homeowners, I feel I should point out that a neighborhood near me could easily be taken as hostile to black individuals.
I use the term neighborhood because, in the process of doing research for this essay, I happened to see another lawn jockey. I’d gone down a street a mile or so from my apartment that I usually don’t take, and I recognized what I was seeing this time. It wasn’t the Jocko statue, but rather the “cavalier spirit” version of the lawn jockey. This version actually looks more like an actual horse jockey, but he still holds a lamp. And though there aren’t blackface characteristics and there is also a white iteration of the cavalier spirit jockey, the one I happened upon was painted brown. I’m not sure if I noticed this second one because I was on the lookout for lawn jockeys or if because they are more widespread in Parma than I know. (I never watched Parks and Recreation until I was in the process of writing this essay, and the show’s intro happens to feature a white cavalier spirit lawn jockey).
There is a considerable chance that lawn jockeys are common today in the Parma area, as it hasn’t exactly had the most positive image in terms of welcoming black residents. As a Cleveland Magazine article outlines, Parma has historically been the home of many specific white ethnic groups—Polish, Italian, Irish—while also not being friendly to non-European ethnic groups. The NAACP even sued the city in the mid-1970s over a residency requirement for municipal employees, claiming that black people did not feel comfortable among the predominantly white neighborhoods, and were discouraged from seeking jobs in Parma as a result. If this segregationist attitude in the Parma area is being renewed by the prejudice Trump helps grow, it’s likely a sign of deeper issues. And likewise, if lawn jockeys are being displayed more commonly in white people’s front yards, on the surface it doesn’t seem that anything positive could come from it.
And yet creating some kind of positive is what I am trying to do here, primarily by creating awareness of the possibility of an increase in displays of racist objects in northeast Ohio. Though if a rise in lawn jockeys continues in my community or elsewhere, there must be other actions needed to offset the racism these objects promote.
After researching Parma’s history and considering my responsibility to be witness to the display of lawn jockeys, I’ve been unsure about what political action I should take. Should I call / write my state representative? Should I make it a local issue and try to contact the mayor of Parma Heights? Go door to door to get a petition signed to have lawn jockeys removed from my neighborhood? Start a Facebook group about it? I’m not asking these questions facetiously, but I am questioning their long term efficacy, considering that homeowners generally have a large degree of freedom to display what they’d like so long as it’s not physically harming anyone. And I also don’t want my actions to be mostly salving my ego with virtue signaling—or worse, participating in some morally treacherous white savior scenario. I’ve also been questioning the time consumption of the approaches I’ve mentioned, as there are many other more explosive issues that public officials must address head on—such as fixing the broken Cleveland criminal justice system (as revealed by the third season of the podcast Serial), or taking steps to reduce police brutality, something the northeast Ohio area knows well after the shooting of Tamir Rice.
All along, it’s been hard for me to deny that it seems more symbolically potent to just break the thing like I wanted to in the first place. I’d be troubling the owners of the statue just as they would be troubling a black person meeting a friend a few doors down, or looking to buy a house across the street. But this isn’t the clearest or kindest way to convince someone. And I don’t think it would transform a display of a lawn jockey into a larger, communal positive. Again, it’d be mostly ego-salving. Not to mention that just breaking the lawn jockey could easily backfire—it might even be replaced, as a counter-protest, with one of the many absurdly priced jockeys easily found online. I’m not absolutely against destroying property as a useful means of protest, but in this case it seems misdirected to break a less than prominent public object. (Though I can’t help but wonder if, in passing, I’d casually key the car of some vocal white supremacist, whistling as I do so).
During the months after I first saw the Jocko statue, I wracked my brain over what I should do in response if I’m not going to break it. Part of me wanted to write an anonymous letter, laying out the information on lawn jockeys I’ve provided here, to implore my neighbors to remove the lawn jockey from their yard. I imagined myself dropping this letter in their mailbox and also posting it online. But this felt too impersonal, too much like policing people whom I have no explicit authority to police. Another part of me wanted to knock on their door to talk to my neighbors, to transform my anger into dialogue, but this option didn’t feel public enough. I could still do one of these things, of course, but neither action would balance the public and private sufficiently, nor would they necessarily have much nuance to them. So this ground level report exists to approach that balance and nuance in pointing toward more than just the behavior of my neighbors while simultaneously making clear that there are actual individuals openly displaying racist objects in Parma Heights.
I don’t want to demonize people, or at least beyond what their ignorance and / or intended malice calls for. It seems true enough that trying to live in one of the dystopian-worlds of the show Black Mirror is not a laudable goal. Shaming my neighbors by posting their address somewhere on social media, along with a picture of the lawn jockey—I can barely imagine the half-life of this action.
After deciding to write this report, I had in fact taken pictures of the Jocko statue after walking home from yet another run. And I had intended to showcase them here. But a few weeks later I figured it wouldn’t accomplish much good after I’d seen a Chief Wahoo sign in a yard on the same street as the Jocko. After its decommissioning happens in 2019, I’m sure many yards in suburbs of northeast Ohio will continue to have this racist caricature of a Native American, and most likely those displaying it will cite its long historical connection to Cleveland’s baseball team, which, after all, will yet be named “The Indians” in the near future. I can see people holding onto the Chief Wahoo emblem because shame itself doesn’t only always decrease prejudiced actions, but also often makes the shamed haunted by their prejudice, as if it is permanently within or near them. In this dynamic, the message most unintended by those shaming is actually reinforced; given the vitriolic attention their prejudice gets, the overly-shamed start to suspect there is in fact something to the stereotypes they believe.
I don’t think every specter of racism surrounding a person or group will be cast away by one public shaming, whether this shame comes through legal consequence or through one broken symbol. These specters won’t all be cast away with millions of people shamed, either. I think that things like the rise of the KKK during Reconstruction, Jim Crow and its atrocities, and the backlash to the removal of Confederate statues in the south recently all seem like kinds of misguided, self-righteous defense mechanisms against shame. These reactions are probably somewhat inevitable if progress is to occur. But without enough efforts to push these groups to rehabilitate, shaming them persistently can paradoxically lead to them being absurdly proud about the past, even if they don’t really understand the history of what happened, or how their families or communities fit within it.
Those in the Confederacy, white landowners and businessmen, and in recent times alt-right white supremacists must have often believed, as a rationale, that being shamed indicates others can’t offer a better alternative to your own views, but want to disempower you anyway. And though the power of white supremacists has dwindled considerably in the last 150-plus years (if nothing else, shame does eventually tire you, making you withdraw), when white supremacists today get backed into corners (of their own making, mostly) they still have the power to lash out with tragic results. This should not be happening with the frequency that it has been post-2010, and there many ways to prevent this violence—better gun control and access to mental health treatment primary among them—but shame only isn’t a very effective long term method.
Shame, especially by public humiliation, doesn’t encourage you to believe something new—it removes your concerns about the present, forcing you to think that immoral beliefs of your (or your family / community’s) past mean you deserve a future of only punishment. As if you will always be prejudiced. This is partly why I think white supremacists today can think they are actually persecuted for adhering to the racist cultures they’re born in or exposed to. For the legacy of white supremacy to be exorcised, its present day hosts must be shown what they’re truly haunted by: not “others” themselves, but by their own fears, their own simplifications. Racism is one consequence of imprisoning the imagination.
To conclude this report, the political action I’m taking is to say: I won’t publically shame someone for only displaying a lawn jockey, but I still think anyone else should feel free to seek out the homes I’ve mentioned here. Some informal sleuthing is all it would take to find them (the Jocko statue is visible in a satellite image on Google maps). I won’t defend the behavior of my neighbors, but I don’t think doxing them would be helpful, either. I’m not going to commit a crime against one or a few individuals to resolve a social ill that no one individual or group is wholly responsible for. The logic of punishing an individual too severely to set an example—this is a large reason why so many black (and often poor) people are serving excessive sentences in prison for things like buying marijuana or stealing food. But if someone reading this supports a vigilante effort akin to the YesYou’reRacist Twitter account, which helped identify Charlottesville white supremacists online and then pressure their employers to fire them (often successfully), then my writing here is somewhat amenable to that. I don’t think that sort of effort is the long term answer, or at least the primary long term one, but it might be a short term answer for someone.
It’s clear to me that there must be politically motivated actions which don’t end up paying forward negative, shame ridden views. These positive, reformative actions, ideally, help to disperse specters of racism. Ignoring ghosts won’t make them go away, it’ll only make them go away from you—at least for a little while. This notion, most of all, might be why I’ve questioned my desire to break the Jocko statue. I’ve wondered if my visceral reaction came from wanting to push the object out of my mind, as it was before I knew it existed. But I realized that even if I broke the statue, I couldn’t go back to when I didn’t know some of my neighbors have racist views.
Getting Charlottesville white supremacists fired was in part a collective effort to push them out of the minds of the many, but they still exist. There are white supremacists in the United States, and it won’t help in the long term to keep corralling them into small, negligible social spaces. This tactic is likely why they’ve been so vocal since Trump. They’ve been living among us all along, forming bonds with each other in the shadows (especially recently online), and waiting for their moment to gain more power. In the meantime, there hadn’t been enough people to help show them why they don’t have to haunt and be haunted by hateful beliefs.
In bringing Parma’s lawn jockeys to light I know there’s no single way to wholly offset the prejudiced ideas that white supremacy represents. This would take a revision of all of American society, so that it is not based on a late-capitalistic mindset that drives competitiveness between marginalized groups for resources and representation, which then wealthy white people benefit from most. But rather than simply calling for all the statues to be in landfills, I think we should work toward a future where things like lawn jockeys are in more appropriately contextualizing spaces, such as museums or documentaries (Netflix surely has enough money to fund a film on the history of the lawn jockey). There shouldn’t be people like me—white, working class, and getting close to thirty—who don’t know what a lawn jockey is, especially considering that not only did I go to predominantly black schools for my primary education, but that I also have two graduate degrees in the humanities.
Of course I admit that, despite not recognizing the Jocko statue, I might’ve seen a lawn jockey once or twice when younger but let it slip my mind without researching it. And this possibility would partially be due to the privileges of being white. But on a larger, less personal scale, I have to wonder why lawn jockeys aren’t publically discussed as often along with other racist symbols or objects. One answer is that they are a painful reminder of a past many want to forget, so we avoid talking about them. Another answer is that the apocryphal history of lawn jockeys, the ambiguity of their stories, makes it difficult to confront them—if their past isn’t clearly completely negative, or if it doesn’t have to be, then it becomes hard to say how we should view them in the future.
But then there shouldn’t be a single viewpoint of racist objects. Like the way a search engine funnels information to you based mostly on what you’ve consciously wanted to know, throughout American culture today I find people are strongly encouraged to see meaning as only a narrowing toward a single answer, forgoing any holistic judgment. More to the point: striving for social progress is indeed correct, but there also other views that can be simultaneously correct (in addition to ones that clearly aren’t) when progress actually takes place. I think not wanting to overly shame people and wanting social equality can be simultaneously correct. This perspective explains why the views of Blockson and Pilgrim both exist. And I think it also explains why some black Americans own racist objects themselves. According to collector Harriet Michel, reasons to have these objects are both to “confront a negativity and own it,” and to not forget what the past was like for black people. This must include not forgetting that slaves in this country were once considered only three-fifths a person—just barely more than half a being, almost half an object.
I can see the value of black Americans having lawn jockeys in their homes in the future, while it is simultaneously clear to me that white people owning lawn jockeys should be a thing of the past. I follow Pilgrim’s thinking once again when he says:
“There are, undoubtedly, non-racist reasons for owning and displaying black lawn jockeys, but it would be hard for an adult American to claim that he or she does not know that many African Americans find lawn jockeys racially offensive, especially the ones with jet-black skin and oversized lips.”
To extend Pilgrim’s logic, it’s clear that if lawn jockeys continue to appear in the Parma area, I’ll need to know whether it is my community’s public servants, like police officers, with the statues in their yards. And admittedly I’m not sure how I’d know this, unless some civic-minded person released this information online—or if I went up to the houses and asked myself. It is not something that a local government would make public.
I keep imagining a cop meeting the blank, sycophantic eyes of a Jocko with their own cartoonish daze, hoping this isn’t an actual scene, let alone a common one. If it turns out to be actual—in Parma Heights or anywhere—then it’s all the more reason to have lawn jockeys in more museums and media, where they might positively function as objects that help people exorcise prejudice inherited from structural, historical, and familial legacies. By moving toward the eyes of the lawn jockey, we could gain a more complete clarity about the ways in which shame continues to distort our perceptions of each other.
Image: JSmetana. Parma, OH - Cleveland Skyline from State Rd.png | Created: 18 September 2013.