Are these racist lawn statues?
June 2, 2008 12:13 PM   Subscribe

Are these lawn statues racist?

I'm familiar with the history of the traditional "lawn jockey" or "coach boy" statues. Does anyone know the background and history of these statues?
posted by caroljean63 to Society & Culture (31 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I don't know how good it is, but Wikipedia has an article.
posted by pointystick at 12:17 PM on June 2, 2008

The one with the exaggerated lips is great if you're in the museum and looking for a good example of racist historical representations of African-Americans, or if you are living in 1943 and would like a new lawn ornament.
posted by Anonymous at 12:23 PM on June 2, 2008

I don't think the statues are in and of themselves racist, but displaying them on your lawn is absolutely definitely racist. Wikipedia (again) suggests it's equivalent to a Cigar store indian.
posted by roofus at 12:33 PM on June 2, 2008

They are racist caricatures, certainly. It's odd to see someone displaying these publicly, though of course, they represent a class of antiques many people thoughtfully collect. It's a bold move to advertise an affinity for such representations without comment.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 12:34 PM on June 2, 2008

I'm having trouble thinking of other interpretations for the one with the do-rag. The second model is usually seen as a boy with a fishing pole, not an American flag. But who'd have to know the people in question to be sure. Racist black memorabilia is highly collectible among both whites and blacks. The Jim Crow Museum has an article on the collecting. There could be other reasons for having the statues, maybe even just unthinkingness, or Mom put them there and now she's dead, etc. etc.
posted by Miko at 12:35 PM on June 2, 2008

I would say it totally depends on intention/motivation. They may just like the statues. It may be like putting a bunch of "white" cherubs outs where race is a complete non-issue.

I saw a documentary about an African-American couple, I forgot what the point of the documentary was, but they actively collected kitsch that they thought was quasi-racist, they got a kick out of it.

(I would not ask the homeowners, what they have in their yard unless blatatnly inflammatory,which this is not, is none of your buisness.)
posted by stormygrey at 12:36 PM on June 2, 2008

Not that I'm suggesting you try this at home... but, I used to live in an area with not infrequent lawn displays like those in your images... my friend and I used to drive around at night and paint them pink.
posted by InstantSanitizer at 12:40 PM on June 2, 2008

The first one (of the woman) is really skirting the line, as it's a depiction of a stereotypical African-American serving woman. The one of the child really just looks like any child (although it does have some stereotypical aspects as well). Depictions of Blacks is not inherently racist and assuming that it is just defines "normal" in a eurocentric way, making all depictions of "not normal" racist. I am not saying you believe that.

However, due to the racist connotations of lawn jockeys, I would say that the better part of valor here would be to avoid using plaster statuettes of African-Americans on one's lawn.
posted by nax at 12:41 PM on June 2, 2008 [2 favorites]

I disagree with norabarnacl3 to the extent that the attitude of owners of these statues has any bearing whatsoever on the statues' racist implications. Statues like this are remnants of a long legacy of racist representations of black folk, and as such are inextricably tied to that history, regardless of their owners' current attitudes. They are racist regardless of where one finds them, regardless of current intention on the part of the owners.

So I would say yes, these statues are racist - particularly the statue of the woman, which is undeniably similar to racist depictions in the minstrel shows of the early 20th century (think Black Face). I find very little difference between these statues and the "mammy and pappy" salt and pepper shakers. Both offensive caricatures, both racist.
posted by numinous at 12:41 PM on June 2, 2008 [2 favorites]

i personally saw those and thought "huh, tacky lawn decoration."

i agree that they are a stereotypical and negative portrayal of blacks from days gone by. however, the people displaying them may just think they're "cute" lawn ornaments and not see or understand the racist undertones that you perceive to be there.

they could just be people who are into stupid lawn decorations.

or they could be founding members of the local KKK.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 12:42 PM on June 2, 2008

racist? i don't know. they are certainly offensive. racism, in my book, depends on a malicious intent to offend or discriminate.

means the owners may be racist, or they may be insensitive, or they may have what i call "white insecurity," or they may be too old/ignorant/oblivious. it really depends.

fwiw, i know a few african americans who keep things like that around just to remind themselves how things used to be, just as some jews may keep a yellow star from the holocaust among their treasures.
posted by thinkingwoman at 1:08 PM on June 2, 2008 [2 favorites]

What thinkingwoman said, 100%. It may be offensive, insensitive and a bad idea, but unless there's intent to offend or discriminate, it's not "racism."

regarding the statue of the boy (you've put up two identical pictures, right?), I don't see any racial characteristics in the photos so your question doesn't seem to apply.
posted by JimN2TAW at 1:20 PM on June 2, 2008

This previous thread on AskMeta might be an interesting addition to this discussion.
posted by Hellgirl at 1:25 PM on June 2, 2008

racist? i don't know. they are certainly offensive. racism, in my book, depends on a malicious intent to offend or discriminate.

Just the nitpicky point I was going to make. Racism requires consciousness. A statue cannot be "racist" in the same way it cannot dream of attending Vassar.

That said, some people will certainly find those statues racially offensive, especially the first one. But there's there no (honest) way to judge the owners of said statues racist or not without actually finding out who they are and what they stand for.
posted by drjimmy11 at 1:26 PM on June 2, 2008

Response by poster: FWIW, the picture of the statue of the black woman was taken at the home of a white family in a town that is 99% white. The other statue was in the neighborhood in a town that has been a long history of racism and is less than 2% minority.
posted by caroljean63 at 1:30 PM on June 2, 2008

It may be offensive, insensitive and a bad idea, but unless there's intent to offend or discriminate, it's not "racism."

At the risk of sending this down a rathole, though it's relevant here-

A lot of racist behavior is not intended as such. Moreover, "intent" is a very difficult thing to measure. See: institutional racism.
posted by mkultra at 1:31 PM on June 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

I agree that a statue is an inanimate object and cannot itself be racist. These lawn statues, though, were a product of a society in which racial caricature was tolerated, even enjoyed as humorous or as pleasingly evocative of what was percieved as the idyllic era of antebellum America. So I see only one of two reasons to display these statues: that they are meant as a statement of some kind, which could be either racist or anti-racist depending on the person, or that they are considered value-neutral by the owners, which would tell you only that their racial consciousness is not that high, but not what their views are.

I think it would be unlikely that someone who is anti-racist would display them without any contextualization, but someone in this big old world might do it, who knows. The other possibilities - that someone is actively racist and doesn't care that these statues are associated with bigotry, or that someone just hasn't given it much of a thought at all.
posted by Miko at 1:47 PM on June 2, 2008 [2 favorites]

BTW -- a previous thread regarding black memorabilia.
posted by ericb at 1:57 PM on June 2, 2008

I agree with thinkingwoman and drjimmy. But here's another note: around me (horse country), many people have a similar statue of a jockey/ horse-holder with exaggerated facial features that started out with a face painted black. All of the statues have been re-painted with white faces, but some people still find them offensive (maybe partly because of what painting a black statue white might symbolize?). With a white face or a black face, they've always kind of skeeved me out.
posted by weezetr at 2:18 PM on June 2, 2008

FWIW, some people just have no clue. I was telling my husband how, when I was in sixth grade, I - a white 11-year-old girl - was Stevie Wonder for We Are the World concert at school. My mom made me a long braided Stevie Wonder wig. We didn't have any brown paint, so I used black paint on my face. But then a classmate gave me some brown paint, pointing out that black paint wasn't true to skin tone. OMG. The entire thing. It was so wrong. But no one had a clue. We were just a small town in Canada with one or two kids who were not caucasian in the entire school and only a handful of Asian and Indo-Canadians in the entire town. We had no clue. Even the parents of other kids were clueless. The teacher didn't say anything. No one said anything or even hinted at anything. No one thought it was any different than spraypainting your hair red to look like Cyndi Lauper. We just had no clue. Now that I'm older, I'm horrified. But there was just no idea that using paint on one's face to dress up and dance might have some sort of historical significance, let alone just be inappropriate and rude in the first place.

So, while the statues may be in horrible taste, they may not be meant or even interpreted by the owners in any sort of racist way. (Although, if you live in the US, you'd think there should be some understanding.) That doesn't mean they should be there, of course. But some people are just clueless.
posted by acoutu at 2:29 PM on June 2, 2008 [2 favorites]


racism: Prejudice or discrimination based on an individual's race; can be expressed individually or through institutional policies or practices.

The one with the head scarf looks like it used to be a black child working as a stableboy. I can't honestly come up with a scenario in which they don't exemplify racist attitudes.
posted by theora55 at 2:29 PM on June 2, 2008

racism: Prejudice or discrimination based on an individual's race; can be expressed individually or through institutional policies or practices.

This definition actually doesn't really clarify anything. There's really two questions here whether displaying the statues is racist, and whether there is something innately racist to the statues themselves. Personally I think at worst the statues display a level of racism in the owners at best a lack of tact and understanding.

However as noted above the statues themselves can't be prejudiced or discriminate - displaying them in the yard of black couple would have a whole different world of meaning.

I also agree the boy fishing is much more benign than the other.
posted by bitdamaged at 2:41 PM on June 2, 2008

My parents' neighbors have lawn jockeys and my mother and I are very keen on not liking them. These statues definitely appear to be in the same general genre of mildly racist, but not necessarily so. I think it's not something I'd put in my lawn, but I wouldn't go making a stink about it.
posted by Gular at 3:15 PM on June 2, 2008

It may be offensive, insensitive and a bad idea, but unless there's intent to offend or discriminate, it's not "racism."

I disagree. A symbol can be inherently racist, regardless of the intent behind its display.
posted by footnote at 3:23 PM on June 2, 2008 [2 favorites]

That's just the thing, though acoutu, it really *shouldn't* be any different than spraying your hair red to look like Cyndi Lauper. If you are dressing up to be a specific person, then you make yourself look like that person-- white girl goes brown to look like Stevie Wonder, black boy goes white to look like, Idunno, Bill Clinton.

The problem is that we assume that references to race, especially across racial lines and outside of the context of racial discussions (like this one), are in and of themselves racist. I believe this is due to the fact that, despite the huge strides in eradicating overt racism in our society, the endemic, systemic, institutionalized racism of our society is just bone deep and then some.
posted by nax at 3:38 PM on June 2, 2008

This debate reminds me of a scene in Steve Martin's play WASP (it's a somewhat absurdist play about a stereotypical 1950s W.A.S.P. family).

"Dad: What's it about?
Mom: Well, you know our lawn jockey?
Dad: Yeah.
Mom: They want us to paint its face white.
Dad: Why on earth would they want us to do that?
Mom: They feel it's offensive to some of the Negroes in the community.
Dad: That's like saying there never was such a thing as a Negro lawn jockey. It's really a celebration of the great profession of lawn jockeying
Mom: They think it shows prejudice
Dad: Well that's ridiculous. Some of my best friends are Negro. Jerry at work is a Negro, and we work side by side without the slightest problem.
Mom: That's true; he is a Negro. Well, he's a Navajo.
Dad: But times have changed. I'll make a compromise with them. I'll paint the nineteen jockeys on the north side of the driveway white, but I'm leaving the nineteen on the other side of the driveway alone, and I'm not touching the six on the porch"
posted by fructose at 4:07 PM on June 2, 2008

I'd say this suggests that it's a pretty racist statement.
posted by Capri at 4:24 PM on June 2, 2008

the boy fishing is much more benign than the other.

It's interesting that the fishing boy seems less suspect with regards to racial stereotyping than the statue dressed as a field slave. But what if it looked more like this one or this one or this one or this one or this one or this one?

Though ithe depiction of a kid fishing is not particularly charged for most of us today, it seems to fall squarely within the pattern for racial caricatures, particularly the "coon" and "pickaninny" caricatures. Those are the stereotypes that depicted blacks as lazy and lusty, given over to loafing around and enjoying the pleasures of the flesh. An analogy would be to the caricature of the lazy Mexican sneaking off for a siesta under his sombrero. Fishing was like eating watermelon - something done as an indulgence when one had ample time to spare and nothing pressing to do, something offering pleasure and reward for little effort.This paperRacist ideologues disparaged fishing by associating it with caricatured black traits. In 1860, for instance, D. R. Hundley observed that the “genuine” African American “dotes on fishing....Angling requires little exertion, and your genuine Cuffee most cordially hates exertion.” And this introduction to a collection of black memorabilia at the Hoover Library locates the origin of the fishing image in minstrelsy:
Minstrels used exaggeration to create caricatures that would make audiences laugh, and in the process created stereotypes that would last for decades. They included bulging eyes, flat, wide noses, gaping mouths and big feet. Minstrels portrayed blacks as spending time fishing or sleeping, eating possum or coon and singing and dancing all night.
So even though the features are fairly realistic, and it looks like it's been repainted with a lighter skin shade than the original likely had, and it's not such an obvious stereotype to us today, people seeing it at the time it was designed and offered for sale probably caught the association with laziness easily. I wouldn't be too quick to write it off as innocuous in intent. This one seemed less offensive to me only because I think it's marginally more possible for the owner to view it without those associations, as just a kid fishing, rather rural and rustic, and miss the references to racial stereotypes of the past. But those stereotypes definitely existed.

I still think it's less likely that the field slave statue is displayed unknowingly, only because it's pretty hard to imagine what sort of person that is supposed to depict other than an impoverished slave. There's a slightly better chance that an unthinking person found the fishing statue in some garage and thought it was cute and didn't think any farther than that. The slave statue has an open shirt (signaling immodesty) and a minstrel-style face with pale lips and eyes painted bright white, rimmed with black, and looking slightly to the side (signaling shiftiness). And it looks freshly painted, not something from 1940.

I think your statue might actually be this one (apparently still in production), minus the optional hat and with a paint job.

You can also get a couple of Dutch caricatures and a drunk caricature there. (Kind of makes you look at "Wizard" in a different light).
posted by Miko at 8:47 PM on June 2, 2008 [2 favorites]

God, I love blockquotes, but I suck at formatting them. Sorry.
posted by Miko at 8:49 PM on June 2, 2008

Yes, in my opinion. The field worker seems to me obviously racist*, and Miko basically covered the reasons to think the fishing/flagholding statue is as well.

* Yes, inanimate objects can indeed be racist. No, intent is not essential to racism.
posted by voltairemodern at 8:52 PM on June 3, 2008

Yes, they're racist.
posted by anildash at 8:47 AM on June 4, 2008

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