The garden in front of Tracey Hooks’ row house is the prettiest on the block. There are marigolds the color of tangerines, violets mingling with sunflowers and pink pansies. Hooks’ friends and neighbors in Green Leaf Extension, a public-housing development in Southwest Washington where she has lived for 10 years, call her the “beautification expert,” despite the garden’s being adorned with a roughly 12-inch, 9-pound black lawn jockey.
Marie A. Wood, Hooks’ neighbor for five years, says she and most of the people in the neighborhood don’t know much about the statue. “I’ve always heard it was a racist thing,” she says. “But it didn’t bother me that she had it.”
Wood adds that the lawn jockey probably gets overshadowed by the flowers, plants, and elaborate decorations Hooks puts up during the holidays. “All I can say is that she’s always kept a beautiful yard,” Wood says.
The controversial lawn jockey hasn’t been much of a controversy in Hooks’ largely black neighborhood. Elsewhere in the country, folks are raising hell over similar statues. For 20 years, residents of North Carolina have debated over the black lawn jockey on U.S. Rep. Cass Ballenger’s lawn. In 2002, Ballenger, who defended the statue as a family heirloom, had the black lawn jockey painted white in an effort to silence his critics.
Even in the District, the lawn jockey continues to attract critics, who decry its racist undertones. “I think the lawn jockey is the beginning of a thinking that, left unquestioned, would lead to a model of a black left hanging on a tree,” says Lawrence Guyot, the Cardozo/Shaw advisory neighborhood commissioner and civil-rights leader, who grew up in Mississippi, where black lawn jockeys decorated white-owned houses. “It’s not a large leap.”
Hooks, who is black, is aware of the controversy but defends her lawn jockey. Rather than evoking Gone With the Wind stereotypes, she says, it reminds her of her ancestors’ struggle for empowerment.
Hooks, who is 43 and works in an adult bookshop, bought the lawn jockey five years ago at a garden store off Indian Head Highway in Prince George’s County, Md. She had a vague notion that the lawn jockey had an association with the Underground Railroad. But her first impression was simply that the statue was beautiful. It would be one of her first lawn ornaments.
“Once I saw it [the lawn jockey], I wanted it,” Hooks says.
From its ambiguous inception, the lawn jockey has represented a complicated mix of black history. According to one legend, on a frigid night, a young black man by the name of Jocko Graves wanted to fight in George Washington’s surprise attack on a British encampment during the Revolutionary War. Washington said the boy was too young and asked him to hold a lantern for the troops as they crossed the Delaware River. When the troops rowed back after the battle, they found a frozen Graves, holding the horses’ reins in his hands. Washington was moved by the boy’s dedication and ordered a statue made in his honor.
Details vary from story to story—some hold it wasn’t Graves, but his father; in other Graves volunteered to watch the horses—but one thing is true: There isn’t any record of Jocko Graves or his statue.
Another tale holds that lawn jockeys were used as markers to guide slaves along the Underground Railroad. A certain colored ribbon, the removal of the jockey’s cap, or the placement of a lantern in the jockey’s hand indicated whether a house was safe or not.
Kenneth Goings, chair of the African-American and African Studies Department at Ohio State University, disputes the merit of the Jocko and Underground Railroad stories.
Goings says black lawn jockeys had nothing to do with slaves or Jocko Graves; he says these degrading figures, supporting the notion of the “happy darky,” appeared in the 1890s and are rooted in a racist history. The more empowering interpretations are nothing more than myths, Goings says.
“[The lawn jockeys] were made to denigrate African-Americans,” says Goings, who believes that the movement to put a positive spin on the figurines is dubious: “I don’t know where it’s coming from.”
Confronted with Goings’ analysis, Hooks is undeterred. “Everyone’s got their opinion. But my interpretation is different. That’s what I read,” she said.
Hooks remembers only one person saying something negative to her face. A man, who she says was not from the neighborhood, walked by, saw the statue, and suggested she get a white one.
Hooks wasn’t angry. “I didn’t get into much with him because I had my own philosophy, my own belief,” she says.
Hooks prefers to think of the lawn jockey as an aid to escaped slaves rather than as a symbol of black subjugation. She likens her home to a safe house, where anybody and everybody is welcomed. She is a president of Green Leaf’s residential council and sits on a board with the D.C. Housing Authority.
“I think of my ancestors every time I look at it. I think about what they went through—it says to me freedom is power,” she says. “So it’s something that lifts me when I walk out the door.”CP