Saturday, October 23, 2010

cast ironies

This unspoiled cast-iron artifact of the late 19th century stands guard over the grounds of Rose Hill Mansion, a gothic revival mini-castle set in the coastal lowland of South Carolina. Today we rarely see a black lawn jockey, and this one both memorializes and, with its cockeyed blank gaze, seems to mock an earlier American culture which combined innocence, paternalism, and fear, and remains with us today as a stew of barely suppressed and misunderstood emotions and impulses.

The Rose Hill web site contains a short but revealing history of the lawn jockey, whose universal design honored Oliver Lewis, the first jockey to bring home the roses at the Kentucky Derby in 1875. In those days, the site informs us, all jockeys were black, and the tendency of the owners of these iconic hitching posts and/or lantern holders to paint them white in our own time for fear of being accused of racism overlooks their intended purpose of honoring rather than belittling the jockeys who served as their model.

Over the years the lawn jockey has persisted in suburban front yards, but the new ones come out of the factory as white as alabaster. These also differ from the originals in body type, being generally taller and leaner than the stocky and cartoonish ornaments of our shady past. The evolution of the lawn jockey might serve as a metaphor for our treatment of the less palatable aspects of our own history; when we see something we don't like, we whitewash it.

One commentator on American culture who refused to participate in whitewashing the past, instead presenting it in ways deliberately intended to provoke discomfort, was the rural Georgia author Flannery O'Connor. In the early '50s, before she died of lupus at age 39, O'Connor wrote "The Artificial Nigger," about a pair of rural bumpkins, father and son, whose misadventures in the big city (Atlanta) are capped by their encounter with a crumbling fragment of decorative statuary characteristic of the golden age of lawn jockeys.

"...he saw," O'Connor writes of the father, "within reach of him, the plaster figure of a Negro sitting bent over on a low yellow brick fence that curved around a wide lawn. The Negro was about Nelson's (the son's) size and he was pitched forward at an unsteady angle because the putty that held him to the wall had cracked. One of his eyes was entirely white and he held a piece of brown watermelon."
"It was not possible to tell if the artificial Negro were meant to be young or old; he looked too miserable to be either. He was meant to look happy because his mouth was stretched up at the corners but the chipped eye and the angle he was cocked at gave him a look of wild misery instead."

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