Human Flower Project

Garden Accessory

Some yard ornaments never die. Dwight Allen—writer, gardener and family friend in Madison, Wisconsin—brings it home. (Thank you, Dwight!)


Unseated, and then some

Photo: Michele Gassman

By Dwight Allen

In my shed, under a tarp, is a statue of a black man in red britches and white button-up shirt. His shirt-sleeves are rolled to the elbows.  Red suspenders hold his pants up. His hands rest in his lap. There’s a hole in his lap and it’s possible to imagine those hands holding a fishing pole—a cane one, surely. The whites of his eyes pop out of his small, very round head, which is the black of a charcoal briquet, as if whatever he is seeing (a bird? a leaping fish?) is astonishing. (I have always assumed the statue is meant to represent a field hand circa 1850—a boyish one—during a moment of leisure. To say that the modern maker of the statue appears to have worked from a caricature seems almost too obvious to note.) The man’s mouth, however, is expressionless. His detachable broad-brimmed red hat sits next to him on the floor of the shed. His feet have been broken off, and a curved metal rod sticks out of one of the leg stumps. The backs of his legs and his rump are molded in such a way that, were he otherwise intact, his owner could place him on the edge of something—a wall, the back of a wagon—and he wouldn’t tip over.

imageYard Buddha on a column

Madison, Wisconsin

Photo: Michele Gassman

When I bought the house I have now lived in for four years, on the western edge of Madison, Wisconsin, a town that many conservatives believe to be wildly liberal, the black field hand was seated among the creek rocks that border a six-foot long garden “pond” that the previous owner had stocked with goldfish until it became clear that the fish would survive only until the raccoons decided to eat them (a night or two at the most). When I bought the house, a small one by neighborhood standards, I was mostly buying the yard and the gardens and the grape arbor and the deck where, six months out of the year, I could sit and gaze at everything. By neighborhood standards, the yard is quite large; the backmost quarter of it is a more than mature suburban forest, full of dying red pines and other varieties of pine vying for light and a couple of healthy dogwoods and a hundred-year old black cherry halved by windstorms and ants, and also garlic mustard and Dame Rocket (false phlox) and sumac and a floor of creeping charlie. When I first looked at the property, I think I failed to take sufficient note of the forest—I was distracted by the grape arbor, the clematis climbing the trellis affixed to the deck, and the seas of bee balm and true phlox and mallow and meadowsweet—and I know I tried to ignore the statue of the black man.

When my wife-to-be and I moved in and began taking walks around the neighborhood, we noticed a few yards that Martha Stewart might have laid her hand to, a few yards given over to prairie grasses and wildflowers, and one drably landscaped, rail-fenced yard where a statue of a pale-faced jockey (or footman?) lights the way up the front walk. Was this white jockey the upper Midwestern version of the black jockey that was a standard yard ornament in certain whites-only neighborhoods of the Southern city where I grew up? I had not previously seen any yard jockeys (or footmen), white or black, in Madison. (Our neighborhood, though rather conservative-looking, is a heavily Democratic one. Appearances can be deceiving.) A few days later, I noticed, in the back yard of a ranch-style house belonging to a woman who grows beautiful beds of flowers, a black and a white field hand sitting side by side on the edge of a little red rowboat. The black field hand looked to be the twin of the one who sat, fishing-pole-less, next to our fishless pond. Apparently, this woman, a cheerful presence with whom I now often chat about flowers when I’m walking the baby around the neighborhood, had no qualms about decorating her yard with a near-relation of all those Southern yard jockeys. (Perhaps the little black man’s white companion made him seem a little less, well, politically incorrect?)  I had qualms.  What was I to do with my black field hand sitting by his lonesome? He could not continue to decorate our yard, could he?

During our first winter here, three of my wife’s nieces and nephews (ages eight through twelve) came to stay for a long weekend. There was a foot of snow on the ground. At some point, it was decided that the niece and her two brothers should leave the cats alone and go outside and play. They discovered the field hand sitting next to the frozen pond. It was somehow suggested to them—note the passive voice—that we wouldn’t mind seeing the field hand disappear and that they could do whatever they wanted with him. It’s my recollection that the kids (or boys, anyway) took turns beating the statue with a shovel, until it fractured and came out of the frozen ground and toppled over. They may have even buried it where it lay, face-down, on the frozen pond; I’m not certain. I watched from a distance, and I have to admit that I felt uneasy watching, even from a distance. The anthropomorphizing impulse had been triggered in me. Though I am sure there was absolutely nothing racial in what the children did—they would have done the same to a statue of a white man in a tux, had they been given permission to—in my own feelings I noted something like guilt for having let them trash the little black man. I recalled moments in my white Southern suburban Christian adolescence when I said and did things I am even now, forty years later, ashamed to relate. I recalled using the “N” word casually, and sometimes with a kind of brio, if not with malice. I recalled watching a bunch of older boys destroy a mailbox belonging to one of the few Jewish families in my neighborhood; the boys chained the mailbox to a truck and pulled it right out of the ground and we bystanders all laughed uncontrollably. The past doesn’t just fade away, even after you are able to forgive yourself for stupidity and cruelty.


Residing in the shed

Photo: Michele Gassman

The statue, even without its hat, must weigh sixty or seventy pounds, and I didn’t move it after the beating; it lay, in pieces, where it fell, until the spring. Spring comes late to Wisconsin—usually, for good, in the second or third week of May, after a few teases—and I found other things to do before, finally, maybe a month before my wife and I were to be married in our back yard, removing the statue from the muck in the pond. Michele, my wife, had said to me, “We have to get that thing out of sight.” What would our wedding guests say if they saw that our garden contained a mutilated statue of a black man? We were liberals, after all. When, that summer, our neighbor to the west put a Bush/Cheney sign in her immaculate evergreen yard (rather close, we thought, to the property line), we put a homemade Kerry-Edwards sign in our weed-clotted front yard (also rather close to the property line).

So I put the statue and its hat in the rusted-out wheelbarrow that the previous owner had also bequeathed to us and hauled the thing over to the shed, which sits beneath an enormous catalpa that would fall (though not, miraculously, on the shed) the following summer.  Sometimes people on our street set unwanted stuff out on the curb, but I felt that I would be exposing too much about myself if I put the statue of the black man out in front of my house. And what if he sat there for weeks, unclaimed, as was perhaps likely in wildly liberal Madison?  We live on a busy street. And down the street are two black families. We could have wrapped the thing up in a plastic bag and set it out with our garbage, though no city sanitation worker was likely to lift so much dead weight and try to heave it into his truck. No, it was my burden to keep.

imageBlue shroud

Madison, Wisconsin

Photo: Michele Gassman

So the field hand continues to lie in state in the shed, under a tarp. (I sometimes use the tarp for other purposes, particularly during leaf season, and whenever I remove it and see the field hand on his back, the whites of his eyes shining in the dark, I am taken aback.) Near the spot by the pond where the field hand used to sit is a pedestal in the shape of a Doric column (also inherited from the previous owners) and on top of the column is a small Buddha, a thin, serious one made of cheap metal. My wife thought that this part of the garden—devastated two weeks ago, when our neighbor’s enormous box elder fell into our yard—needed some sort of spiritual presence, or the image of such, anyway. I don’t have any problem with the Buddha (though I’m partial to images of him fat and laughing) or spiritual presences in general, though what I really want for this part of the garden is a statue that would scare the hell out of the rabbits that like to eat my Asiatic lilies and rudbeckia and tulips and a particular variety of hosta. I don’t think the statue of the field hand, even if I were to refurbish him and maybe give him a popgun to hold (the Dalai Lama once owned a popgun, to scare away the big birds that monopolized his little bird feeder), would have much effect on the rabbits. No, the only thing my field hand really has much effect on is me.

Note: Dwight Allen is the author of The Green Suit and Judge. For some surprising (dubious?) history of the jockey boy, check here.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 07/01 at 09:28 AM


Lovely to read this. The trials of symbology—especially when it weighs upwards of fifty pounds…

More, please!

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 07/01 at 09:10 PM

Fascinating essay.  Thanks for jockey boy history link.  I wonder if the author will restore the statue and re-set him by the pond.

Posted by Georgia on 07/04 at 01:35 PM
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