Gardens and Yard Art

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Gardens and Yard Art

For African Americans, gardens and yards have been bound up with opportunities for stable living conditions, control over personal space, and home ownership amid threats to person and property extending from the seventeenth into the twenty-first centuries. Broadly, yards represent the American dream of independence and self-respect, the biblical notion of freedom to live under one's own vine and fig tree, and the ancestral bequest of roots for the living and their descendants in a home place. Plants, statuary, and artistic creations help to communicate these themes and the unique visions of gardeners and yard makers. Even such ordinary activities as cutting grass and planting flowers can double as community building by showing passersby a home that is secure, successful, and welcoming.

Gardens and Yards

Most Americans use the term garden to describe a relatively large area where vegetables or flowers are grown, bed for a smaller area of flowers, and yard to refer to domestic landscapes that surround residences. African diaspora history and experience also give meanings to these terms. In West and Central Africa, family gardens on lands surrounding a village are major sources of staple foods. People also own rights in individual fruit trees, palms, and herbs scattered through the community and the forest. Prior to European colonization, flowers generally were not grown solely for decoration but rather appreciated in relation to the total potential of the plant to feed, medicate, protect, or harm. Family compounds, often enclosed by a wall or fence, foreshadowed use of the yard in the Americas as an extension of the house, the site of practical activities as well as relaxation. Forest preserves that contained ritual sites, initiation compounds, sacred pools, memorials to ancestors, and important plants also influenced African-American landscape design.

On many North American and Caribbean plantations, the yard was a fenced or walled workspace adjacent to the planter's house. Access to the yard was strictly controlled, but some enslaved Africans and their descendants also had gardens that they tended in their meager spare time, enriching their diets and their pockets with the sale of crops. The forests and swamps beyond the plantation contained dangers but also routes for escape from forced labor.

Wildness and Cultivation, Exuberance and Maturity

On both sides of the Atlantic the complementary relationship between forest and settlement, wildness and cultivation, remains philosophically important, shaping both land and analogies between land use and the human body. Wild places like forests and swamps are associated with unpredictability, exuberance, and a hot emotional climate but are also exceptionally fertile and full of potential for healing and new growth. Cultivated places, like mature people, are orderly, discreet, and coolin the sense of being emotionally balancedas well as perfectly groomed. Wildness can burst forth spontaneously in any direction; cultivation channels this energy into mastery of all directions. Both orientations must be balanced for overall health; thus, both find places in yards, as do towers, posts, whirligigs, wheels, tires, balls, hubcaps, lighthouses, and other adornments that imply heights, depths, and movement through all points of the compass.

Thus, some carefully tended yards also include areas that seem wilder than the other parts, often located in back of the yard or on the far side of the driveway from the house. Traditionally, these are the areas in which memorials to loved ones and past generations are placed. Diverse African peoples, as well as African Americans, associate certain bodies of water, trees, inverted or pierced vessels, and otherworldly colors such as white and silver with ancestors and/or spirits. Items that some might call yard art not only decorate but display connections with the past and the staying power of forebears: old wheels, plows, sewing machines, bed heads, iron washing and cooking pots, stones, and even special roots, trees, and flowers like jonquils that return year after year, long after a home has been abandoned.

Trees contribute character to the landscape. The centerpiece of the yard for many southerners is a chinaberry tree that shades a cluster of chairs for work and sociability. Some yards also contain places of meditation beside a tree, carrying on the tradition of religious seekers selecting special trees and thickets for places of prayer. Widespread practices in the African diaspora link trees with individuals. For example, a "name tree" planted just as the morning sun crossed the horizon established the relationship near the time of a person's birth. The growth of the tree paralleled that of the child into maturity, eventually serving as a memorial after the individual's death. Sturdy "family trees" in rural yards symbolize "back home" for relatives spread throughout the country.

Signs of Cultivation: Borders, Surfaces, and Thresholds

A widespread idea in the African diaspora holds that land is not empty space waiting to be claimed but rather must be made by eliminating wildness and negativity (thieves, gossip, jealousy, or disease) and must be kept up by treating every surface, plant, and ornament with care.

Surfaces, boundaries, and thresholds are key to these processes. In yards, fields, and burial grounds, earth is a passage, not a plane. Trees, plants, and posts that transect the surface of the yard connect the visible with the unseen. Borders (often of bottles before the mid-twentieth century), fences, and gates segment the land, functioning simultaneously as containers, barriers, decoration, and signs of ownership that mediate movement between inside and outside various areas.

In African-American yards, smooth, regular surfaces like swept sand, packed earth, raked gravel, and clipped grass are not so much blank as neutral (or cool): in a state of readiness and composure achieved against the vicissitudes of traffic and hurry. The surface of the ground is as much a "face" of the yard as is its façade from the street. Whether or not the preference for bare earth originated in Africa, it is widespread there and remained customary in American yards into the 1940s, when grass lawns became more common. A deterrent to insects and other pests, packed earth and raked sand also show that members of the household have paid attention to every square inch of the yard. It is combed and groomed like human hair, an analogy that Maya Angelou and others have drawn. Regular sweeping also obliterates the foot tracks of residents, for as anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston has discussed at length, in conjure, tracks can be picked up and used in rites to harm someone. Together, well-tended surfaces and boundaries contribute to a home that is sealed: impervious to assault, aesthetically pleasing, and functioning smoothly. The concept of sealing the house is virtually Pan-African. In the eighteenth century, the yards of enslaved Virginians in the Carter's Grove Plantation slave quarter used shells to seal the ground. Rather than sweeping the surface of the quarter bare, residents drew on an abundant supply of oyster shells that combined attractive whiteness with good drainage and announced the approach of visitors with loud crunching noises.

Boundaries and borders often have extra physical and visual anchors at the four corners. The corners of the yard as a whole and the beds inside it resonate with the corners of rooms inside the house, as well as with ritual space. The arrangements that mark the entrances to yards vary considerably, also implying the wide range of ways that the people who make them view their neighborhoods and potential visitors. Wrought gates, doors, and window coverings add "prestige and protection," according to an advertisement on WNOO radio in Chattanooga, Tennessee. A spiritual doctor from the 1930s recommended placing a fork by the door or gate to keep thieves away and stop people from gossiping. Traditional protections against conjure include a fork or broomstick over the kitchen door, sprinkling doors and gates with chamber lye and salt, and keeping a yard bird or frizzled chicken. Part of making a yard truly welcoming involves helping others avoid temptation so that visitors come only with good intentions.


Adding something extra, going a step beyond what's expected of an ordinary yard, fits well with an African-American aesthetic that Zora Neale Hurston called "decorating

the decorations." This can mean expressing oneself by adding colorful trim, crafting small dramatic scenes with statuary, nurturing flowers that burgeon out of their beds, and a host of other ways of filling the yard with life. As more Americans moved into the cities, rural animals such as geese, deer, squirrels, and rabbits became popular ornaments. Cool, composed religious statues serve as role models and show awareness of blessings bestowed on the household. A secure yard is well looked after, and historically African Americans have had good reasons to be vigilant; thus, eagles can allude not only to patriotism but also to exceptional powers of sight. Indeed, in African-American yards, the eyes of statues almost always gaze at passersby, where they can remind potential transgressors that they have been seen and should behave accordingly.

In sum, African-American yard work is an extraordinarily rich and varied form of expressive culture combining beautification with communication and tradition with innovation.

See also Africanisms; Expressive Culture; Folk Arts and Crafts; Folk Religion


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grey gundaker (2005)