Thursday, May 27, 2010

The garden gnome controversy 

Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Annette John-Hall wrote a funny and somewhat tongue-in-cheek piece in today's paper, about a promotion and giveaway that the AA Reading Phillies are planning in August, to salute Major League slugger Ryan Howard. It has resulted in a minor controversy in local sports talk radio today, which in turn has created a small amount of racial tension where there needn't have been any.
I don't know whether to laugh hysterically or to run.

The Ryan Howard Garden Gnome, the R-Phils' featured giveaway Aug. 3, depicts our slugger in pinstripes, sporting a waist-length gray beard and a pointy little R-Phils elf cap.

Face all Vaselined up, grinning from ear to ear, kneeling on one knee, and, as he is prone to do, holding a bat like a billy club - all ready to beat back those menacing garden snails.

Say what?

"He's there to protect your garden," affirms Kevin Sklenarik, the team's director of operations. Fans are sure to "enjoy them and display them in their gardens."

Well, OK. I can laugh with the best of them.

But, hmm. This is all starting to veer dangerously close to lawn-ornament territory, and we all know that history.

The original jockey statue, standing proud and usually carrying a lantern, shepherded runaway slaves to safety during the days of the Underground Railroad, explained Charles Blockson, curator of the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection at Temple.

But as time went on, lawn jockeys were often caricatured as a stooped-over black man with dark skin and painted-in white eyes and big red lips. They were usually displayed on lawns of homes in the South and served no real purpose other than to diminish African Americans.

So you can understand why this Howard gnome thing creeps me out, even if the team's intentions were to tout its former star.
Here is a photo of the gnome in question:

Here is a photo of a "lawn jockey" from the Wikipedia entry:

Aesthetics aside, I can't say that I see much in the way of similarities here, sufficient to raise hackles, but I am not African-American, and Annette John-Hall is. Part of my view is that I think of Ryan Howard as a former NL MVP and key member of the Phillies, so it is hard for me to see him any derogatory or diminished fashion because of a giveaway item. He is able to earn ten digits a year in part because of such promotions at the big league level.

An interesting side note to the controversy is the long history of "lawn jockey" type statues, which the Wikipedia entry summarizes nicely -- that the statues originally saluted an aide to General Washington, and later, as Ms. John-Hall pointed out, served as signposts along the Underground Railroad, before eventually being generally seen as racist depictions of subservient African-Americans.

I wonder if the rule should be that no outdoor small statues of African-Americans can be placed in your garden or next to your front walk, simply because of the bad association many people have with it throughout much of the late 19th and 20th Centuries. We probably need someone in a position of absolute moral authority to guide us (help us, Oprah-wan-kenobi, you're our only hope). As Ms. John-Hall implies, there need not be any kind of bad intent for offense to possibly result. So, if you're a life-long Democrat who helped campaign for President Obama, you probably should not get a version of the Indonesia statue of young Barack Obama to display on your property.

I am not much for putting objects in gardens beyond something like a sundial, so, no worries here.


By Blogger Georgfelis, at Thu May 27, 07:32:00 PM:

Question: Is the lawn jockey a sign of a racist, or an appreciation of African-American heritage?

Answer: Insufficient information: Without the indication of the location of the lawn jockey in question (i.e. on the yard of a Conservative or a Liberal), we are unable to determine the intent of the jockey-placer. If the jockey resides on the lawn of a Conservative, obviously it is a sign of the contempt that individual feels to the heritage of the African-American community, and a distinct possibility that the individual was a slave owner in the past, and looks forward to the return of that practice. But if this jockey sits on the lawn of a Liberal, obviously it has been placed there in hallowed respect for the long and arduous road trod by our minority community, and should be considered as a sign of the individual’s deep and sincere commitment to the civil rights struggle.

In short, there are some statues that just are not worth placing. Settle for a nice concrete frog, or a birdbath.  

By Blogger Bomber Girl, at Thu May 27, 08:09:00 PM:

Whatever its political or cultural meaning, that is a singularly unattractive adornment for a garden.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Fri May 28, 10:45:00 AM:

As a Met fan, I am interested in purchasing one so my dog has something to aim at.  

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