East St. Louis Action Research Project
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
LA 437/465 Final Reports
The Spirit of African-American Yards
The Spirit of African-American Yards
Front Yard Designs in East St. Louis
The research of folk gardening traditions is slowly beginning in the United States. As a result, African-American yards have received little systematic attention to date. Several researchers who have made scholarly contribution directly to African-American yards are Richard Westmacott, Robert Farris Thompson, Lizzetta LeFalle-Collins, and Judith McWillie.
This study explores the vernacular language of African-American front yards of the Edgemont neighborhood which locates in the southeast end of the city of East St. Louis. By identifying existing cultural-specific residential landscape features and structures, African-American front yard prototypes have been developed.
J. B. Jackson once said, "we can only start to understand the contemporary landscape by studying what we have rejected and what we have retained from the past." Thus it is very important for us to trace the evolution of the vernacular landscape for a better understanding of today's landscape.
According to the historical photo of people's life in the South, it is worth noting that the yard adjacent to the cabin was filled with a rain barrel, washtubs, fencing, wagon wheels, an outdoor fireplace, sawbucks, and chickens. Many of these objects become recurring themes of contemporary African-American yards.
The Cultural Meanings
Westmacott points out that the arrangements, the decorative ornaments, and recycled materials in African-American yards are rich in meanings and associations for their owners. In fact, trees, fields, rocks, and other features of the landscape became invested with spiritual significance and interwoven with the life courses of African-American individuals.
African Influences in the Yard
In "The Song That Named the Land: The Visionary Presence of African-American Art," in Black Art: Ancestral Legacy (1989), Robert Farris Thompson noted that "yard-shows assimilate the artistic and philosophic values of classical Kongo culture". He summarized the recurring themes as following:
According to Grey Gundaker (1993), additional themes are:
- Rock boundaries
- Mirrors on the porch, "to keep certain forces at a distance"
- Jars or vessels, placed by the main door on the porch, "to send back evil to its sources"
- Motion-emblems, like wheels, tires, hubcaps, hoops, and pinwheels
- Cosmograms, sometimes rendered as a diamond, sometimes as a circle
- Planting of protective herbs
- Planting flowers or herbs within the protective circle of a tire, sometimes whitewashed, sometimes turned inside out and decorated with knife-cut sawtooth edges
- Root sculptures, found images, dolls, plaster sculptures of persons or animals
- The folk tradition of bottle-trees, twigs covered in glassware to ward off evil. Tree hung with shiny bottles, light-bulbs, or tinfoil, shiny metal disks, and sometimes the bones of animals. Other practices include inserting bottles in the foundation of a house or sprinkling property boundaries with limes. According to Grey Gundaker (1993), Bottle trees, along with medicine-bottle containers and bottle borders in yards and graveyards, have been documented in the United States and West Indies for at least a century. I observed trees and shrubs variously adorned with glass jars, empty medicine bottles, or colored glass bottles.
- Swept-earth yards with every blade of grass removed.
According to G. Hardie in Personal Communication (1987), in some African cultures, the area near the house would be maintained as a yard, regularly swept, and thereby kept hygienically clear of plants and evil spirits such as snakes which could otherwise lurk in the nearby vegetation.
- Some yards display objects that refer to African-American traditions of graveyard decoration, including shells, pipes, rock piles.
- Displays of skills like topiary or masonry, sometimes related to a job held currently or prior to retirement.
- Iron bars and tools, associated with the protective and curative powers of metal.
- Clothing, frequently for the extremities: shoes, socks, gloves, and hats.
- Color ( in addition to white ) on vessels, figures, and borders including combinations such as blue, red, and white; blue and yellow, black and white; black and red. The importance of red has been noted most often. Blue trims doors and windows because evil is said not to be able to cross the color of the sky. In some African-American yards blue plays warning roles.
- Tying and wrapping with strings, ribbons, wires, vines, and herbaceous borders at boundaries and thresholds as well as around objects. Tying and wrapping are traditional ways of enclosing charms and, more broadly, sealing intentions. Vines, blue ribbon, and strings of script wrap some porches and yards.
- Writing, including name plaques, initials, texts, behavioral instructions ( "Welcome", "Beware of Dog" )
- Chairs, seats, and thrones
- Filters against unwelcome influences, in the form of spirits and malevolent intentions, including irregular paths, fans, sieves, and brooms, especially when hanging on the front door.
- Emblems of communication, such as antennae, transmitters, receivers, electronic devices, and grills.
- Emblems of flight, such as birds, rockets, airplanes, helicopters.
- Water hoses, imitation and real hand pumps and wells
- Tall posts, poles, towers
- Clocks, timepieces, gauges which are related to both the Kongo cosmogram and marks as prohibitive charms.
- X or a Greek cross, which protectively blocks a path, entrance, or exit.
Across the United States, many African-Americans have created striking yards in their neighborhoods. They decorate their yards
using a flexible visual vocabulary that revitalizes African traditions through everyday materials.
Past studies have suggested that people often treat their yard as an extension of the house. Although the front yards reveal few signs of activity, and are not put to much practical use, they are important indicators of good citizenship and concern for the neighborhood image. ( Christopher Grampp, 1985 )
The front yards I have seen in edgemont neighborhood are largely open space--lawns, and paths, decorated with trees and shrubbery, and folk and popular yard ornaments. Most front yards consist of foundation plantings of evergreen shrubs or hedges, small perennial borders, and a lawn.
Found Materials and Icons
- Recycled Materials
For instance, tires, stones, pinwheels, planters, toys, and auto parts are commonly used in the yards. Tires are commonly used as planters.
- Objects Associated with Past Memory
Some yards display objects that refer to past generations of a specific family such as iron pots, or an old sewing machine.
- Painted Objects
Common objects are white coral, sea shells, rocks with a coat of white paint, weathered bouquet of colorful artificial flowers, and plastic birds.
- Printed Signs
Printed signs repeat the visual warnings: "Beware of Dog," "Keep out," "Protected by ADT"
Landscape Hard Material
The mass-produced yard ornaments are bought: classical Victorian planter, sculpted lions, birdbath, geese, artificial flower.
The visual importance of the open front yard should not be underestimated because the spaciousness and greenery play an important role in establishing neighborhood appearance and character.
It is evident that the wealthier families have less indication of traditional practice in their yards which may partially due to the process of cultural assimilation. Several front yard prototypes have been identified from the field visits.
Interpretation of Nature
These front yards shows contrasting visions of beauty in nature.
These yards represent the unselfconscious design of traditional African-American gardening practice. Commonly found features are tire planters, stone-boarded shrubs and other popular and folk yard ornaments.
- Planter Yard
The front yard is filled with dozens of potted plants, birdbaths, and sculptures. Various painted or non painted tire planters are major interests of the yard.
- Stone-bordered Yard
It is an African tradition to arrange pots, plantings, and borders of white stones around houses.
Where Modern Meets Tradition
These yards incorporate traditional practice and contemporary ones.
- Horizontal Emphasis
The front yard is mainly an open lawn. The major landscape treatment is along the horizontal axis in front of the house. Two rows of dwarf evergreen shrubs are planted there with a central boarder of stones. The patio has been punctuated by a pair of lion sculptures.
- Entrance Walkway
The yard has a strong emphasis on the path to the front door. Pairs of night lights and plants are placed along the path and a pair of popular yard ornament is placed in front of the door.
- Modern Interpretation
The yard design borrows the traditional ideas yet appropriates the landscape for contemporary social meanings.
It is great to see that in the middle-class neighborhoods of cities, small yards strikingly different in design and materials from the common front yard of lawn and shrubbery. However, it is very sad to realize as soon as their owners are culturally assimilated, those lovely landscapes will disappear. J. B. Jackson (1994) noted that "(vernacular) gardens teach us more than we are aware of. It could be where the family members work together and learn traditions and beliefs."
African-American front yards assimilate the artistic and philosophic values of classical African-American culture. Many recurring themes are found in Edgemont neighborhood and further research should be conducted on use and design of backyards as well. A garden manual like "How to make an African-American Yard" will contribute to the sense of place of the city as well as enhance the pride of African-American culture among the citizens. In the process of searching of the spirit of African-American yards, we will benefit from the traditional garden practice which may serve to protect and foster a distinct culture.
Document author(s) : Yan Xu
HTML by : Yan Xu
Last modified: December 8, 1995
LA 437/465 Final Reports
East St. Louis Action Research Project