Early last year, I was shocked to see a lawn jockey, standing sentinel to greet me, at the top of the dirt drive of the horse barn where my 12-year-old works mucking stalls on Saturdays in exchange for riding lessons. It had not been present the week before. These archaic depictions of a subservient Black man were once common in suburban American lawns, rising to prominence in the first half of the 19th century. It made me uncomfortable, but it also sparked an important — and now, ongoing — conversation for me and my kids that hinges on a stark truth: That the depth of Black history in America extends far beyond the horrors of slavery and the triumphs of the Civil Rights Movement.
It’s a conversation that we, as parents — including if not especially white parents of white kids — must be engaged in 12 months each year, not just in February.
“Can you tell me a little bit more about the new statue on your lawn?” is how I broached the awkward subject with the barn owner. She told me she tied a green ribbon around the jockey’s arm to signal that Black people are welcome there; a red ribbon, she told me, would have been a message to keep moving. Um, yikes.
I was pretty floored by this explanation, as I eyed the wall calendar behind her that prominently displayed the year 2020. Have we really only come this far? Is this really the only explanation I have to give my kids? Of course it’s not. Here’s how I’m broaching the topic — that is, the microcosm of the lawn jockey and the macrocosm of racism itself — with my tween daughters.
Through willingness to learn cultural competence
“It’s very helpful to know that there are good intentions behind an effort, but you really have to practice that platinum rule of mutual respect and check in with the other side,” Gwendolyn VanSant, CEO and founding director of Multicultural BRIDGE, tells SheKnows. At the root of her nonprofit’s work is teaching cultural competence, a developmental process that increases awareness and understanding of different cultures. “We define culture as the way attitudes, beliefs and values intersect to form behavior,” VanSant explains, adding, “wherever people are is where culture gets established.” (Suffice it to say, I wasn’t too crazy about that barn “culture” all of a sudden.)
Fundamental to cultural competence is being able to assess impact versus intent — and being accountable to both. In the case of my experience at the barn, the owner’s intent was to be welcoming; the impact, however, was anything but — which inevitably urged the conversation forward. “It’s unavoidable, to have trauma sometimes with good intentions, it’s really how you respond,” VanSant emphasizes. The young barn owner was capable of hearing me, but she was not willing to accept that her lawn jockey — green ribbon aside — could be offensive and painful to some, and even cost her business. Because it would do just that, for plenty of Black families potentially interested in riding at the barn. An unintended impact can leave triggers and traumas in its wake, which is why developing shared understanding is crucial.
Through looking at the past — & keeping it in the past
Randy F. Weinstein, Director of the [W.E.B.] Du Bois Center in Great Barrington, MA, approaches the subject as a historian. “I like to present things, all things, as part of the story,” he said with regard to artifacts such as the lawn jockey. He feels “there is a time and a place for these things — perhaps in a library or museum where they can be explained,” which differs grossly from “public consumption without any pre-teaching.”
And when these items do appear in public spaces, and make us uncomfortable, how do we talk about them with our kids?
Through age-appropriate conversations
“Kids are big thinkers, and their imaginations are not limited to fun, carefree topics,” clinical psychologist and author Stephanie O’Leary tells SheKnows. “When you have honest, age-appropriate conversations about [difficult] things, you provide an outlet for your child’s feelings, model healthy coping and establish that you are a source of support, even when topics are uncomfortable.”
She urges parents never to avoid questions about racism; dodging the conversation only further cements it as somehow taboo. When your kids come face to face with discrimination — yes, even something as simple as a lawn jockey — make sure they know that what they’re seeing is wrong. Then, invite them to ask questions. “It’s best to answer honestly and keep lines of communication open,” says O’Leary. “Talking about current events and daily experiences within your community are great places to start because discrimination is not a thing of the past… Share personal experiences to model how you felt, how you reacted and what you wish you had done differently… Focusing on practical steps your child can take is important, such as being vocal.”
Black writer Jonita Davis echoes that sentiment regarding being vocal; she urges white families that the best way to be an ally is to be a witness, get receipts, and spread the word. “White allies have long stood beside Black activists — from slavery abolitionists to the civil rights movement and beyond,” Davis writes on SheKnows. “So, talk to your child about joining a long and rich line of allies who have worked to effect change — even despite narrow-minded American leadership.”
I, for one, am introducing my kids to Black history via both addressing the horrors of slavery and celebrating the Black individuals throughout our country’s past who have overcome obstacles and changed the game. And not just the ones everyone knows — Harriet Tubman and Dr. Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks and Malcolm X and Toni Morrison. I’ll teach them about Dr. Garrett Morgan, who patented the electronic automatic traffic signal and invented the gas mask. I will point out how Frederick McKinley Jones’ invention of the refrigerated truck dramatically altered how food is shipped around the world, and how Dr. Gladys West’s invention of GPS made getting that food — and all of us who rely on directions, for that matter — to a final destination. I will explain Dr. Charles Drew’s pioneering discoveries about blood plasma and how the surgeon and hematologist set up the first blood banks during a time when the South was still rigidly segregated and Black Americans were routinely denied medical treatment because hospitals were “for whites only.” And then, still, I will have only scratched the surface.
The lawn jockey is a relic from a (thankfully) bygone era. Even its genesis (some stories say it signaled a stop on the Underground Railroad, some say it honored a young Black boy who froze to death while holding a lantern for General George Washington and his troops) is uncertain. Its continued (albeit rare) presence does raise an important point, especially today: The history of America has been dark and tragic throughout many years. And those tragedies and the corresponding fight for equality are far from over. But the country’s history is also diverse and filled with people of color who are professors, inventors, scholars, artists, activists, scientists, and more — people who have left indelible marks on life as we know it today.
“We have to grapple with our history and our reality,” VanSant tells SheKnows, adding that “the power of the ‘and‘ is really important… This month is to remind us how important it is to integrate the impact of Black people year-round.” So this month — and all throughout the year — I will continue to engage in conversation with my kids about the importance of treating every person with kindness and respect. Period.
Is it weird that I ended up somewhat grateful for the encounter with the awful “Jocko” at the barn, whose sudden presence in the grass pushed me forward into this conversation with my kids? Either way, I’m grateful for the conversation — and our slow unpacking of the very real issues surrounding racism that continue to exist, even (especially?) in the very small, insular community where we live. All year ‘round.
For more resources: For help starting these important conversations with your kids, go to the Teaching Tolerance magazine website, which offers discussion starters as well as lessons for teachers. Parents can turn these class lessons into easy ways of explaining allyship and how to achieve it. Charis Books, a feminist bookstore, even curated a list of books for kids on race and allies. These are just a few of the wide array of available materials on race and allies. Just make sure to study up and educate yourself before you begin the conversation with your kids; Zeba Blay’s handy list for the Huffington Post, “16 Books about Race Every White Person Should Read,” is a great starting point.
A version of this story was published in February 2020.
Add these books starring girls of color to your children’s shelves.