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When stereotypes undermine skills
Horse racing was insanely popular in the antebellum South, and those who could afford thoroughbred horses and ride them well garnered respect and enjoyed high status. Thomas Jefferson took pride in his purebred horses and in his reputation as a superior horseman. Men like him paid close attention to bloodlines and breeding, which perhaps fed their obsession with doing the same for their enslaved workers. They believed, for example, that people from different African nations had different traits that made them better workers or more prone to running away.
Geraldine Brooks’ latest novel, Horse, (see below) is based on the true story of a Black horse trainer who raised champions in Kentucky, the heart of Southern horse racing, before the Civil War. It’s part of a larger story that many may not know—that enslaved people could be found working outside the cotton fields in a wide range of professions and sometimes attaining a high degree of skill. Thomas Jefferson relied on his enslaved carpenter, John Hemings, to undertake the most intricate woodworking at Monticello. Richmond and other Southern urban centers were full of enslaved skilled and industrial workers, whose masters had rented them out to factories, mills, dockyards, and artisans’ workshops.
But Horse brought to my mind another image—the lawn jockey. These statues of Black jockeys, popularized in the 1950s stood a few feet high, and were often placed beside a driveway or a front gate. The figures usually held a hitching ring or a lantern, suggesting they were there to tie up a visitor’s horse or light their way to the house. I’m pretty sure I saw a few in my Northern suburban childhood in the 1970s.
Lawn Jockey from South Carolina. Library of Congress
Grace Elizabeth Hale’s Making Whiteness, argues that caricatured depictions of Black people like the lawn jockeys, as well as stereotyped images used in advertising (think Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben) and entertainment (Amos and Andy) were first introduced in the late nineteenth century. Representations of Blacks that emphasized servility, foolishness, and stupidity united post-Civil War Whites from North and South in a shared consumer culture that excluded Blacks.
Display of racist Obama paraphernalia at the Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University. You can explore the exhibit virtually here.
These representations attempted to deny the reality that Black workers were present in and capable of mastering all kinds of skills and professions, even under conditions of slavery. When Whites could no longer gain from renting or selling skilled slaves, they demeaned and undermined Black people, perhaps in a bid to reduce the competition in a free labor society.
I wonder if a growing trend in higher education might help rectify the inequities resulting from these historic conditions. It involves moving away from expensive four-year college degrees—that often offer only questionable advantages for a prospective employer—toward certificate programs, many online, that demonstrate mastery of concrete and specific skills. Let’s hope the outcome is better for underserved people.
Heidi Hackford explores how past and present intersect.