The Grass is Greener: On Yardwork in the Black Middle Class

By Malin Curry

In suburbia, the lawns look like chess boards. Grass stands erect and at attention, waiting for marching orders. Blades are tamed, never unruly. Mannered, never crass. Yards are filled with begonias, azaleas, elephant ears and planted with oaks to mark the passage of time.

Caring for your lawn, breathing life into it with every push of a mower, dig of a spade is considered acceptable behavior. In suburbia, residents fall in line, they plant fervently and trim with gusto as if their very livelihood were on the line. And sometimes, it is.

Having recently moved, my family had abandoned the idea of landscaping as an appropriate form of leisure for a time. Trading it for a hobby in internal home improvements instead. But the emergence of the pandemic forced us to revert back to old habits.

Enter landscaping, stage left, act 2. I’ve always believed my family’s passion for lawn care to be a hobby specific to us, but reflecting now, I’m beginning to realize how many other Black families in my social circle might also share our fascination. Growing up, nearly every Black house I went to came complete with a lawn ready for the next barbecue or birthday. These experiences showed me that many in the Black community associate a certain level of pride associated with taking care of your yard. It’s the pride that comes with announcing that your sod is starting to take, that your rose bush is coming back stronger than ever.

And I began to wonder, what was it about a manicured lawn that could evoke so much emotion? Running the gamut from despair to pure jubilation, in my experience, the state of your lawn could quite literally affect your mood and even your outlook on life. Why? Here’s what I’ve found:

1. 1947, William Levitt issues the construction of what would become one of the first planned suburban communities in the twentieth century. Ground is broken, ribbons are cut and construction begins. Levitt pronounces his new “Levittown” as a marker meant to enumerate the many progresses of the American people. An American people that is, of course, overwhelmingly white since Blacks and any other minorities are banned from the community. More than this, housing policies also exclude working class people. Homes moonlight as meeting places for “loyalists,” old world sympathizers and a more insidious form of covert racism. Progress?

For my family, lawn care is a form of social posturing. Indicators we present to our neighbors that they use to come to broader conclusions about our home. Cut grass= they must lead an ordered household. Shaped hedges= they care about the little things. And on. A neighbor walks into our yard one day while my father digs a trench. They trade pleasantries, talk sports and discuss the yard. “Looks good out here man.” My father beams with pride.

2. The 19th century. Slavery continues to constrain the lives of Black folks. Early industrialism is ushered in, bringing with it new advents of technology like the lawn mower which revolutionizes the lawn care industry. Some field slaves are given a brief respite from tasks if they’re lucky, as their white owners purchase these new tools. They trade in their scissors for the more conventional mower. Back to work.

Growing up, yard work (much to my disdain) was a family affair. Land was quenched by the sweat of my father, plants culled by the hands of mother and gardens trodden upon by me, childish, unknowing, blissful. We kept a clean lawn, one devoid of ornaments or knick knacks. The holiday season saw the occasional lawn decorations, but even those were put up at the start of winter and taken down promptly in the new year.

3. Lawn jockeys or Black caricatures dressed in jockey clothing and placed on the front lawns of white homeowners. In their prime, these ornaments served one primary purpose. To point the way for escaped slaves to freedom. Some chose to distort this history and developed lawn jockeys that perverted their symbolism and instead chose to focus on elongating the features of Blacks, stretching the figures’ noses, extending their jaws, darkening their skin. These two variations of lawn jockeys remained locked in a symbolic war with one another until 2012 when lawn jockey manufacturing ceased. Can you guess which one was more popular?

Here it’s important to add a caveat. I recognize that my reality is not shared by the majority. My class bubble orbits around the more elevated conventions of the bourgeois, but never quite breaches the surface. My homelife is steady and I’ve been privileged enough to be privy to the best parts of what we know to be contemporary “blackness.” And this alone serves as an example of the kind of privilege Black people have been able to achieve. Taking into account the tortured past of Black people in this country, that I have been able to witness so many Black homeowners choose to produce beauty in the form of their lawns is a marvel itself.

4. No Space Hidden: The Spirit of African American Yardwork is published in 2005. It chronicles the efforts of Black families in their pursuit to retain a sense of cultural heritage in their lives through lawn care. It identifies an emerging movement of “black lawn work” and distinguishes this concept as one that rejects the traditional roles prescribed to former slaves. Now, Blacks decide what to do with their yard and when to do it. It’s a type of agency that doubles as a rebellion. Progress.

This weekend, take a drive out to suburbia. Pick the nearest up and coming neighborhood to you, find a Black house (chances are Black residents will be easy to spot out and may be taking advantage of the weekend in the yard itself) and watch. Pay attention to the lawns. Take in every cut line, every errant tree or piece of debris. Remember the color of the grass. Is it evergreen, mint, dirty lime, a mute yellow?

In the context of Juneteenth, we should view the nature of yard work and the Black people who choose to beautify and maintain their lawn as a small triumph. Land owning Blacks in the 18th century were a scant few. In the beginning, field slaves were conditioned to cultivate the land. But in doing this, they enjoyed a limited existence, stripped of their autonomy and forced to labor by malevolent forces, they took no pleasure in yard work.

Today, that narrative has shifted. In our community, to have the perfect lawn is an accomplishment coveted by many. But systemic oppression, racial strife and an America that chooses to turn a blind eye to the mistreatment of our people impede our path in more ways than one. Juneteenth is meant to be a celebration of liberation, but it is hard to rejoice when there is so much left to do. However, I think there is something to be said about our progress, and so today I’m choosing to talk about the battles we have won, and the successes we’ve earned. All of which are preparing us for this movement, this moment.

I’m inclined to refer to my family’s pursuit, all those days in the yard spent raising our garden and placing mulch, as a win. A small one yes, but a win nonetheless. And in a world, filled with a myriad of defeats, small wins are doing their part to tip the scales. The fight continues.