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Reviews101 African-American Gardens and Yards in the Rural South. By Richard Westmacott. University of Tennessee Press, 1992. 198 pp. Cloth, $39.95; paper, $24.95. Reviewed by John Rashford, associate professor of anthropology at the College of Charleston in South Carolina. When I read of the publication of this book, I immediately sent for a copy. When it came, I read it with great interest and I was not disappointed. It will be welcomed by many, because little systematic information has been published on African American gardens and yards. However, this is not as complete a treatment of the subject as the title suggests. Instead, the author focuses on what he identifies as "traditional" or "vernacular" gardens and yards of old, rural African American southerners of modest means. Westmacott examines forty-seven gardens and yards—seventeen in Georgia, fifteen in Alabama, and fifteen in South Carolina. The author based his selection on what he describes as a combination of "windshield-survey and reputation": At the outset, by driving through areas and by talking with local people, several gardens were identified that met my preconception of what was "traditional." The owners (or tenants) were then asked to identify other gardeners in the county who, in their opinion, still led a traditional lifestyle and had a yard and garden. The incongruity between the book's title and its real subject matter would be a major limitation were it not for the honest way in which the author describes his approach and presents his results. It is obvious after reading the book that the distraction is a misleading title rather than vulgar stereotyping. Even in the foreword, for example, Theresa Singleton tells us that Westmacott "combines both systematic description and symbolic analyses to interpret [not gardens of old, rural African-American southerners of modest means but] African-American gardens in the United States." Thus, she takes this particular sample of gardens to be representative of all African American gardens. From there it is only a short step to grossly misleading comparisons of "black" and "white" gardens and yards. Westmacott is a landscape architect, and his discussion of gardens and yards in terms of "function," "pattern," and "practices" is, I believe, the real strength of his book. This is especially true when we take into account the excellent photographs, including twenty-four full-page color pictures, and the author's three useful appendixes. By comparison , his discussion of values, beliefs, and identity doesn't measure up. The book is divided into eight chapters. After the introduction and a discussion of the historical context within which the "traditional" African American garden and yard has developed, Westmacott devotes three excellent chapters to the practical aspects of gardens and yards. Chapter 3, "Gardeners and Their Gardens: Function," notes the practical "functions" of the yard. The yard provides spaces for gardens and open places—typically a swept dirt clearing—set aside for "entertainment, recreation and display." It may also include work areas for preparing food, raising and butchering animals, washing clothes, making soap and handicrafts, or cutting and storing wood for cooking and heating. Next, "Gardeners and Their Gardens: Pattern" describes how crops and ornamental plants, as well as plantings such as hedges, are used to structure the residential environment. There is also a wonderful discussion of "manufactured and found objects" used to make decorative items, such as plant containers, plant stands, yard art, and edges for walkways and ornamental beds. 102Southern Cultures In chapter 5, "Gardeners and Their Gardens: Practices," the author discusses "cropping practices," the responsibilities of men and women, cultivation, irrigation, mulching, sweeping and mowing, the slaughter of animals, storage, collecting wild plants, garden pests, and trash. These chapters are built on Westmacott's expertise in landscaping. The author is less well versed in the subjects discussed in the next two chapters, "Expressions of Values, Ideals and Beliefs" and "A Search for Identity in African-American Gardens." The author himself acknowledges as much: It is relatively easy to describe the various functions and components of gardens and yards, trace how these have changed, and suggest reasons for these changes. It is not easy to understand the meanings, beliefs and values associated with the garden...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1488
Print ISSN
1068-8218
Pages
pp. 101-102
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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