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Q&A with Grey Gundaker: African-American yard work

Grey Gundaker, professor of anthropology, recently published No Space Hidden: The Spirit of African American Yard Work, a book about the history and the messages conveyed by items placed around a person’s house. Recently she answered the following questions, posed by Kathleen Bragdon, professor of anthropology, for the W&M News. —Ed.

Q. What is “No Space Hidden” about?

Gundaker: My book, No Space Hidden: The Spirit of African American Yard Work, explores the intersections of personal and cultural values in domestic landscapes. The activities we sum up with the term “yard work” range from aesthetic enhancements like gardening, to protection of property through material signs and “coding” to embodying ethical principles in material form, sometimes in quite literal ways. In the course of my research, I have worked with a number of practitioners whose yards reflect the special circumstances of the African diaspora, where, especially for past generations, obtaining and retaining a home and land could only be accomplished by resisting many forms of oppression. The “spirit” in these yards is above all a moral force directed toward making the world better, working from the home outward. For example, a homeowner who wanted to ensure that everyone who approaches her house came in good will layered the paths to her door with welcome mats. After crossing 20 mats, who could fail to get the message?

Q. Is this a departure or part of an ongoing research program?

Gundaker: My research process for the book began 20 years ago. All told, I have documented several hundred sites, but the most important learning came from the 10 or so practitioners I grew to know well, over the years
No Space Hidden book cover
Q. You mention “practitioners.” Could you give a specific example of the ways in which they work?

Gundaker: I have worked frequently with Mrs. Ruby Gilmore of Hattiesburg, Miss., a widow who used objects to protect the periphery of her yard from bootleggers, who broke into her house and stole objects she had saved for recycling. To repel thieves, she arranged objects, such as toy skulls, miniature statues of dogs, ropes of Christmas ornaments, windsocks and other things along her fence and on her house. While these objects are made of new materials, their form and symbolic referents have historical significance to African-Americans in the South and elsewhere.

Q. You collaborated with Judith McWillie, in writing this book. What strengths did you each bring to this project?

Gundaker: My co-author, Judith McWillie, began even earlier to photograph, interview and videotape artists who create art in their homes, yards and work spaces. The main difference between our perspectives is that McWillie, who is a professor of painting at the University of Georgia, has paid more attention to large scale, highly visible assemblaes, while I am most intrigued by visual communications that skirt the edges of invisibility—why someone placed iron tools in a tree or certain plants by a gate, for example. Most of the material in “portfolio” sections of the book, which focus on specific people and themes, comes from McWillie’s research. Most of the good photographs are her’s, too. I organized the book and wrote the bulk of the text in the five chapters based on documentary as well as field research.

Q. How do your students react?

Gundaker: When they view these yards in context of certain traditions and think about how not everybody is a dentist or an anthropologist. These weren’t people who had access to art institutions or that kind of training. I think my students regard these people as similar to people who are singers or have other gifts. Sometimes students say that the yards just look a mess. We talk about why some African sites, such as graveyards, have things that are broken—broken on purpose.

Most of my students think this is pretty far removed from anything they’ve thought about. I never thought much about it until I was in my 30s and started doing my research. I had a teacher in Tennessee who gave me an assignment to do this. He didn’t think I’d find anything where I lived because it seemed a modern industrial city. On the way to the grocery store, I passed a yard that I had passed a hundred times without thinking anything about it. It became one of the examples I focused upon in the book.

Q. Are there examples of this type of thing in Williamsburg?

There are gradations to how much people would do. What I see here in Williamsburg a great deal is the idea that a person is responsible for taking care of their space. Here it is boundaries, borders, antiques used from the families. There is a house on Route 60 that has a hedge around it, and inside the hedge is an old family plow. It’s a way of remembering people from the past.

My basic argument in the book is that there are degrees and levels even without arranging anything that looks particularly artistic, a person can signal to others approaching their house how they are expected to behave.

Q. How does this research inform your teaching?

Since I teach African-American material culture here at the College, this information comes in handy when we discuss landscapes. It’s also been clear for some time that the same kinds of objects, colors and spatial arrangements that recur in yards across the country today were also used, though on a smaller scale, in assemblages of artifacts that historical archaeologists have discovered in many parts of the African diaspora.

Q. What is your next project?

While I am working on several other projects, I doubt this one will end. Wherever I drive, something new to learn from crops up just ahead.

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