CRM Journal

Book Review

No Space Hidden: The Spirit of African American Yard Work

By Grey Gundaker and Judith McWillie. Knoxville, TN: The University of Tennessee Press, 2005; vii + 237 pp., illustrations, photographs, notes, index; paper $26.95.


In No Space Hidden: The Spirit of African American Yard Work, Judith McWillie and Grey Gundaker have done an excellent job of researching and writing about yard workers and the language they use in their visual presentations of the past. Through this ritual of object arrangement they honor ancestors, care for and respect the land, and use transformative materials to state religious beliefs.

Gundaker and McWillie approach the subject of African American yard work and its symbolism from a cross-disciplinary perspective. The authors combine history, religion, public history, philosophy, art history, and oral history to tell the story of African Americans and the tradition of yard ornamentation.

An art student, McWillie grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, surrounded by yards that displayed everyday objects to express spiritual beliefs and philosophical ideas. The quest to understand the origins, meaning, and significance of yard work inspired her scholarly research. That research consisted of documenting imagery recurring in the assemblage of objects in African American cemeteries, yards, and visual art. This collaboration with Gundaker provides the expertise and methodology that connects McWillie's research to the transatlantic crossing of the Africanism of yard work.

Gundaker's work on landscape studies and the African tradition of yard decoration is influenced by interviews with former enslaved persons conducted as part of the Federal Writers' Project in the 1930s. It was in these interviews, filled with discussions of practices of African relatives, that she found details of yard decoration. Fortunately, many of the locations described in the interviews were intact at least in part when she undertook the research, which enabled her not only to obtain information on the sites but also to see them.

No Space Hidden is divided into six portfolios and six chapters. The portfolios contain photographs and detailed descriptions of selected yards, the objects in them, and their owners. McWillie and Gundaker use the portfolios to present the different themes of yard work photographically. The majority of the photographs would suffer without the authors' scholarly explanations of the significance of object arrangement.

Africanisms, such as the colored bottles placed on trees and the recurring theme of circles and water, have survived hundreds of years of slavery in America. They have been transformed even while being maintained by the current generation of caretakers of the tradition. The owners of the yards are allowed to define their work and explain the how's and why's of yard work. Sometimes those explanations are straightforward, and sometimes they are wrapped in an ancestral code of spirituality mixed with an unknown pull of the distant past.

The work of McWillie and Gundaker is distinctive in that it allows the yard workers to tell their own stories. The chapters are devoted to the yard workers' oral histories and provide ample space for the workers to reflect on what their work means and how it affects their lives. Whereas the portfolios provide the visual imagery and descriptions, the chapters put the yard work in context. Ancestors are honored and paid homage, and memories and beliefs, both earthly and otherworldly, are displayed. It is in the chapters that the authors' argument—that yard workers have found in materials and objects a meta-language that reflects on the human condition—is sustained. The placements of wheels, pots, and metallic objects have meaning beyond the obvious spoken phrase. Religious beliefs are a mainstay in all of the oral histories. Many of the owners quote Bible verses and incorporate written scripture in their assemblages.

The response to the yard work from some of the neighbors and neighborhoods has not always been positive. Several owners reported that they had been fined for having what others described as junkyards. A few yard workers were brought before the local courts and ordered to "clean up" their yards. The wives of some were agreeable only if the yard work was done in the back yard and not the front.

Land ownership was important to African Americans. Owning property meant independence and some security. There was a sense of freedom that came with having property that could be maintained in the manner that the owner chose. It meant that there was hope for the future because there was something tangible to walk on and to feel. More importantly, there was something to pass down to the next generation. Yard work was a reflection of all of that, and it provided yard workers with a sense of direction and purpose. Even when enslaved people did not own the land they worked, they devoted time and energy to it.

McWillie and Gundaker present a scholarly work that understands and acknowledges the importance oral history plays in the telling of this story of African American yard workers. Public historians and other cultural resources specialists who value oral history will be especially pleased to discover that oral history truly is the heart and soul of the book.

Sandra Jowers
Washington, DC