Everyday Art: Swept Yards

Every morning, my brother, who is a Peace Corps Trainee in Malawi, sweeps his host family’s yard. “The yard is a semi-public space,” he tells me. “Anyone can come in as long as they announce themselves.” But what’s up with the sweeping? I ask. Why not just plant the yard? The yard already contains a separate garden, he explains, but it’s important to sweep because of “the pattern it [sweeping] leaves. Gotta have the yard looking nice.”

Chicken in a yard
Yard patterns (and bonus chicken) in Malawi. Photo courtesy of Calvin Zehnder.

This dual concern for community and aesthetics is a defining characteristic of the swept yard—a common landscape feature in rural East and West African communities that was once also prevalent in the American South. If you live in a hot, dry climate, the swept yard is as much a practical decision as it is a design choice: sweeping a patch of dirt bare of any vegetation helps keep away bugs and snakes, while also reducing fire risk around the home. Over time, earth in a swept yard will harden, transforming it into a functional “room” for cooking, conversation, or play.

A swept yard in Mozambique
A swept yard in Mozambique.
House with a swept yard
A swept yard in front of the Tullie-Smith house in Atlanta, Georgia.

Perhaps obviously, yards only stay swept if they are used. Sweeping advertises that the day’s routine has begun: if the yard functions as a meeting place, keeping it swept indicates that its tenants welcome and interact with those around them. An unswept yard suggests a more isolated existence—consider the “swept yard that was never swept” fronting the mysterious Radley place in To Kill A Mockingbird (8).

According to garden historian Richard Westmacott, American swept yards such as the one in Harper Lee’s novel descend from traditions carried across the Atlantic by enslaved West Africans (79-80). Related American garden traditions with African roots include the bottle tree, which is still a common sight where I live in Charlottesville, Virginia.

The presence of bottle trees in swept yards is yet another reminder that these spaces fulfill creative as well as utilitarian needs. In her 1973 short story “Everyday Use,” Alice Walker reflects on the work of black female creativity through her protagonist’s description of her just-swept yard:

I will wait for her in the yard that Maggie and I made so clean and wavy yesterday afternoon. A yard like this is more comfortable than most people know. It is not just a yard. It is like an extended living room. When the hard clay is swept clean as a floor and the fine sand around the edges lined with tiny, irregular grooves, anyone can come and sit and look up into the elm tree and wait for the breezes that never come into the house. [23]

Walker’s unnamed speaker figures her yard as a site of community and rest—“anyone can come and sit”—but also as a space that, like a more traditional work of art, has meaning beyond what meets the eye. This yard “is not just a yard.” With the woman’s careful attention to each detail of her yard—its “clean and wavy” lines; the “tiny, irregular grooves” at its edge—Walker highlights her character’s satisfaction with her creative labor while emphasizing that her labor is indeed a creative one. If sweeping is a pattern of everyday life, it’s also an activity that patterns the everyday, asserting the meaning within routine, reminding us that making art and making a life are not, in the end, so different.

  • Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird (Warner Books, 1960).
  • Richard Westmacott, African-American Gardens and Yards in the Rural South (The University of Tennessee Press, 1992).
  • Alice Walker, Everyday Use. Edited with an introduction by Barbara T. Christian (Rutgers University Press, 1994).
  • Tullie-Smith House

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