Southern Cultures 9.3 (2003) 92-106
[Access article in PDF]
Elaine Neil Orr
When I was a small girl in Nigeria, my father, after his "rest time," would sometimes push my sister, Becky, and me on the swing set before he headed back to his job as business manager at the hospital. "Here we go to Sycamore Town," he sang over and over, his agile arms giving one daughter a push and then the other. "Here we go to Sycamore Town." For a long while I didn't wonder what the lyric meant, no more than I wondered about "here we go round the mulberry bush" when there was no mulberry bush to go round. But at some point, Becky or I must have asked and then the story was revealed; Sycamore is a small village close to the South Carolina hamlet of Fairfax where my mother was born and my parents, Annie Lee Thomas and Lloyd Houston Neil, fell in love. So while American youth were imagining a trek to the African metropolis of Timbuktu, I was being summoned to the fabulous American outpost of Sycamore.
Much later, my father told me that on our first furlough, before I was old enough to remember, he was approached by an old-timer in Fairfax who advised him to take all these niggers back with you to Africa. That was 1956, the year Flannery O'Connor's "Greenleaf" appeared in Kenyon Review. My father never called anyone "nigger" and no one in our house ever called anyone stupid. It was forbidden. I heard "nigger" only in the United States. Still, I was a white southerner in [End Page 92] Nigeria because my parents were Southern Baptist medical missionaries from South Carolina.
But that's only half of the story. I was also southern Nigerian because my family and I were nestled in the heart of the Yoruba nation, in the town of Ogbomosho, in southern Nigeria. This is important. It means I was and am in many ways a southerner. A partially wooded savannah region, Yoruba land was for me a distinct if complex South full of crossroads: churches and shrines, market women and Nigerian doctors, family portraits and the talking drum. It was not to be confused with northern Nigeria, the home of the Hausa-Fulani and the shrouded god Allah.
To this land of palms, my parents brought dreams of southern living. My mother's early life retained the residue of southern aristocracy, and my father was the son of a Baptist preacher. In this way I was reared in a bouquet of southern culture, but in my case it's hard to know which South came first. Certainly, I was perplexed by the American South I knew on furloughs, once I began paying attention. Here I found a queer country of white abundance and settled weariness and no Africans. I don't mean no black people. There were black people; there just weren't any Africans. [End Page 93]
I have always thought my origin is Ogbomosho, the dusty Yoruba town where I was born in 1954. What I most recall is the sun slamming down, ricocheting off tin roofs of mud and plaster houses that duplicated one another endlessly down a thousand bicycle paths, splashes of puddles during the rains, and a hundred women on their way to market. The laterite road was elevated so that perching on the seat of our sierra-gold 1957 Chevrolet station wagon, my face was level with the faces of people in front of their shops. Everything looked brown except for the cloth. The cloth was blue, blue, and more blue, enough blue to have left the sky in debt. The women and the men wore the cloth. Many of the children wore only bracelets or low-slung shorts or a wrap.
At the Mobil station where my father fills the tank with petrol, I ponder the lifting wings of Pegasus the horse on the side of the building. I have never seen a horse, rather goats and Brahman cattle and chickens in the road and black mambas...