Monday, July 1, 2013
The traveller was not visiting the United States for the first time. On several occasions he had been to Uncle Sam’s and visited as many cities and towns as caught his fancy. Washington DC, New York, Philadelphia, New Jersey, Baltimore, Houston, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, Flint, Detroit, Little Rock, Macon, Jacksonville and Miami will readily answer the roll call. But each time he had been restricted, as it were, to air transportation, a sort of “take off, touch down” routine devoid of creativity except for occasional sighting of abstract cloud formations and the “Google map” layout of built up areas when the plane was about to land.
Now it’s time to know more of America at close range. Enough of surreal views from the windows of aeroplanes. He opted for a roller-coaster four-wheel drive down the road to explore the fairytale hinterland. The journey from Atlanta, Georgia, to Murfreesboro in Middle Tennessee was an eye-opener and inducer of childhood memories of Uncle Sam. Something struck him. A family of five packed in such a mechanical device on a journey along the “famous” Ibadan–Lagos Expressway back at home is bound to have their hearts in their mouths throughout the barely one-hour journey. It was a different picture here. The smooth roads, the rest places with their surplus restrooms for wayfarers, the over abundant road signs, the orderliness and discipline of motorists, the strategically positioned eagle-eyed, technology-assisted highway patrol police and the polite, ever smiling toll-gate attendants were enough to calm jaded nerves and make road travel a pleasant adventure.
In such a relaxed mood, the mind is bound to wander and wonder in a seeming no man’s land. Signposts showing direction to certain towns instantly brought memories of the past. Nobody, not even a blind man, would miss probably such bold inscriptions pointing the way to “twin towns” like Knoxville and Nashville, Winchester and Manchester and the road that leads to Birmingham and Montgomery in Alabama. Alabama? No, we were not going there!! Was that not the centre point of degradation and denigration of the blacks and subsequently the nexus of civil rights movement in the not-easy-to-forget old America? The name instantly invoked the dark days of American history, the history of slavery, segregation (apartheid, by a different name) and subjugation and the eventual struggle for equality regardless of race or colour. It was a quick reminder of the days of courageous civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jnr, the derring-do of the Rosa Parks and the James Merediths who deliberately challenged the system as a form of protest against injustice and inequality in the land.
However, going back west and deep into midland America did not remind the traveller of only the dark side of America. Setting eyes on the Tennessee for the first time since learning about the great river in high school geography and looking at the range of mountains (the Appalachians, no doubt), and the beautiful countryside that inspired great artistes like Dolly Parton to sing passionately about the pastoral setting of her native Nashville and the adjoining towns and counties in the Tennessee river basin were enough to make the wayfarers remember the evergreen songs of the country music maestro. They slotted CDs into the car’s turntable and played back old favourites like AppleJack, Jolene and Coat of Many Colours. But the song that perfectly fitted the current mood was her plaintive lyrical ballad, In My Tennessee Mountain Home.
The road to Middle Tennessee that second Friday in May, 2013, along with the green pastures on both sides was a confirmation of the sentiments expressed in the song. The shrub and the vine clung to the walls along the road and their fragrance made the approaching summer wind so sweet...and far away on the hilltop, an eagle spread its wings while a songbird perched on a signpost seemed to be singing a melody as our vehicle drove past. The chief traveller, an unapologetic lover of Parton's brand of music, murmured some sweet nothings into the ears of an imaginary Parton. "Dolly, can you hug me just as I always hug you in my mind anytime I listen to your beautiful voice? Sweet songstress, come out of the woods to welcome me to your natural home! Fear not. I’m not an old teasing AppleJack with a banjo to sing a song for you, but just a passerby lover of the countryside and its natural beauty". Unfortunately there was no telepathic response of any kind. Parton was nowhere to be found on the highway. Poor star-struck fan! He had expected Parton to take her tambourine and serenade him to sleep with a spiritual rendition of Jolene or AppleJack in his crouching position in the overloaded vehicle. No luck. "Peter Crouch" (a readily adopted name to portray his precarious sitting position) had no option but to face reality. There would be no Dolly Parton to sing a song for him. But the show must go on.
They continued with their journey, negotiating sharp bends with runaways for trucks and other heavy-duty vehicles that suddenly run amok, cutting through forests, burrowing through mountains and crossing the waters of the great river at intervals to see, observe and smell the unadulterated scent of the countryside. But would it not have been foolhardy to traverse that same road during that better-be-forgotten Jim Crow era? Going back west in search of adventure in an erstwhile hate-filled America? But the country has advanced beyond the turbulent era of legalised hatred and covert execution of the people's will by the Klu Klux Klan, KKK, a white supremacist group and a thorn in the flesh of straying black people like the adventurous family on the Atlanta–Nashville highway. Thanks, though, to those that made it possible for them to take what used to be a risk down South American highways in those days. The gradual acceptance of blacks as equals has finally led to the emergence of a black American, Barack Obama, as President. Good. America finally did what was right, a justification of what Martin Luther King Jnr, the civil rights leader, had envisioned. “...And the time comes when one must take a position that is neither politic or popular or safe but because it is right". America, after years of dilly-dallying and double-speaking, finally did the right thing when, by popular vote, it elected its first black President in 2008. The journey to Obama actually started as far back as the 19th century with Abraham Lincoln's great role in seeing to the abolition of slavery with the Emancipation Proclamation during the American Civil War, which brought freedom to the black slaves in the Union. Thanks to the 13th amendment to the constitution in 1865 that put paid to the inhuman treatment of Africans in the south.
The entourage finally arrived at their destination after seeing America literally through the woods. The eerie feeling was no longer there. Carriage Lane Inn, Murfreesboro, was a perfect setting for a post-journey rendezvous. A historic place mentioned in the national register of historic places by the US Department of the Interior, the inn is an ideal place for family reunion, meetings, weddings and a rest place of some sort. Foluso Erogbogbo and his fiancée, Ejiro, aspiring couple and members of the graduation train for Tomiwa, their friend, could not have dreamt of a better place for their honeymoon after their wedding in Austin, Texas, later in the year.
May 11, 2013. And here we were almost two centuries after the blacks regained their freedom, in the middle of nowhere down, down south, witnessing the graduation of students from all races in the same university environment. It took the likes of Meredith who used the instrumentality of the law to force the University of Mississippi to enrol him as a student in 1963, against the segregation law, to make this possible.
By 9am the arena of the Middle Tennessee University was already full of guests and members of the university community. Founded in 1911, it had graduated 117,134 students in various disciplines. This Saturday it was going to release yet another batch of 2,682 fresh graduates to the world in a solemn ceremony in the indoor arena. And when the programme started, the itinerant observer could not help taking mental notes of some unique things in the procedures and presentations. Before the American anthem was sung, guests and graduands were asked to remove their caps, a rare mark of honour when we stand up for the rendition of the Nigerian national anthem. Likewise, everybody was asked to be on their feet with their caps removed during the Moment of Silence, a time for personal reflection when individuals were supposed to pray (or curse?) silently, whichever is applicable! No pastor or Imam or Buddhist or Free Thinker was contracted to come and eat into the precision-timed programmes.
There was special applause for graduating students who were in the armed forces because, according to the compere, “these are the people securing our nation and maintaining peace for us”. It was such a sublime ritual with less funfair, though it's a big deal for every family to have their kids possess higher education. But there was no need to have special dresses or “aso ebi” (uniforms) to mark the occasion. But you can trust the Nigerians, they, as usual, were a pick among the crowd with their richly embroidered “costumes” and (sky-bound), onile gogoro headgears and “Shagari” caps inadvertently blocking the views of others and (they) becoming the centre of attraction for the barely dressed fellow observers from other climes.
Of utmost interest was the peculiar attention paid to certain areas in the dissertations of new PhD graduates, areas the uninitiated could innocently write off as insignificant but which can open doors to more forensic analyses and discoveries. Samples: “Reduce Your Sit and Be More Fit: An Examination of Sedentary Behaviour,” dissertation of a graduating student whose major was Human Performance. Another who majored in Public History has “Gender, Politics and Power: The Development of the Ladies Rest Room and Lounge in Rural America, 1900-1945” as her dissertation. Again, a major in Human Performance had a dissertation that could be of interest to visitors and sojourners in the wild, wild world of cyberspace. “Social Networking Sites Influence on Travellers: A Study of Couch Surfers’ Experience”. On a cursory look, these areas of study may sound innocuous or esoteric but going deeper, one might discover that the mere whisper of an idea may lead one down the corridors of history. Ideas which lead to major scientific discoveries often seem innocuous at the beginning. But in the end, they may herald the beginning of a landmark breakthrough for mankind.
The three-hour graduation ceremony ended precisely at the scheduled time for the afternoon session to begin. While another set of graduating students were waiting to take their turns, cafes, taverns, eateries and restaurants were already filling up with guests for graduation day parties, some of which lasted till the wee hours of Sunday morning.
The morning after.
Guests at the Carriage Lane Inn were still snoring in the rooms, lounges and even in the cellar after dancing themselves lame the previous night. Sooner than expected, it was wake-up time to adore and adorn the Mother figures around for being such wonderful hostesses and for always being there for the children. Gifts in form of ribbons, balloons, cards and candies were exchanged. It was Mothers’ Day! But why Mothers' Day? What's the significance? Why are fellow Africans getting more indulged in Western capitalist values at the expense of their own original, authentic customs and traditions? Nobody was impressed with the questioning. Yet, the hardcore African insisted on knowing, for instance, why the Americans celebrate Halloween Day with revellers masking their faces like African masquerades but it is fetish to have Egungun (Masquerades) Day back at home. Again, no one seemed interested in responding to his tantrums and “primitive” rantings. Mothers' Day is it! But nobody wants to hear of Moremi Day or Queen Amina Day or Emotan Day or Iya Mopo Day or Alagemo Day or Gelede Day... He was in this state of neo-cultural renaissance when checkout alarm sounded and the group had to set for the road again for a 12-hour journey to Florida to see the living wonders of Walt Disney World in Orlando and the standing monuments of space exploration at the Kennedy Space Centre. He quickly did a mental playback of the earlier trip from Atlanta...
A journey down the Tennessee River valley to the mountain home of the music legend is akin to Ulysses' odyssey in Alfred Tennyson's poem, Ulysses in which the hero chose to strive, to learn and to drink nature to the dregs. Opting to travel by road obviously paid off since it triggered memories of the yesterdays and yester years. In the end they remember not the silence of the loudness in the sky but the loudness of the silence in the woods. The turbo charge thrust in the clouds compared with the sublime pressure on the throttle on the well paved and “annotated” highways are two seemingly incomparable experiences, yet the difference is clear. The journey in the sky may be fast but the traveler sees practically nothing. On land, however, he can see, touch and smell the scent of the countryside and communicate with nature with poetic abandon. Such was the beauty of travelling through the Tennessee mountains, and valleys and “wading” through the Florida Everglades to have a better view of America.