Olo’oruko Mi: Legacy Ponderings of a Nigerian-but-Mostly-American

Photo: Julie Taiwo Oni
America. In Black.America. In Black. is a weekly essay series that examines the myriad experiences of blackness in the United States.  

I’d spent two years on this earth when I met my paternal grandmother Julianna Oni for the first—and last—time. As I was her sole olo’oruko mi—the only heir to be her namesake—she took an immediate liking to me, often raising my youthful frame in her firm, mahogany arms and chanting “Julie Julie Julie Julie” with a grin of pride. She passed away a few years later in her homeland of Nigeria.

I know this story not from memory, but from myth, from the repeated tale that Gram—my maternal American grandmother Evelyn Hall—willed into my inheritance.

As an interloper between two cultures, I often imagine the African Granny I never knew in conversation with the American Gram I was honored to cherish for the first 25 years of my life. I tend to take all qualities attributed to my strict, slim, white-haired Gram and conjure images of the absolute opposite as characteristic of Granny. And thus, I transport myself from the American living room to the African tribal ritual, expanding the distance between the two as far as I can reach, a perfect pupil of a Western education.

Gram was a fervent craftswoman of all things kitchen-related. Most notably, her California cabinets were lined with canned pears, apricots, and cherries with jams to match, all perfectly placed in mason jars, identical pillars of planning and precision.

If Gram was incisive with her delicacies, I envision Granny more impulsively seasoning her fufu beef stew to taste, not to recipe. She must have summoned the Yoruba gods, eyes closed and mouth humming with arms outstretched as she splashed in okra and greens and sliced tomatoes without a measuring cup in sight. She must not have bound her food to a storage device, for she would have magically intuited the portions to feed the table with no remains.

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Gram sewed on a 1950s era black-and-gold antique Singer in complete silence. She bought her patterns down the street at Beverly’s Crafts and Fabric Shop. At home, she’d cut out the pattern with a pair of clean, sharp, red scissors that whispered as they sliced the paper. Next, she plucked pins from her tomato pincushion to tack together pattern and fabric. In this steady, quiet way, she crafted quilts, tablecloths and costumes.

If Gram laboriously reveled in the specificity of her craft collection, Granny surely fashioned her extravagant head wraps instinctively. There had to have been a new design each time, always eye-catching and impressive. There had to have been a sunflower-colored scarf she circled around her scalp into a halo, twisting and turning it into knots of African arrogance, all to the tune of a Fela Kuti-inspired afrobeat between sips of palm wine.

Gram typed on the automatic Montgomery Ward Cartridge Electric 12 that now rests in her honor on my desk. My siblings and I would giggle as we watched her pull out a white sheet, place it in the beige-colored contraption, and swiftly, calculatingly type-turn-push—type-turn—STOP—whiteout—type-turn-push—DING. On the pages were catalogues with date, year, name, and reflection, descriptions to accompany each photograph in the dozens of albums that remain in my parents’ home.

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If Gram told stories through her tireless transcription of words to page, it would come as no surprise if Granny maintained the oral tradition. Yoruba—her native tongue and one of the main languages of Nigeria—would be the only idiom sufficient to share our secrets. She’d sprinkle sage across the freshly swept dirt floor, calm and collected before candlelight as she articulated the entirety of the ancestral line, of the Oni legacy as the first family of all shoe wearers in town—each and every one of us, she’d say with emphasis and a proud raise of the chin—these spoken words to stop the white man’s theft, like that of the continent. She would endure and remember and evoke.

Is it possible to exoticize one’s own flesh and blood? In my work and domestic lives, I am methodically obsessive. I am undoubtedly Gram. In my creative sphere, I craft from pure impulse. I dream this is from Granny. If all I have of her are myths, at least I am her olo’oruko mi. I will always carry our name.

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