Yoruba Girl Dancing and the Post-War Transition to an English Multi-Ethnic Society

By Lock, Helen | Ethnic Studies Review, April 3, 1999 | Go to article overview

Yoruba Girl Dancing and the Post-War Transition to an English Multi-Ethnic Society


Lock, Helen, Ethnic Studies Review


This paper exemplifies the insider/outsider binary in a nation's shift towards a multi-ethnic society. The writer gives insight into the African Diaspora within England in her exploration of Yoruba Girl Dancing.

Simi Bedford's Yoruba Girl Dancing tells the story of Remi Foster, a small Nigerian girl who is uprooted in the early 1950s from her large and ebullient Yoruba family and transplanted to England. There she attends an exclusive English boarding school and spends vacations in suburbia with her step-grandmother's white relatives. Remi's is the story of a reluctant pioneer in the post-war process whereby urban England gradually became a multi-ethnic society and received the arrival of increasingly large numbers of former colonials. Yoruba Girl Dancing provides an illuminating picture of the transformations that took place at the beginning of this process -- transformations that affected both the new and the established resident and the insider as well as the outsider. These transformations eventually would lead to a resistance and hardening of attitudes among the established population when previously imperceptible changes became more glaring as the trickle of newcomers swelled to a wave. For the earlier arrivals, however, the lines were less sharply drawn, and thus the experience more subtle.

Remi's story begins in Lagos with a portrait of the large and varied Foster household consisting of grandparents, nine foster children (the offspring of poor relations), assorted aunts and uncles with assorted prospects, three nannies, many servants, and Remi herself, who is on "permanent loan" from her parents as was the custom with the eldest grandchild (9). As the favorite of this warm and demonstrative family and the sole focus of the three nannies' attention, she leads a comparatively privileged existence, underwritten by her grandfather's wealth. While reveling in Yoruba culture and tradition, the household also has incorporated eclectic customs and values stemming from the influence of colonialism. The family adopted Christianity, and Remi explains, "Grandma hated heathenism. She said it was the mark of the savage and that superstitious practices by which we all knew she meant juju would on no account be tolerated in our house"(17). The family also absorbed European customs into traditional celebrations such as weddings and especially in their veneration for the value of an English education, many of the adults spending their college years in England. Hence the reluctance to wait for this favored child to reach adulthood: at six years old she leaves to experience the "great opportunity" of an English (45) boarding school education, escorted by her white step-grandmother, Bigmama (45).

From this point on the narrative focuses on Remi's experiences as the first black child everyone she encounters has met, the changes that occur in herself and others as she both attempts and resists assimilation, and her final recovery of a social identity as part of London's growing multi-ethnic community. The changes are what I want to focus on here, as they are indicative both of the mutual accommodations that have to be made in the formative years of a multi-ethnic community and the mutual benefits that can result. These mutual benefits last at least until flexibility begins to be perceived as a dangerous weakness threatening a community's self-perception. In this telling of the story Remi's own transformation is ultimately a matter of accretion and expansion rather than diminishment -- a journey toward, rather than from, a full and authentic identity.

Accustomed to the bustling heterogeneous Foster house-hold, Remi finds it hard to adjust to the homogeneity of the English boarding school, where instead of being cosseted by nannies she is tyrannized by Matron. Remi is greeted by the other girls with curiosity fueled by misconceptions and/or ignorance. On meeting her roommates for the first time she says "Until now we could not have imagined each other"(84). …

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