Was there a connection between the 1950s Nigerian movement for independence and the civil rights movement in Winston-Salem?
Elaine Neil Orr’s new novel, “Swimming Between Worlds,” is based on this premise. The North Carolina State University professor grew up as a child of American missionaries in Nigeria. Her experiences gave a beautiful and true spirit to her first novel, “A Different Sun,” about pre-Civil War Southern missionaries going to Black Africa to save souls.
Instead of slaveholding Southerners preaching to Nigerian blacks, the new book contrasts the cultural segregation of 1950s Winston-Salem with that in Nigeria.
Although Nigerians were coming to a successful end of their struggle for independence from Great Britain, they were still mired in the vestiges of colonial oppression.
Set in these circumstances is a coming-of-age story and a love story. These themes are complicated, and enriched, by the overlay of the Nigerian struggle and the civil rights protests in Winston-Salem.
The main male character, Tacker Hart, had been a star high school football player who then earned an architectural degree at N.C. State. He was selected for a plum assignment to work in Nigeria on prototype designs for new schools.
Working in Nigeria, this typical Southern, white male became so captivated by Nigerian culture, religion and ambience that his white supervisors fired him and sent him home. Back in Winston-Salem, the discouraged and depressed Tacker takes a job in his father’s grocery.
The female lead character, Kate Monroe, is the daughter of a Wake Forest history professor. Her parents are dead. After graduating from Agnes Scott College, she left Atlanta and her longtime boyfriend, James, to return to Winston-Salem and live in the family home where she grew up.
How Tacker wins Kate from James is the love story that forms the spine of this book. But there are complications created by a young African-American college student who is taking time off to help with family in Winston-Salem.
Tacker and Kate first meet Gaines on the same day. After Gaines buys a bottle of milk at the Hart grocery store, white thugs attack him for being in the wrong place (a white neighborhood) at the wrong time. Later on the same day, Kate spots an African-American man holding a bottle of milk, walking by her home in an upper class white neighborhood. She thinks he probably stole the milk. She is terrified and immediately locks her doors and windows. She shakes with worry about the danger of this young black man walking through her neighborhood. The young man is, of course, Gaines.
It turns out that Gaines is the nephew of Tacker’s beloved family maid. Tacker and his father hire Gaines to work in the grocery store, and he becomes a model employee.
But Gaines has a secret agenda. He is working with the group of outsiders to organize protest movements at lunch counters in downtown retail stores.
Gaines sets out to entice Tacker to help with the protests – first, only to allow the store to be used at night for a meeting place. Then, over time, Tacker is led to participate in the sit-ins.
In Nigeria, Tacker had found his black colleagues and friends to be just as smart, interesting and as talented as he was. He found them to be his equals.
Back in Winston-Salem, he had at first slipped back into a comfort level with the segregated and oppressive culture in which he grew up. His protest activities with Gaines put his relationships with his family, with Kate, and his possible employment at an architectural firm at risk.
Tacker’s effort to accommodate his growing participation in the civil rights movement with his heritage of segregation leads to the book’s dramatic, tragic and totally surprising ending.