One of the most exuberant expressions of the human tongue did not emerge from an eternal well of voices, but, in fact, was spontaneously created by a lively American Negro named Toby Harrison, who was originally from Mississippi, and, when freed, journeyed to the West Coast, eventually settling in Vancouver, British Columbia where along the beaches of English Bay he taught young children how to swim. It was when he was a slave child on a Mississippi Plantation that there burst forth from him that vigorous emotional phrase, “Whooweee”, which is used every day throughout our great land in exclamations at once both serious and jocular, and by just about everyone at one time or another. Walk down a broad gay avenue in the colored part of any city (although certainly this wonderful phrase is not limited to Negroes) at any time during the day or night, or maybe even a small town like Deridder, Louisiana, especially on a Saturday night, and you will hear “Whooweee” as frequently as birds chirping happily from the branches of a fruit tree.
The original incident, vocal and remarkable enough, happened on the edge of a slave village and was by no means done with any kind of deliberation; for Toby Harrison never meant for any of his remarks to mean anything in particular, it’s just that his joy and enthusiasm, and excitability, could at times be so totally infectious to those around him that the impressions were indelible and grew by the moment. And, for a fact, this would not be the last time he would alter the course of phonetics, however slightly; for later, much later, he would do so again in a restaurant in San Francisco and the people around him then and there, Chinese immigrants, were just as affected by his joyful spontaneity as were the slaves in antebellum Mississippi when they first heard him shout, “Whooweee!” But California is another story.
Toby, the unintended author of this statement, was born a bastard, of course, on a large cotton plantation north of Natchez on a broad bend in the Mississippi River, and both he and the farm were owned by much older white man named Joe Harrison, who was originally born poor in Kentucky, but was shrewd and robust and hardworking, and by the time of Toby’s birth Marsh Joe’s lands spread as far across the flat horizons as could be seen by the eye of a hawk high on the hunt. Toby was born in a cabin in the slave village, which was about one mile removed from the stately old oaken groves leading to the main house, which was a massive white building with a columned portico so encompassing to the imagination that, arising from the flat fertile fields, it looked like a palace for celestial beings.
Toby was born on an early Spring morning, turkeys cackled in the wild hardwoods nearby along the river, and his mother, a sick bitter child of thirteen, black as coal, was helped through the birth by a quadroon midwife, who had helped deliver some of the white children and thought that Toby, whose skin was bronze, was one of the best newborns she had yet seen and gave him onto her daughter, who had recently lost her own baby and was still full of milk. Toby never knew his mother; although for the remainder of her brief life his birth mother was well aware of him, and, as much as any of the other Negroes, before this child-mother died she felt irreversible changes were coming.
Unlike most slaves, Toby grew up with a vivid and profound sense of himself and this feeling was encouraged by those who loved him. Even Marsh Joe loved Toby and sought him out and cuddled him as he would his own child. Toby first sat in the master’s lap when he was two and looked up at the great white man feeling sure and unadulterated love: this despite the fact that there were those proud black and white who despised the mulatto child, feeling neither pity nor mercy on his circumstances, and him not aware of this but thinking they were nice like the master and so sometimes actually reaching out to those who were inspired by jealousy and contempt. The shock of discovering their hatred did not dent his enthusiasm, but did make him a little more cautious.
Toby did not stay in the fields; in fact, he never participated at all in planting and chopping and picking the cotton, but was given chores in the big house and got to stand in the large rooms fanning the white folks during the hot humid months of late spring and summer, a task he performed with such enthusiasm that hats and papers flew, and he stored wood in the bins in the fall and winter, and lit fires in the hearths and watched them to see that they burned clean and well. He played with the white children, even learning to read and write like them, repeating words excitably, so that when they were all very young they hardly knew of any real distinctions between them except that his skin was dark and he wore their discarded clothing, which was mismatched and had holes and looked funny. Since Toby had no mammy he was under the watchful care of the maids and the cooks who told him, “You aint one o’ dem white folks.” But Marsh Joe continued to love him, allowed him to continue reading and writing, and on the eve of the outbreak of war when he hired a young agronomist from Provence to study the crops for proper rotation to better preserve the fertility of the soil, he sent Toby along as the French man’s guide.
Toby was thirteen, the same age as his mother at birth, and was large and smart and admired his foreign guest’s manners and clothing. Monsieur Dumont liked him too, and at his suggestion, for the European was curious, Toby took him to the slave cabins. There the sight of nubile young Negresses dressed in flimsy white shifts, common on plantations, took the French man’s Gallic breath away. They smiled at Monsieur because he was with Toby, and so moved was he by their dark beauty that, adjusting his spectacles, a low “Oo Oui” emitted from his puckered mouth almost like a whistle. And when young Toby, balling his energy and lifting a leg, shrieked “whooweee”; excitedly repeating what the startled Frenchman had moaned; the black folks, who though slaves were not fools, all laughed and smiled and began hollering it too.
They hollered “whooweee” again the next morning, gathering, one of them having butchered a hog, as ham baked over a fire and sliced onto warm bread for breakfast. At the end of the week slaves in the neighboring plantations were using it. And by the following spring, when the Rebels fired on Fort Sumter to commence the Civil War, “whooweee” had made its way through Alabama and Georgia and entered the Carolinas. Years later, long after the Emancipation Proclamation, Toby heard it bellowed it in the Barbary Coast near the docks of San Francisco. It had become like part of the vocabulary, but he did not think of himself as a progenitor.
Wylie McLallen grew up in Memphis, Tennessee where his family has deep historical roots. At the University of Tennessee he obtained a degree in History and English and, under a distinguished man of Southern Letters, Professor Robert Drake, studied Fiction and Composition: Dr. Drake was able to personally introduce his students to the poet and novelist James Dickey, and was a close friend of author Flannery O’Conner. Wylie worked as a programmer analyst at Malone & Hyde Inc. in Memphis and later owned a small business services center. He currently resides with his wife, Nickey Bayne, in Vancouver, British Columbia, where they have raised two now grown children. He continues to write both history and fiction and is the author of a book recently published by The Sunbury Press about the early years of professional football in the United States titled TIGERS BY THE RIVER.
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