by Kayla Smith
Sometimes when I hear people with southern accents, I almost wish my own were stronger. It’s not because of a desire to sound southern so much as because I don’t want people to think I’m intentionally trying not to.
“Oh you’re from Mississippi! But you don’t even have a cute little southern accent! I’m so disappointed!” the Brown University yearbook photographer said as she rearranged my hair.
“I can fake one if you’d like,” I offered.
I wonder how differently you’d treat me if I sounded like my sister. I wonder if you’d take me seriously if my accent were as strong as my father’s. There have been several times when my mother’s called the university to ask a question, and the conversation has barely begun when the person’s tone of voice all of a sudden changes into something like fond amusement, a voice that suggests being on the same side of an inside joke. “Now where are you from?” they ask before the conversation ends.
While helping me buy dorm supplies near campus before school started a couple of years ago, my mom asked a worker for help reaching a lamp. His smile was the visual equivalent of the inside-joke-voice that she’d heard so many times on the phone. “I’ll get it for you if you say it just one more time,” he said. My mother laughed, secretly humiliated. “I feel like I have to make an effort to not make a fool of myself every time I start to open my mouth,” she told me in the car.
I want to be certain when I say I wouldn’t try to hide my accent if I had one. But I’m only mostly certain instead of completely certain. And I don’t know if I’d feel more guilty for hiding an accent that I had, or for not having one to hide in the first place.
You hear that accent, and you hear the stereotypes with it. I can tell you that most of the stereotypes are true. I can tell you that I believe the harsh rankings are valid. I can criticize the state better than an objective person ever could. But that doesn’t mean I can’t defend it, too.
Sometimes when I hear people criticize Mississippi, I wonder, but have you ever been there? Maybe you’d hate it, sure. But maybe you’d remember the countless writers and musicians who come from that place, and you’d wonder if whatever it instilled in them is something that you could find, too. Maybe you’d learn that the hospitality stereotype is just as true as every negative one you know. Maybe you’d find that you never encountered a population of people so kind. Maybe that wouldn’t outweigh any of the negative things, but maybe it would.
Maybe you’d learn that school reading lists aren’t where you find literature in Mississippi. My sister’s wedding reception was in the house where Eudora Welty was born. I’ve sat at the same counter as John Grisham and had coffee. Literature surrounds you.
Maybe you’d find history there. You’d find it in the blues, jazz, and the front porches where people still sit in rocking chairs drinking sweet tea. You’d find it in a sense of community that stopped existing a long time ago in most of the country. You’d find it in the foods you might call “comfort foods,” but that Mississippians don’t call any specific name, because it’s the only food they know.
If you were lucky, you’d find your way onto the back of a motorcycle, riding through woods full of fireflies and berries, or along the coast where you can see the way a community rebuilds itself after a hurricane destroys it.
It’s a battle that each person who’s intentionally left Mississippi fights. fIt’s why I reread the ending of Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! over and over the first time I read it. When Quentin’s roommate asks him why he hates the South. “’I don’t hate it,’ Quentin said, quickly, at once, immediately; ‘I don’t hate it,’ he said. I don’t hate it he thought, panting in the cold air, the iron New England dark: I dont. I dont! I dont hate it! I dont hate it!”
Kayla Smith is Deep South’s newest intern and grew up near Picayune, Mississippi. Find out more about her in our Contributors section.