Where to Go from Here
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.
Kullervo / September 14, 2012
One of the things that I am saddest about is that I have almost no trace of an accent to give me an East Tennessee bonafide. As a young and dumb kid I worked hard to avoid an accent. Now I have regrets.
Justin / September 17, 2012
When I was in school I actually had a class where we were supposed to learn to not speak with a southern accent anymore. I find it interesting when I travel the way people will fall all over themselves to hear me speak. “Just say something for us!” Like what?
Then, inevitably, the conversation turns to all the “bad” things about the south. “Did you know your state ranks near the bottom in education?” “That was around the time George Wallace was governor, right?” Of course I know. I actually LIVE here. Oh, and George Wallace was never governor of Georgia.
Yet rarely is there a mention of all the good things to come out of the south. “My favorite writer of all time is Kurt Vonnegut…he wrote books, you know. Did you ever read any?” Then, amongst further probing, “Actually, I’ve never read Faulkner or Wolfe. I find it all too dense. Who really wants to read a book like that anyways?”
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Harriet Swift / September 27, 2012
What an odd essay. The writer is careful to let us know she goes to an elite Eastern school but seems to think that Southern history is an uplifting story of grit, literary triumps and jazz. This piece reminds me of Southern apologists of the 1950s and 1960s — how dare you make fun of us and condescend to slow talking Southerners when the South is a place of culture, refinement and kindness! The South’s history has been shaped by violence, ignorance and racism. The culture and kindness the writer praises are not the our history’s most powerful features.
Further, the writer strangely ignores the truly fascinating intricacies of Southern accents and the cultural implications of the wide variety of accents. Up Country twangs with Appalachian underpinnings are a source of amusement to upper class Southerners who speak with the rich, melodic Bourbon accents of the Mississippi Delta and the Alabama Black Belt. Among African Americans, there are many variations in accents, usually more tied to class than region, but again, interpreted by Southern black people to place a person’s background. Both white and black Southerners are similiar to the British who judge a person’s class by his or her accent. On the whole, a disappointing lack of insight and gravitas here.
Melonee Franklin / November 30, 2012
I’m so proud of you, Kayla Smith. With or without your southern accent, you are an ambassador for the South!
Bernard Ellis / December 2, 2012
I don’t understand how this can possibly be considered as an “essay” on Southern Drawls. This was clearly the author’s reflection on her origins; her venturing from those origins to a more “worldly” environment. And a nostalgic remembrance, or perhaps yearning, for one’s roots. Nothing in this missive hints at, or suggests, an apologists paper – or a comparison of accents to see whose is best.
Nor should it attempt to dissect class, stature or region by one’s accent. The author is from Picayune, MS. And she misses “home”.
Dr. & Mrs. Greg Burks / December 24, 2012
Kayla we, too, are proud of you! Sarah has had items published throughout her life & back in the day Mississippi was the boot of all jokes. Keep up the good writing& perhaps some day you, too, may become the next Eudora Welty!