Even when I was a little girl I wasn’t so sure I was meant to be a Southerner. When I wanted to put sugar on my grits, Mama swore that someone must have accidentally slipped her a ‘Yankee baby’…let’s just say that there was no Cream of Wheat at our house. It seemed that everyone else had extra syllables in their words that just didn’t come naturally to me, and I figured out early on that the confederate flag wasn’t anything to be too proud of. I must have known, even as a child, that there might be someplace out there that felt more like home to me than Columbia, S.C. did.
Now, it’s not that I don’t like and appreciate my Southern roots, but I’ve just never felt as connected to them as many of my family and friends seemed to be. When girlfriends quoted entire sections of Gone With the Wind, I just looked at them with a blank stare. I loved to read, but could never get past the first few pages of the classic. It was Scarlett…she annoyed the bejeesus out of me. (I have to admit that I was secretly pleased when I found out that Vivien Leigh was actually British, and was faking her Southern accent in the movie version!)
I’m pretty sure that I never had as much of a drawl as most of the people around me, especially Mama. I like to tell people that my mama’s accent could turn the word “Shit” into a twelve syllable long curse that scared large men…and yes, I know that her face is turning red as she reads this! Sorry, Mama…but you know I’m right!
I was surprised when I first moved to Portland and started hearing, “Where are you from?!” so often. I apparently stood out…a lot. One or two words and the natives were onto me–I guess they weren’t used to hearing anything other than the homogenized ‘non-accent’ that’s prevalent in this part of the country. Now, research will tell you that there’s a slight difference in the way people in Portland sound when compared with ‘standard American’ speech, but I’ll be damned if I can hear it. There are a few differences in the words themselves (e.g. ‘spendy’ means expensive, and ‘pop’ means soda), but nothing even close to an accent.
One of my first jobs in Oregon was working as a customer service phone rep for a national catalog company. That’s when I discovered another little thing about having a Southern accent…there are some people out there who assume that the Southern speaker’s IQ is…ohhhh…at least 30 points lower than everyone else. Yep. Now, I don’t agree with that, and to be honest, it pissed me off, but it was something I encountered on a regular basis. Of course, some folks really liked hearing a drawl and a ya’ll here and there, but I heard, “Oh, let me repeat that for you,” or “Do I need to speak slower?” much more frequently than any positive feedback. I think that I made an (unconscious) decision at that point–I didn’t want to sound like a Southerner anymore. I didn’t try to lose my accent…it just…happened. (Oh lord, I can already hear my sister winding up for an, “I’m PROUD to be a Suthunuh!” retort.)
I still say, “Bless your heart!” with all the syrup my grandmother used, and there’s no adequate replacement in the English language for ‘Ya’ll’, but beyond that, my speech is definitely more camouflaged than it was. I still get asked where I’m from on occasion, but it’s no longer a daily event. Unless, that is, I talk to someone from back home. I’ll call Mama to thank her for a gift, or check in with my sister on the phone, and it’s as if all the Southern-speak trapped inside me drew a ‘get out of jail free’ card! For days, I surprise myself with sugary tones I’d forgotten I ever had. It fades, and I’m ok with that, but for a little while I’m once again the gal that people stop in the grocery store to ask, “Is that drawl from Texas?” I just say, “Well bless your heart!” and finish my shopping, dropping the box of Cream of Wheat into my shopping bugg…oops, I mean ‘cart’.