My Southern Accent, Lost and Found

For years, I denied this part of myself—until I realized what I was missing

Before I thought I needed to shed my southernness, I was proud of my heritage. As a child, I dreamed of raising Black Angus cattle the way my Uncle Ted did, scratching out a big vegetable bed, making a home on an acre or two of grass for barefoot children to run across until their soles itched. There was no sound I loved more than my grandmother’s accent: thick, sweet, warm, unencumbered. When the phone rang, she answered with a throaty “mmmyyehllo?” My own voice reflected my family’s past and present—part northern Mississippi, part Tennessee delta, all southern.

Why I lost my southern accent

As my childhood receded, I began to realize that outside of our region, southerners were often dismissed as uncultured and uneducated, ignorant and narrow-minded. I was ready to leave behind my tiny town in West Tennessee and start a new life in some far-off metropolis.

In that awkward space between teenager and adult, my accent was a symbol of everything I thought I hated about my life in the rural South. My conflation of vowels connoted ignorance. My elongation of final consonants gave away a rough-around-the-edges nature that I feared would disqualify me from being a lauded magazine writer.

"Girl, don't you forget where you come from."

My voice screamed out my class status. I thought I would have to talk less “country.” So I killed a piece of myself. I am ashamed of it, but I am more ashamed that I tried to kill that part of someone else.

I met Emily in college at Middle Tennessee State University, a school known for its affordability and its proximity to Nashville. She was determined to work for the student newspaper, which is where I spent most of my waking hours, and she decided we should be friends, and so we were. She, unlike me, embraced her roots. She was—and still is—always good for a tube of lipstick or a Steel Magnolias reference or a vat of homemade mac ’n’ cheese. Early in our friendship, her mother asked where I was from, assuming it was somewhere up north; I beamed with pride at the mistake.

Emily is two years younger. I knew she cared about my opinion, and her admiration soothed my simmering insecurities. I advised her to be more like me and exorcise her signature Manchester, Tennessee, accent. It was advice that I lobbed at her throughout our college years, sometimes earnestly, more often by poking fun at her doubled-down vowel sounds. It was a bit—it was our bit, I insisted to myself, taking that pained look on her face as part of the shtick. It was not fun for her, and deep down, I knew it.

During my senior year, I took it upon myself to “help” Emily prepare for a broadcast she had to deliver for a class. I would be the Henry Higgins to her Eliza Doolittle. In a photo I took that night, she’s frozen in time, her brow furrowed, literally clutching the string of pearls around her neck. Her lips are pursed, concentrating on pronunciation.

“I,” I say, firmly.

“Ahye,” Emily responds, helplessly. She tries to bite off the extra syllable, but it lingers, a thready pull of thick caramel. Exasperated, she tosses aside her glasses.

“Like,” I say.

“Lahyke.”

It went on like this for an hour. I told myself I was helping her achieve her dream of working for NPR. Now, I see that it was more about justifying what I had done to myself.

“Girl, don’t you forget where you come from”

My grandmother Carolyn used to tell me, “Girl, don’t you forget where you come from.” Memories are corrupted by time and emotion, but this one remained etched in my mind with uncomfortable clarity. She studied me with her clear blue eyes while she let her appeal hang in the air, sometimes wrapping her gnarled, arthritic fingers around my hands.

Illustration of old hands holding young hands across a wheat landscapeAngelica Alzona for Reader's Digest

My grandmother is the foundation for what I understand a Southern Woman to be. She said exactly what she meant, always at a slow, deliberate cadence. She was born and raised in the half-pony town of Pontotoc, Mississippi, the daughter of sharecroppers, known to me in family lore as Big Mama and Big Daddy. She survived the Depression, but for the rest of her adult life, she seemed haunted by the memories of what it was like to be poor. After she married my granddaddy, David, a boy from 20 minutes away in Houlka, they settled in Tupelo to have their own family.

His parents fancied themselves city folks and did not approve of their son’s marriage to a country girl, but she never told me this. I learned of it after she died, and now I wonder if that’s the origin of her command: Don’t forget.

I tell you all this because lineage is important in southern families—it forms the base of our identities, and it is the context for the stories we tell ourselves and each other through time. Now that I am grown, now that I have left the South, it is important to me too.

Losing my southern accent

The process of eliminating my accent began in high school with Gilmore Girls. I carefully studied the speech patterns of Emily, Lorelai, Rory and Paris, trying to memorize the quips and the pop culture references. After each episode, I’d stand before a mirror, practicing the characters’ spitfire cadence in an effort to speak like a “normal” white upper-middle-class girl. Eventually, I was successful at breaking down my tongue and rebuilding it.

It wasn’t just my voice that needed to be recorded over. The summer before I left for college, I lost weight and swapped my ratty pop-punk band T-shirts and worn jeans for the cheap fast-fashion at Forever 21. I lightened the eyeliner, wore twee jewelry that turned my skin green, pierced my nose and went to a beauty school to get a better haircut on a budget. And every time I spoke up in class or extended a fake-­confident hand toward someone more cosmopolitan, I did it with the clearest enunciation I could muster. If I was asked where I was from, I would say “near Memphis” or make a derisive jab at my country background. Over the years, my career started to fall into place—I moved up to be editor-in-chief of the student paper, and I got an internship with the Tennessean. I credited it to the hard work of draining all the blood from my former self and filling her instead with tasteless, benign water.

There was reason to why I did it. In the classrooms of my youth, there was a sense that to succeed it was important to speak with perfect grammar and without too much country inflection. No “y’alls,” no “ain’ts.” Our teachers were reacting to a very real judgment that came from a “professional” ideal. This was before Dolly Parton was anointed to sainthood.

In mainstream popular culture, white Southerners of a lower class were reduced to hicks, to the delight of elite tastemakers. The Dukes of Hazzard, The Beverly Hillbillies, Forrest Gump, Duck Dynasty. When I visited the University of California, Berkeley, to decide whether to go to graduate school there, I let slip that I was from a small town in the South, and a girl asked me if anyone wears shoes there. I forced a laugh, but embarrassment soured my stomach.

Woman looking out bus window at floating wheat and cotton plantsAngelica Alzona for Reader's Digest

Five months after I tried to mold Emily into Eliza, I moved to the Bay Area and declared myself done with the South. “You did have a two-tears-in-a-bucket attitude,” Emily recalled later, a bemused expression on her face. I told her that it took me too long to realize that she was right to hold on to her southern identity. I told her I was sorry. When we talk, I cannot imagine anything that fits her more perfectly than the sound of her voice as it has always been.

These days, I feel like a radio operated by someone clumsily twisting the knob this way, then that, searching for a clear signal between what I sound like and the girl I used to be. Slower, fuller vowels roll off my tongue when encouraged by an extra glass of whiskey, some great indignation, the sound of another’s drawl. But if my old self escapes from my lips in my new life, those syllables flatten back out minutes later. The quick, unconscious retreat to the safety of the unaccent makes me feel as though I’m a fraud—a girl who refused to heed her grandmother’s warning and forgot where she comes from.

Reclaiming my southern accent

My dad has said you can feel the call to home deep in your bones. I know exactly what he means. Once, every step I walked from the train station to the office seemed victorious to me. But I gradually began to realize that I no longer wanted to pretend. I became a kind of homesick that led me to play old Friday Night Lights episodes while folding laundry or put on the Highwomen record and dance around, singing with all the twang I’ve got left.

On visits to West Tennessee, I would spend hours behind the wheel of my parents’ car, pushing my luck on the country roads where I learned to drive, staring at the cotton packed up and waiting in the fields. I swallowed pangs of sadness for having missed the days just before harvest when endless rows of fragile, browning stems balance their fluffy burdens, waiting to be relieved by gigantic cotton pickers. When I lived in Crockett County, I belligerently declared often and loudly that I would soon be gone, that I would never look back. Then, it became impossible to stop looking back.

My dad has said you can feel the call to home deep in your bones.

In Sarah Broom’s memoir, The Yellow House, she writes about her home, a New Orleans that is unseen by the tourists who mill about the French Quarter. She describes her homecoming, her hopes “to close the distance between the me of now and the me of then.” I read that line on a bus that carried me across concrete bridges and toward ambitious structures of iron and glass, and yearned for similar catharsis. I started to hope that I could reclaim and resurrect a part of myself.

So, I decided to move back. I’m still searching for what it means to be southern, but now I’m doing it with all the “y’alls” and the “reckons” I withheld for so long.

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