- I can remember when I received my first blatant comment concerning my Southern heritage, and I recall the surprise and hurt that came with it. From the moment I was hustled off the bus to be processed into my new life in the military, it would start. I saw the amused expressions when people heard my accent, or even the audible snicker when I answered their question and they repeated back, “Mississippi, huh?” I would quickly grow tired of people asking me to repeat myself simply so they could derive pleasure from my pronunciation, and I would especially dread the repeated question from everyone I encountered, “Where are you from?!” In bootcamp I easily managed to nail down the highest scholastic scores of not just my company, but every single one on base. This score earned me the reward of extra minutes to call home, a Letter of Commendation, and my mom a special seat next to the Commanding Officer at my graduation. (I may be bragging a little, but it all goes along with the story at hand.) All the different award winners were recognized at our pass and review (graduation) by marching in a separate formation. At practice for this ceremony, I was confronted by a superior. He asked the question that I had become so accustomed to, “Where are you from?!” (I seriously put the exclamation point because that was how people asked it.) Then he asked what award I had received. When I answered, he commented with, “I didn’t realize they made smart people in Mississippi!”
- His comment was simply the beginning of many I would receive over the years I spent away from the South. I became accustomed to reverse racism and snap judgements made at face value, all which assumed I was an ignorant bigot. It was assumed that since my speech was slow that I also had a mental delay. I was also branded a racist, intolerant of any and all minorities. I had always been careful to articulate my words. This was something my mother had taught me from a young age, explaining to me that a southern drawl sounded ignorant. (Y’all forgive her. She was a Yankee at the time and didn’t know better.) We had arrived down south from California and she was not very keen on our surroundings. We expected to stay briefly, get back on our feet, and return to bigger cities, far away as soon as we were able. Something strange happened though. The warmth of the South, both in weather and the hearts of the people there, drew us in to its charm. She would grow to love it, and be unable to leave even if she wanted. We became Southerners. Still, she tried to instill speaking properly to me, to help prevent future assumptions of ignorance. All her instruction was for naught it seems, for once I found myself up north, my articulation and purposeful pronunciation only served to draw more attention to my Southern accent. I’m surprised I didn’t try wearing a banner that read, “I have a 4.0 and my best friend is black.” I was that desperate to be seen for more than my Southern roots, but it wouldn’t have mattered anyway, regardless of what I did.
- I realized that people would see me as they wished. If you want to see the majority’s opinion of the South simply turn on a major news network and watch their stories from Mississippi or Alabama, complete with on-the-scene interviews. They could interview ten people, but will choose the one individual with the slowest speech and thickest accent who says the most inappropriate thing. They do this because it fits into their stereotype. (I’ve come to discover, though, that stupid and hateful is everywhere, not simply one region.) When I moved back home to Mississippi I realized something profound. I realized that I was fine with that. It was okay if they saw me as slow and insignificant. I realized I could smile sweetly while they underestimated me for I knew the truth. I had been around the world and I had seen it. I had seen that while we are stereotyped as the most hateful people, intolerant of differences, that we are truly the most loving. I had experienced a break-down on the side of the road in both places, and I knew down south is where ten people would stop and offer to help. When you sneeze in Mississippi, people will say “God bless you,” and they’ll offer you their last tissue. Your neighbor will be late for work to watch and make sure your kid gets home from the bus stop safely. People in town may know all your personal business, but nine out of those ten will pray for you rather than simply gossip. If you need a ride, or a baby sitter, or a hand moving an old refrigerator, it will be easily found. It may be called the Bible Belt, but I reckon that’s okay with me. I don’t mind being surrounded by God fearing folks. It’s where I know I can raise my children safely, and not be afraid. If God brings revival to our Country, I think it will originate from the South. Don’t you? I don’t try to hide my accent anymore. I wear it proudly, savoring its sweetness like a glass of ice cold tea (sweet of course). I’m not ashamed of where I’m from, but proud that God thought enough of me to place me here. If you’re thinking about going up North, well, go on. We’ll be waiting for you when you come back. If you’re a Northerner, and you’re tired of all the fuss, come on down, but don’t underestimate us. We’ll accept you as our own. After all, you chose to come to Heaven on earth.
That is all 🙂