Southern Accents: Breaking the Tradition of Silence

Me and Mom circa 1975

Me and Mom circa 1975

“If you want to really hurt me, talk bad about my language. Ethnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity–I am my language. Until I can take pride in my language, I cannot take pride in myself…I will no longer be made to feel ashamed of my existing. I will have my voice…I will have my serpent’s tongue–my woman’s voice, my sexual voice, my poet’s voice. I will overcome the tradition of silence.” ~Gloria Anzaldua.

“There is nothing like the abjection of self to show that all abjection is in fact recognition of the want on which any being, meaning, language, or desire is founded.” ~ Julia Kristeva

After reading Gloria Anzaldua’s Borderlands as well as Julia Kristeva’s Powers of Horror for my graduate level classes, I began exploring the idea of abjection and “othering” of foreigners. After some research with these and other feminist writers, it occurred to me that some of these same discriminations could also apply to Southern student attending college for the first time, most especially older students who have been a part of the workforce and are attempting to change occupations through the gateway of education. This short creative piece is a reflection of that experience.

Whispered Accents

So many times, when a new acquaintance finds out I am from Arkansas, the first thing she will say is, “Oh! You don’t have an Arkansas accent. How is that?”

The reason I don’t have an Arkansas accent (or what non-Arkansas perceive as one) is years of conscious effort to suppress it. If I say, “Y’all” or drop my “g’s” at the end of a word, or otherwise use language that causes spell check to disapprove, it somehow makes me feel guilty. It is because of this suppression that my children also have no accent.

I have, in the past, felt pride in this accomplishment, patting myself on the back that they do not have to struggle as I have had to in order to keep that part of my voice suppressed.

To have an Arkansas accent, a hillbilly way of talking, implies ignorance, poverty and other unpleasant stereotypes I have worked so hard to rip myself from. See, here, and here, are the scars that still bleed from the tearing.

It is so farfetched to see the connection from women who live on the border, between two worlds, to the scarcity of my own childhood where silence was often necessary? Where, to talk of college and seeking an education was viewed as self-serving or arrogant, too good for the life of my parents and their parents? I did not have toe right words to explain that seeking an education was by no means a personal slight, but an aching thirst that could not be quenched in any other way.

I too live on the border.

I have learned the right words to speak, to write. I have learned the words academia expects. But why are these words better than the ones inside me? Who decides, and why must I concede to their judgement? Why must I choose between the language of my peers and the words of my heritage?
I refuse.

For me, for my children, I will teach them the old words, the ancient stories that I have hidden from them. I realize now that I was not helping them by silencing them the way I had been silenced. I will tell them the stories and legends of who we are and where we came from. I will try to salvage their pride in their roots. Because the words I use are blended and diverse as the blood that runs through my veins.

My dialect, the words I know deep down inside the hidden places descended from the settlers who first braved the harsh Arkansas winters. Their words are a mix of Cherokee, Irish, Scottish, German and Chickasaw.

They are the words of the hard-working pioneers who settled the land; that rocky, unforgiving wild place called Arkansas.

My words are the suffering of the Cherokees mourning their dead.

My words are the fatigue of soldiers on watch at sunrise.

My words are the screams of my grandmothers in childbirth.

My words are the whispers of the moonshiners.

My words are the preacher’s pleas for repentance.

My words are the sinner’s tears of salvation.

My words are the sharecropper’s curses.

My words are myself.

I will teach my children the truth: these words are not shameful. For my mother, who was silenced, I will teach them.

And I (we) will no longer be ashamed.

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