I sit uncomfortably, my ankles crossed beneath the table, the silk napkin placed carefully over my lap. I keep my legs close together, being sure to tuck the hem of my dress over my knee.
“Pass the suga’, da’lin.” I hear a sweet coo in my right ear, and turn to smile at my great-aunt. Keeping my lips pressed shut, I reached over and slid the sugar towards her. All around me were the echoes of ‘sweetie’, ‘my gracious!’, and ‘pardon?’. My skin feels hot, and I hear another question aimed in my direction. Passing over the butter this time, I gratefully busy myself with taking sips of my tea. The brightly colored walls are a shock to my system, as are the friendly people sitting at the table next to ours, calling out greetings to complete strangers. The words swirl around me, and I become suddenly aware of how I don’t often call people “darling”, and how I do talk rather quickly.
“Emalyn, didn’t you go there this summer?” My Nana’s voice is interrupting my sudden realization, and I startle a little bit. But, remembering my formal setting, settle down.
“Oh, um, yeah. Yes. Yes ma’am.” I stutter, tripping over the words as they come out in a flood of miscommunication. Flustered, I choke up a laugh, ducking my head. “Yes ma’am, I did.” I try again, and the southern ladies around the table nodded. It’s never easy to be the only one in a room that’s different, and it’s even harder when you are distinctly aware that those around you know exactly what makes you different.
Sitting around the table at a tea room is not something that I often do in my daily routine. However, when I did, I became aware of small things that made me irreversibly different than the women surrounding me. When I responded to their questions, my voice sounded brash, my words sounded rude, in comparison to the slow, drawn out language of Northern Georgia. No matter how many times I go down South, I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to being the only one in the room who is decidedly Northern. I will also not get used to having to wait patiently as my questions get answered, in a typical drawn out fashion, or being the subject of so many terms of endearment.
I may have felt out of place in a southern tea room, but feeling different because of an accent is not limited to Northerners going South. My Grandparents come up to visit once a year, around Christmas. Although they would never come out and say it, they are incredibly uncomfortable speaking in front of people, and tend to keep to themselves when faced with the opportunity. Their accents are heavy, and the southern drawl sets them apart from everyone they’re surrounded with. With every word they say, people scrunch up their noses, ask them to repeat themselves, or look mildly amused. It’s disconcerting, to say the least, when people are listening intently to your every word, trying to decipher what you’re saying.
James Baldwin says this about language in his essay ‘If Black English Isn’t A Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?’: “It reveals the private identity and connects one with, or divorces one from, the large, public, or communal identity.” In this case, I think that language isolates those who are different, and calls them out on those differences.
More than once, I have heard people talking about Southern accents in a negative light. People have said that they can’t take them seriously, or that they just sound foolish when they speak. To me, the ones saying those things are more foolish simply for saying that. To judge someone’s intelligence based on how they sound, and not on what they say, shows an extreme lack of character. It is absolutely unacceptable for people to say that someone is inferior to them because of race or gender in today’s society, so why is accent any different? Just like gender and race, accents alienate one person from another, and focus on differences, instead of similarities.