August 22nd, 2010 15:26 EST
Talking Southern to Send a Racist Message Disses The South
My daughter Darya has always had a delightful ability to pick up the words and sounds of a song at first hearing. I can imagine her repeating some of her favorite song lyrics to her beloved students.
I don`t have this facility, but I do hear the nuances of language, regional accents and mannerisms, and characteristic inflections. When I joined the Navy and went to boot camp in Bainbridge, Maryland, my most memorable encounter was with country music, and particularly the high lonesome wail that I associated with something primal and supernatural. It made my hair stand up in the mess hall.
Living in the South for a spell, I quickly identified different accents, although I couldn`t always place their origins. I thought of this the other day listening to a local television advertisement for a town picnic and tractor pull. Here was a woman with a pleasant but characteristically flat upstate New York accent using the southernism, Y`all come. The poet in me quarreled with the dislocatory nature of this usage. How to account for this anomaly?
I never emulated Southerners when I lived among them, the way a former president most famously did, because I felt it impolite. I had not acquired the accent by birthright or by lifelong exposure and I did not wish to come across as a pretender, as I felt I inevitably would. True, I did unconsciously pick up some southernisms, just as I had picked up some laconic Yankeeisms living in Rhode Island. But I am a New Yorker and I have never wished to sport a linguistic disguise. I loved to hear Southern accents. I envied them. I envied Southerners` ability to use language to defuse hot situations. But I felt I owed my Southern neighbors and colleagues the respect of not imitating them. Their speech belonged to them. I did not wish to hijack it.
So this television advertisement brought to mind what seems to me an increased incidence of non-Southerners using phony Southern accents to convey a subtext. In many cases, the message seems to be:
I`m plain folk. I`m like you. I don`t trust those city slickers, big city liberals, those progressives, those foreigners, those immigrants, those others. They don`t belong. But you and I belong. We`re the real Americans.
In other words, it`s a nativist message, ostracizing the others. " And I say, as a poet with a fond ear for differences, that it`s an insult to Southerners, because it presumes they`re nativists, the lot of them, narrow bigots, paranoids, and conservative ideologues to the bone. They are not. They`re people rooted in the South. They differ among themselves, as the rest of us do. Some are urban. Some rural. Some white, some black, some Asian, some Hispanic. Politically many Southerners are more conservative than other parts of the country, but they do not deserve to have their accents become encryption for political psycholinguistics. They do not deserve to have such assumptions made about them. They do not deserve to be used by people with an agenda.
I don`t think the lovely lady whose voice I heard inviting people to a tractor pull was indulging all these sub rosa motives, but her usage of that southernism got me to thinking about how we code messages to say one thing and mean another. Thus, when the Republican party, the traditional enemy of states` rights, began spouting off about states` rights in the 1960s it was code talk for racism. It was cynical and profoundly contemptuous of Southerners, no matter how many of them happened to fall for it.
I didn`t consciously resist southern usages when I lived in the South. My speech certainly became more genteel, less edgy. But I did not want to disquiet my neighbors by trying to pass for something I was not. I don`t think I ever spoke with anyone about this, but I had the feeling my associates appreciated my disdain of linguistic camouflage.
I remember that some of my southern shipmates on the carrier USS Leyte used to say, Hey, Buddy, talk Yankee to us! They were kidding. And I kidded them similarly. Tell me about that Hoi Toid, I would tell a sailor from Tidewater Virginia. We respected each other. But I don`t think that`s what`s going on with politicians, radio hate talkers and others who affect southernisms. I think they`re associating those beautiful and diverse accents with racism and other agendas. And I think they lack respect and decency.
I make an exception of British or other foreign singers who adopt southern intonations and speech mannerisms. They are lovers of music rooted in the South. They understand its white and black roots. They are paying the South a compliment, not using it for ideological purposes. Their music is an homage to Huddie Ledbetter, Muddy Waters, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Patsy Cline, Elvis Presley and so many others.
The poet in me thinks you can make a good case for southern speech being contagious, almost hypnotic in its musicality. And I wish I thought that is all that is going on with the phenomenon I`m suggesting. I`ve known any number of Southerners I`d like to sound like. I`ve known New Englanders, Canadians and Britons I`d like to sound like too.
But people who use southernisms to convey their dislike of other human beings are paying no one an homage, and they are dishonoring the South.
Djelloul (jeh-lool) Marbrook was born in 1934 in Algiers to a Bedouin father and an American painter. He grew up in Brooklyn, West Islip and Manhattan, New York, where he attended Dwight Preparatory School and Columbia. He then served in the U.S. Navy.
His book of poems, Far From Algiers, won the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize from Kent State University in 2007 and was published in 2008. His story, Artists Hill, adapted from the second novel of an unpublished trilogy, won the Literal LattÃ© first prize in fiction in 2008. His poems have been published in The American Poetry Review, Barrow Street, poemeleon, The Same, and other journals. The pioneering e-book publisher, Online Originals (UK), published his novella, Alice MIller`s Room, in 1999.He worked as a reporter for The Providence Journal and as an editor for The Elmira (NY) Star-Gazette, The Baltimore Sun, The Winston-Salem Journal & Sentinel and The Washington Star. Later he worked as executive editor of four small dailies in northeast Ohio and two medium-size dailies in northern New Jersey.
Del`s book, Far From Algiers: http://upress.kent.edu/books/Marbrook_D.htm
New review of Far from Algiers: http://www.rattle.com/blog/2009/05/far-from-algiers-by-djelloul-marbrook/
Artists Hill, Literal LattÃ©`s fiction first prize: http://www.literal-latte.com/author/djelloulmarbrook/
His blog: http://www.djelloulmarbrook.com
His mother`s art: http://www.juanitaguccione.com
His aunt`s art: http://www.irenericepereira.com