Why I Left My Accent in the South

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The transition from home to college is weird enough for anyone, but it’s even stranger when you leave a small southern town for a New England liberal arts school. In leaving I knew I’d gain and lose so many things, but there was one loss I had never imagined: my southern accent.

After every introduction I made my freshman year, I got, “Wait, you have a crazy accent, where are you from?” At first I thought nothing of telling people I was from Mississippi, but then the questions started getting more offensive. “Have you ever even met a Democrat? How often do people make racist, sexist remarks around you? Do people really just carry around guns with them?”

The assumptions soon became more personal; I found myself judged on the basis of where I came from. I had some people assume I wasn’t on their level. Mississippi is 50th in education and I did go to a public school before college. One of my professors once commented on how I was ‘catching up’ to other students. I was shocked into silence, ashamed and anxious about my performance. I realized that some people would take me less seriously the second I mentioned my southern childhood.

My feelings were so mixed; on one hand, I take any attack on the South personally, but on the other, I had left the South for a reason. After attending college for a couple of months, it became glaringly obvious when one of my family members called the North “Yankee territory” that I was just too liberal to slip back into southern culture comfortably. It was honestly the first time I went home that it dawned on me that phrase refers to the Civil War in which we (the south) were the bad guys. Dinner table conversations about race or sexuality are often them-against-me and I am well known as the “emotional cousin who talks about gender studies too much.”

When I returned to Mississippi after my first semester at Wesleyan University, one of the first things everyone said to me was, “Look at how you talk now! You must fit right in up there.” There were little things I hadn’t noticed that had changed—My grandmother would chastise, “Yes? Yes—what?” Forgetting a sir or ma’am is a cardinal sin below the Mason-Dixon line. Some things, like certain idioms, I hadn’t purposefully abandoned, but I knew that I had begun to quell my accent because of the reactions I’d gotten in Connecticut.

Being bombarded with criticisms of abandoning my heritage made me think over why I’d changed so much. While I was itching all winter break to return to Wesleyan, I didn’t hate the snowless scenery and friendly waves of strangers. I still winced at passing sexist comments and got in one too many arguments with my grandparents, but I wasn’t as dissatisfied with home as I thought I would be.

On the plane back to Wesleyan, I was both happy to go and sad to leave. I realized that I was on a plane between homes, rather than returning to or leaving one.

It was on that long five-hour trip back to Wesleyan that I finally got it through to myself that I didn’t have to defend the South, in my voice or in my past. I realized that though it was a huge part of my childhood, it wasn’t a huge part of me. The South was a setting and climate in my life rather than an identity.

I don’t like fishing or hunting. I never really got the country music craze. I don’t own any of the clichéd “Southern Girl” t-shirts emblazoned with sweet tea, glitter and shotguns (although the craving for good tea is very real). Losing my accent wasn’t an injustice to the South, just like being from the South didn’t have to make me an outcast in the North.

Now, at the end of my sophomore year, I seldom receive comments on my accent, though I don’t actively avoid it slipping into my dialogue anymore. Sometimes I’ll say a word strangely, or my voice will twang when I get loud. I’ve learned to love where I’ve come from, while actively critiquing the injustices and oppressions that are still present there. Everywhere has ignorance; latitude doesn’t change that.

Torii Johnson: creative writer, graphic designer, aspiring social media mogul, avid feminist, barista extraordinaire.
She is a sophomore at Wesleyan University studying English and Feminist, Gender, & Sexuality Studies.

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