I have a southern accent. Fortunately (or unfortunately?) I am very good at getting rid of it. Around my northern college friends my accent disappears entirely, but not without an immense amount of effort. The first week of my freshman year was spent carefully managing the shape of my vowels, the length of my drawl, and the volume of my laugh.
It was universally exhausting. Finally I confessed to a few close friends that my well groomed northern accent was just an imitation, and immediately received requests to show them what I meant. I spent at least 10 minutes trying, and found that my ability to speak in my southern accent had escaped me. I’d only been away from the south for a month, what had happened??
What had happened was an immense amount of insecurity about my place in academia. Not one of my professors that I respected so much had an accent like mine. In fact, quite a few of them had accents from England, Russia, Greece, or at least the north of the US. I heard the style of speech that had made them successful in a field that I could only hope to be successful in, and realized that mine did not match.
I continued to switch my style of speech every time I went home. The drawl reentered my voice the minute that the plane crossed the Mason-Dixon line, and exited when I crossed back over. At least, until I read an academic essay that described my exact experience. Laurel Johnson Black wrote about how she struggled in college to speak and write the same way as her peers. About how she couldn’t communicate with her family the same way that she spoke to her college friends. It was achingly familiar.
And wildly comforting. Laurel Johnson Black is now a tenured English professor at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania and has published successful academic writings. As I read her story I felt a sense of peace that I hadn’t felt in a long while. The sense that I could, maybe, succeed in academia with, not in spite of, my souther accent and language in tow.
I’ll leave this post with an excerpt from one of my own pieces of writing inspired by Professor Black’s:
“There are hidden languages, and lives, and wisdoms in the improper dance of non-standard English. I don’t need my peers to “turn my language over in their mouths” (Black, 25). I don’t want their tongues touching a language that I have been separated from because of their preference for proper English. I just want the acknowledgement that my thoughts are as valid when expressed with “y’all” as with “all of you.”
Black, Laurel Johnson. “Stupid Rich Bastards.” Dews and Law 13 (1995): 25.