Coming to Harvard from the Deep South is much like immigrating--you don't know the lifestyle and you certainly don't speak the language.
Breaking away from the Southern culture is at first less noticeable than the painful break with home and high school superstardom. But with time it become much more penetrating.
Granted, you don't have the South, even temporality, without reservations. There is an understood loyalty to the region and its people, and a leave of absence implies discontent to some degree.
I for one, spent my years in Birmingham, Alabama visibly frustrated by the city's all-too-prevalent bigotry and rigidity. Southerners, I had decided, rely too much on form. They cower at the appearance of change without examining it. So coming to Harvard was phase one of my personal divorce from the Southern identity-until I got here.
If you come to Harvard with a Southern accent, a slow-paced walk, and a low intensity level, you find yourself wed to your Southern identity-for better or worse-in the minds of those who have always associated such traits with the stereotypical Southerner.
First there are the disbelieving stares which follow your efforts at self-expression: "Come on, now. Wouldn't you talk just like everyone if we woke you up at three o'clock in the morning?"
Or the endless, extremely cautious: "Alabama, hugh? You a relation to George Wallace?"
And the friendly, but impatient: "Can't you walk any faster? No wonder you people lost The War. There just isn't TIME to do things that way."
And the patronizing: "Birmingham, Alabama! Wow, Hey, I had a 'friend in junior high who moved to Tennessee."'
If you can suppress the accent and step up your pace, you can thereby become "just like everyone else," and the comments will comes immediately. But somehow it seems a bit unfair. As long as you're lumped with all these once-objectionable people and things that compute. "The South," you might as well take a second look at them.
That was my strategy. From a strange combination of loyalty to my Southern past and insecurity in an environment which labeled me "different." I began to perceive a long-lost value in the way of life that had once seemed so backward.
The age-old "Southern critique" was reborn: So we have no equivalent to The New York Times, the Museum of Fine Arts, no Philharmonic, and (the killer) no Harvard down there. But who decreed that basic happiness rests on such things?
You, the pace is slow-are you suggesting we set our sites on New York City as the ultimate model?
No, I'm not denying that It's loaded with bigotry and rigidity. I left the place to escape such things. But this region tan's immune to them either. And somehow, things seem to be slowly working out down there. It's a different kind of progress, but it happens.
Nine months later, I boarded an airplane for Birmingham and summer vacation with a sense of Southern identity for which I had never bargained. The things that had once alienated me become fragments of a larger Picture: the "good society." I had decided, is more than a three hour plane tri from Birmingham Alabama.