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.
When we landed-literally and figuratively-my visions of the New South from 1200 miles away had not yet upheld close scrutiny. Remember that understood loyalty to the people and the region? In the same way that a Southern identity emerged in the Harvard environment, a Harvard identity began to surface with successive doses of Birmingham.
First there was the homecoming queen's wedding (tree-to-form she invited the entire high school class of 350) and the suspicious whispers about my "Yankee" (read: Yayenkee) access.
Next came the reunion with parents friends and friends' parents-the Mom-and-Dad-crowd who "knew you when" and naturally assume that "you when" is "you now."
And their questions: OooooH! There's out Cliffie. Honey, I want you to tell me all (read: aaalllllllll) about that crazy Women's Lib business. And your Mama tells me you're in a coed dorm-how Quains! Tell me tell me tell me tell me.
And what about all those "Nigruhs" (sic), who occupied the building this spring. We saw the designations right here item our own living room.
With some remnant of the identity I knew we shared, I tried to answer: Yes, I go to Radcliffe and no it's not because the University of Alabama "wasn't good enough" for me, but please don't gape at me like that. You make me feel as if I don't belong here or something. Give me time to explain.
No, it's not communist hotbed and yes, I have "marched with all those hippies," and yes, I dress the way all of "them" dress and no, coed dorms are not "disgusting." I live in one for God's sake.
Please, I asked you to stop gaping. I promise you: I was born here. I've lived here 18 years. I'm the same person, I'm even "very Southern," Ask anyone up "there." (But them again, you'll never go will you.)
They had "heard" the answers before I had began to speak, before I had even arrived. "The North" was as unfamiliar and untenable to them as "The South" had been at Harvard. They, too, could not really listen to someone as "different" as I had become, Utopia would have to wait a few more years.
Coming to Harvard from the Deep South does teach you how to break away from home and high school superstardom. It also teaches you to accept equalty the drawl and the clipped syllable; the reactionary and the revolutionary; the slow and the rushed pace.
Moreover, you learn to alternate between the two as a concession to the region you happen to be visiting, for you realize that trust between people is unpredictably fragile.
So if it takes more of a drawl than you still have in you by the time you go home again--or if it takes more self-assertion that you would comfortably muster when you return to Harvard from a Southern visit--you lay it on (or dish it out). The cost to personal identity is surprisingly small.
Most importantly, you learn the absurdity of regional rivalries, Yes know from experience that they rest mostly on the power of suggestion-that in-bred notion that Southerners just have to be different or that Northerners do (depending on your geographical location).
Nevertheless, you prepare to speed the rest of your life explaining your decision to leave the South. Your Southern friends will never quite understand it; your Harvard friends will accept it readily. They won't understand why you chose to be born there, but perhaps you will be able to tell them.