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Words leisurely unfold out of my mouth. They glide off my tongue with the smooth ebb and flow of the rolling blue Appalachian mountains I grew up on; the drawling vowels stretch long like valleys and consonants tumble down sloping ridgelines into reluctant contractions. My speech was sheltered: I heard the faraway celebrities and newscasters and their strange, crisp voices, but I grew up surrounded by the slow, beautiful dialect that, from my first word on, became my own.
I knew it was unique, a tongue confined to my small part of the world. I knew the stereotypes, the assumed ignorance and backwardness associated with verbal loll and drawl, and I knew the North didn’t hear many voices like mine. What I did not know, or rather, expect, was how my distinct accent would become my identifier, how it would immediately—and permanently—make me so boldly stand out when up until that point in my life it had made me belong. I did not expect to root myself in dissimilarity.
I laud Harvard for its diversity, for its medley of race and religion and identity that I was never exposed to in my small, rural hometown. I love the atmosphere of inclusivity and the sense of belonging our college is so dedicated to achieving. I can’t help but notice, though, the glaring absence of Southern accents. I’ve heard it only once, and just in passing, during my first semester at Harvard. Have I just avoided it by bad luck and timing, or is it hiding?
I admit that I tried to conceal mine. My first week in the North—which consisted of many laughable miscommunications and several confused, wide-eyed waitresses asking “Can you repeat that?”—proved that the accent made me something of a novelty. Everyone I spoke to either asked or guessed where I was from. (Texas, Georgia, South Carolina, and, bafflingly, Australia, were the most popular presumptions.) Then, when I revealed my home was in southwest Virginia—the heart of central Appalachia—I became even more of a curiosity. (I can’t imagine what the rest of the nation assumes about native Appalachians, but the shocked expressions made me think the worst.)
I disliked how the conversation almost immediately turned to Southern stereotypes: rural conservatism, Trump, poverty, the declining coal industry. Even though these were relevant topics, I was disappointed that this was all people knew about Appalachia and the only way they knew how to relate to me. I was annoyed when I was congratulated for “making it out,” as if Appalachia were a place to escape. I was most bothered by people who asked me to repeat words only to point out and break down my unique pronunciations: They were only fascinated, not making fun, but I felt ridiculed all the same. I quickly realized why Harvard is an amalgam of hundreds of voices, minus my own; when you hear an accent as backwoodsy as mine in the city, it tends to turn heads, prompt questions, and elicit old, tired conversations us Southerners are sick of having.
So, in a desperate attempt to fit in, I tried to suppress the twang. I already felt out of place as it was, having transferred from a teensy-weensy, rural Southern community college to an outrageously wealthy and prestigious university in a major Northeastern city, so I figured that vocal modification would be the first step to successful assimilation. The result was cringey—a strange mixture of over-enunciation and clipped, strained vowels in attempted replication of what I thought sounded like a neutral, made-for-TV accent. This laughable oddity unsurprisingly earned me even more quizzical glances and questions than before. I quickly abandoned that ship.
At first, I was dismayed at my inability to forge a more inconspicuous accent. I’d hoped my identifying characteristic would be anything but the way I pronounced my words. Yet, interestingly enough, the more I was asked about my accent and, subsequently, culture, the more I began to appreciate my difference. There was no changing the drawl; that was painfully obvious. There was only embracing the accent—sink or swim, right?—in an attempt to maybe, hopefully, challenge and change stereotypes and perceptions.
I can’t pinpoint when the exact shift in perspective occurred, but by the end of my first semester I was almost excited to be questioned. As I became increasingly homesick, tired of this strange, loud, city life, I relished the opportunity to talk about my calm, quiet Appalachia. I simultaneously became more and less aware of my difference: The more diversity I saw and experienced, the more I realized the non-necessity of belonging and the beauty in standing out. That the uniqueness of the Southern accent is something to celebrate, not conceal.
Ask me about my accent. Let me tell stories about the South; let me flaunt this beautiful drawl.
You ain’t gonna hear many of ’em up here, ya know.
Emilee A. Hackney ’20 is an English concentrator living in Adams House. Her column appears on alternate Thursdays.
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