You might not know it from the top hat and monocle I wear to the opera these days, but I was born a hillbilly. I was a redneck trailer park child, raised amid the pluff mud and pork rinds of the South Carolina Low Country. I ate grits with every meal, fished for tadpoles and fiddler crabs in a nearby creek, and owned no shoes until the age of twelve. And of course, from the moment I first said “mawmuh,” I spoke with a nauseating Southern twang.
In my high, girlish tones, my speech sounded something like Gomer Pyle reciting Eudora Welty. With the hiccups. This wasn’t considered unusual, naturally; listening to my parents argue would make you think Ben Matlock and Blanche DuBois got married. And my cousins are plagued with even more brutal hog-calling pipes, sounding like the cast of Hee Haw during a pie-eating contest. The half-yodel style of Southern speak oozed freely from us all like syrup from Mrs. Butterworth’s skull. It seemed as natural to us as catfish on Christmas.
But as my cognitive awareness sharpened with my maturity, I began to notice something in my rustic environs. It was a glowing box that sat in the corner of our tarpaper shack, and it produced a wide variety of sounds and pictures. They told me it was called television, and as I focused on the voices and images it produced, I noticed that television had one particular message it wanted to impart to me: Southerners are morons. From Sheriff Taylor to Huckleberry Hound to Boss Hogg, anyone drawling with a Southern accent on TV was invariably a jabbering doofus. Even movie and TV dramas striving for realism marched the fat, Southern Sheriff out of Central Casting to bellow, “You in a whole heapa trouble, bwoy!” while wrestling Harvard graduates to the ground. TV showed me what my peers didn’t want to admit; that a Southern drawl was indicative of drooling stupidity.
Intelligence, dependability, expertise, or even streetwise cockiness – these were qualities never expressed with a Southern accent. Kojak never assessed a murder scene with “Shoooey! Them head wounds is a’bleedin’ sumpin awful!” Julia Child never advised viewers to “get you some nanners in that puddin’,” nor did Cronkite end his newscast with “That thar’s how it is.” Sophisticated television personalities, from game show hosts to wisecracking sitcoms kids, spoke with velvet tones in sharp patterns foreign to my bumpkin ears. But if any of these TV programs wished to impart that a character had trouble tying his shoes due to a brain injury, that character hailed from Georgia or Alabama. The message got through to me: people viewed a Southern accent as a symptom of a learning disability.
It might not have been so bad if I had developed the Southern accent I preferred. While my family, all born in Upstate South Carolina, grew up among moonshining hayseeds, I was the black sheep from Charleston, surrounded by plantation-dwelling aristocrats. If I had to speak in Southern tones, what I wanted were the genteel vocal stylings of the local mint julep society, the Scarlett O’Haras and Foghorn Leghorns of the upper crust. I wanted the drowsy, magnolia-sniffing demeanor of the educated Southern playwright, lazing in the Carolina breeze, admonishing a hound dog – “Beaufort” or “Beauregard” – to stop licking his particulars and go and fetch the Evening Courier. But I sounded more like Junior Samples than Big Daddy. I needed a complete vocal relocation, not just across county lines, but across the Mason-Dixon.
And if there was any doubt about this mission, my course was made clear when I started first grade. Because much to my horror, when I spoke up in class or on the playground, spewing my slack-jawed twang in all directions, the black kids made fun of me. And though I didn’t understand much about the laws of social interaction then, I knew instinctively that if black kids disapproved of your dress, speech, or mannerisms, any hope of attaining coolness could be forever lost. I had to ensure that these classmates would stop calling me “Jethro” immediately.
But this would prove to be more than just a change in dialect. Correcting my Southernisms would mean a break with the traditions of my village and a reevaluation of even the simplest of daily routines. No longer would I ask someone to “carry” me to K-Mart when what I actually wanted was a ride in the car. No longer would I refer to the store in the inappropriate possessive form, “K-Mart’s,” as if the store were owned and operated by Reginald K-Mart (some locations, such as Piggly Wiggly, I would refuse to say out loud at all). I would select a shopping cart at the store rather than a buggy (pronounced “bew-gie”), and I would ask for money from my mother’s purse rather than her “pocket buke.” If purchasing soft drinks, I would call them by their individual brand names instead of calling them all “Coke,” and when quoting the price, I would properly pluralize “89 cents.” This was a radical stance I was taking.
I studied the available A/V material and learned to mimic everyone from David Brinkley to Captain Kangaroo. I developed a handy method for determining the correct approach to speech: listen to what my father said, then imagine it coming out of Darth Vader. If it didn’t sound right in the voice of James Earl Jones, I didn’t say it. As you can imagine, this break with my chicken-fried upbringing was considered tantamount to flag-burning in the name of Allah by my friends and family. It didn’t help that, once the counterculture influences began to creep in, I was not only enunciating sharply, but adding the word “man” to the end of every statement. I was bringing both ivory tower intellectualism and Greenwich Village cool into our home in my one-man War of Northern Aggression.
It’s debatable how successful I was in kicking the cracker speak. To this day, when talking with any family member on the phone, my jaw will loosen as if I have a mouthful of mashed ‘tators and I begin to “reckon” and “declare.” Without immediate correction, I will be reduced to guttural “gol derns” within seconds. The swampy roots of Southernism cling deep in the marsh. Despite embracing the King’s English, I will admit to feelings of comfortable familiarity if the waitress calls me “baby doll,” and I never trust an auto mechanic to even refill my washer fluid unless he sounds like Buck Owens. But I feel my transformation from Goober to Gallant is proof that the Southern accent is a correctable speech impediment, just like stuttering or whatever it is that’s wrong with Barbara Walters. If only General Sherman, rather than burning everything in his path, had marched a team of Rex Harrisons through the South to help us understand what the rain in Spain was up to, maybe we wouldn’t all sound like we’re throwing up hotdogs when we’re giving directions.
I’ve come to terms with my accent these days, laced with detectable traces of Nascar fandom, but with aspirations to Toastmasters. But what galls me when considering my struggle with doofus mouth disease is knowing that somewhere out there is a student at Cambridge or Julliard, studying for the stage. He’s perfecting his New England cadence to recite Shakespearian soliloquies, musically rolling his r’s with the refined diction of a young Olivier.
And when he graduates, his dream is to play a fat, Southern Sheriff.