“I’m a Southern girl.” Erykah Badu’s lyrical proclamation speaks to me, of me.
Like her I am from way down South, love me some fried foods and got me a Southern drawl. I am so Southern, that even though my parents left Louisiana to move to Waukegan, Ill., where I was born and lived until I was 8, they passed on their love of soul food, ’70’s R&B/funk music on Saturdays and gospel music on Sundays, as well as their Southern drawls.
I own it, never deny it, love it.
But my Southernness is not a thing that other Americans have taken kindly to. When I lived in Flagstaff, Ariz., for five years, I began to understand what it meant to be foreign and alien in America, an oddity. At the university where I taught, I was the only African American woman professor for three of the five years. (That’s a whole other story.) Whether I was on or off campus, I bore a mark of difference. A common thing would happen. I would be in the middle of asking a question or making a statement to a salesperson, and all regard for common courtesy would suddenly dissipate into the mountainous thin air. “You have an accent. Where are you from?”
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But I was talking, would be my first thought. My second thought would be that you, too, have an accent. But being a Southern girl, I would politely answer the question. Sweetly and with a smile. “I’m from the New Orleans area. Now as I was saying … .”
I was able to contain my annoyance and deploy all of my Southern charm to distract from any facial expressions that may have betrayed my genuine thoughts.
At other times, I had to wave my hand and issue a blessing of the heart. I was at a parent-student homecoming event and an African American woman and I engaged in a conversation about the university. She asked me the inevitable question — “Where are you from?” — and I answered . She said, “I knew it. My mother is from that area, and you sound just like her.”
Actually, I learned that her mother was not from my area, but from a significant distance away, so we most certainly did not sound the same. She then made direct eye contact with me and asked with a serious tone, “Have you thought about getting rid of your accent?”
Surely she did not just ask me to strip naked and live the rest of my life in public shame. Get rid of my gumbo, potato salad, fried fish on Fridays, my blues and my loud-talking relatives? Never! I cannot say my facial expression did not betray me. My Southernness offended, my identity as an employee emerged. “Well certainly not. I hope you enjoy the rest of your visit,” I said in a tense Southern drawl as I quickly moved toward the door.
African Americans, of course, have a conflicted relationship with the South. Its long history of racial violence can call forth memories of terror to many. Yet, it is mine or, as Langston Hughes puts it, “My country, right or wrong.”
I say this is my South, right or wrong. It is the place that has inspired my desire to know more about silenced and forgotten African Americans, and thus has given rise to my career as an educator and writer. It is the place that pushes me forward as an advocate, activist and ally. It holds the tune that gives lyrics to my song as an African American woman of mixed ancestry, “I’m a Southern girl!”
News & Record editorial board member Tara T. Green (email@example.com) is an educator and writer who lives in Greensboro.