Most places I go, the way I talk identifies me as a foreigner. Someone who was raised elsewhere. Every time I have my hair done, I get “You’re not from around here, are you” as soon as I open my mouth. And just fyi, saying you have a “rat’s nest” in your hair, meaning a particularly stubborn tangle, does not go over equally well everywhere.
People who study dialects and the computer programs they write can usually place me right where I grew up, on the East coast of South Florida. This particular test also guesses Orlando, Atlanta, and what looks like Albany, NY as possibilities, which I assume reflects migration patterns. But I’ve taken others that can pinpoint the county where I spent my childhood.
That’s pretty specific, but unless you happen to know someone else from that area, and they’d probably need to be anglo, you are unlikely to recognize my speech pattern other than knowing it’s definitely not a southern drawl. In other words, while I have spent most of my life in the South, people think I talk like a Yankee.
This means waiters try to explain to me what grits are. Saying, “y’all” does not come naturally to me, nor do the “yes sirs” and “no ma’am’s” that are expected in the south. I’ve tried to pick up some idioms. People here say “red light” to describe any traffic light. They ask you “where you stay” as opposed to “where you live.” My personal favorite is “to fall out” which means to collapse. As in,” Get Miss Daisy some lemonade; she looks like she is about to fall out.”
If that last sentence brought you back to plantation life for just a minute, your Yankee is showing. The practice of using Miss plus a woman’s first name is alive and kicking (I also hear the male equivalent with Mr., but less often). I am not adjusting well to the deference I don’t feel I deserve. Grown adults, both black and white, who perceive me to be older or of higher status call me Miss Daisy all the time. I can’t stand it. I find it terribly uncomfortable, yet it is clearly meant to be respectful.
If it takes me back to being the white lady holding the pitcher of lemonade on a cotton plantation, that’s clearly my problem. I’m the one living in a foreign culture. The fact that black women are also addressed this way does not seem to make me feel better. It bothers me enough, I have started asking people not to call me that. And if I apologize and tell them where I come from it comes out sounding racist, they are usually sufficiently horrified to remember my preference.
Maybe, like the flag, it is past time for this vestige of southern gentility to bite the dust. There are many ways for us to show our respect for each other without designating class distinctions in the way we address each other. Maybe that’s why it bothers me. I still believe in the American dream that tells us that class is not a foregone state, it is mutable. You are not trapped. You are temporarily poor. Hard work and education can change your lot. Addressing someone by class dismisses the dream. You are who you were born to be. And you will forever be addressing your elders and betters in a way that reminds you of this. Has the South given up on this dream? Have we all?