Hey Ya'll! I wrote this for an essay contest. The piece needed to revolve around being southern and sinnin'.
Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.
In the South there is sinnin’ of the salacious sort – lower case “s”, no “g”. It rolls off the tongue like honey - easy to say, easy to do, easy to repent. Sinnin’ is considered a mild infraction and an expected part of the culture, at least where I’m from. We have it down to an art form. I love that about the South. We erect boundaries of propriety which seem to be set in place for the sole joy of pushing against them. What is the fun in nudging against emptiness? No walls of expectations equates to less frolicking, in my opinion. A perfect example of sinnin’ would be missing Sunday Church due to a little unanticipated Saturday night hedonism and then blithely arriving at Sunday dinner with a dimpled smile and a kiss on the cheek for your mother as an apology. She gives you a look, you give her some sugar and all is forgiven. There is balance in the world.
On the other hand, there is Sinning-add the capital “S” to the beginning and a “g” on the end. For those of you who don’t speak Southern-ese, I will pass along this tidbit: it’s hard to say that last g in Sinning. It takes a conscious stretching of the lips and a clenching of the jaw. There is a required tension in the speaking that is physically uncomfortable – hard to say, hard to do, hard to repent of. This Sinning with the capital “S” is a step above (or a step below, maybe) sinnin’ and is supported by fire and brimstone because there is no smile charming enough or sugar sweet enough to grant salvation. It equates to a major action against God and country (and by country I mean the South, of course.)
Another thing about Southerners that maybe you didn’t know, they love to trace their genealogy. Like sweet tea left to brew in the hot sun for most of the day, love for family and ancestry is strong and we like it that way. We honor our roots and accept the warts – it is our tree and it is to be protected. I currently live on the west coast and when I meet a Southerner out here there is an immediate connection to a common land and history that comes without effort. It is lovely to behold and I count myself lucky to be included in that club. The first giveaway in finding fellow displaced Southerners is the accent. It is an accent that never fails to quicken my Southern DNA with a jolt and then comes the remembered relaxation of the South. It is a way of being that can be unlearned but not forgotten.
And it is here, Dear Reader, that I confess to you that at the tender age of 18 I Sinned (note the capital “S”) against my 300 year Southern heritage.
Before crucifying me, please hear my story as no action ever arrives without some previous provocation and mine arrived in the form of a university in the Southwestern US.
“You’ll never go anywhere with an accent like that.”
I sat in the cold, sterile room of my university advisor. I stared at him at a complete loss.
“What accent?” I replied.
It was my second day out of the South – ever. I had arrived by plane the day before with clothes still very damp from the North Carolina humidity. They smelled so good like sawdust and honeysuckle. His words struck me deep because my sole purpose for attending this university was to “go somewhere”. Sadly, being young and naïve, I believed him - that the sum result of all of my ambition rested soley on the way my words sounded when they left my mouth. I was never going to go anywhere because apparently no one out here could understand half the words in the sentences I uttered. It made every interaction frustrating and prolonged. I was gently teased and cruelly mocked. I realized that I was viewed as lazy and dim-witted. It was sad to be seen that way when I knew differently but I knew I needed to survive and “go somewhere”. In order to survive I needed to thrive.
Certain other Southern idiosyncrasies also became apparent during my early days at university. One of those was normal walking gate – some might call it sauntering. Charging quickly across campus, head down, seemed a waste of opportunities to appreciate whatever happened to come my way. But I was often tardy for class and I didn’t like that either. Change was in order for me. I had never had to briskly walk anywhere for any length of time before and I found that although I would start off at a quick gate, my natural stride asserted itself when I wasn’t paying attention. After a few days of continued tardiness I learned to keep my head down and chant the word “go”, “go”, “go” as I walked. It seemed to help keep my tempo up. I also learned that replying “yes, ma’am” to the question of a professor will get you evicted from class. Word of warning: in some parts of the country being polite can be rude. It was a whole new world and I needed to learn it.
After a semester of adjustment, I could now walk briskly, not be too polite to my elders, and not correct professors in their pronunciation of Appalachian Mountains. I was making such progress! I no longer went into grocery stores expecting grits or Cheerwine and I never considered ordering sweet tea at a restaurant. What a quick learner! I really should have been so proud.
But there was still the accent to consider and it was at this point, Dear Reader, that I sold my soul to devil for the “gift” of tongues. I’d like to say it was an affectation that I wore and inside I stayed the same – role-playing. But the devil is wily and in this trade it was my soul that was demanded and my soul he got. In fact, it seemed to me that a Yankee soul for my Southern soul was to be the trade. My speech became quick, bullet-like, every syllable enunciated. My mannerisms followed. My face even felt foreign as I learned to move it in unaccustomed ways as I adjusted to ending my words and not combining syllables. My jaw tightened, my lips pursed. I was efficient, hardened and cold. In fact, I remember thinking, “This must be what it feels like to be a Yankee...”
My Sinning (with the hard "g" as a final punctuation) was complete. Amen.
Twenty years have passed since that time and I still don’t have a strong Southern accent. I will forever carry around that 18 year old inside – her deal with the devil still stands. It is like a tumor inside – black and ugly. But as the years passed life experiences have allowed my soul to grow back bigger, more beautiful, warmer, more Southern. My “Yes, Ma’am”s and “ya’ll”s are as prevalent as the “g”s are absent at the end of my sentences. The 18 year old is there but so is the 21 year old, the 25, 31, 35… And what a blessing that is – to more than what you were! No incarnation is the final one. Life changes us and that can be a gift – but it can also change us back and that is also a gift.