TELL YOU what I know about her, although it's not much. She's probably under 30, apparently dates a lawyer and works for the federal government. I learned that much right off, and if I had to guess I would have said that is from the West Coast, maybe California, certainly someplace in the country where people talk without an accent, like they do on television. I was wrong about that, but that was because she was still cold sober.
The three of us - she, her boyfriend, and myself - talked for awhile and then they went off to the bar and I circled the room. It was a political fund-raiser at a Washington hotel and I worked my way around the room, stopping here and there for a chat, finally meeting the couple a half-hour later. By this time, she had hit the bar two or three times and now her words were different. There was a song to her voice, a drawl, a softening in the way the words came out. I asked her about it. She blushed. The booze, she explained. She was from te South.
She was from Mississippi, in fact. Sober, she had no accent or at least she had it under control. She talked like anyone else, and she could say "sure" the way Ricky Nelson said it on television, which is the way a whole generation of Americans learned how to talk. A drink or two, though, and her tongue reverted to the patterns of her chilhood. She couldn't help it. She laughed, moving back and forth from one foot to another. She started to explain. Perceptions, she said. You know, prejudice - the whole Scarlett O'Hara number. She was no dummy. She did not deal with things "tomorrow." She did not giggle. I stopped her there. I understood.
I understood because I have something of the same problem myself. In my case it is called a New York accent, and while I have it under control, and while it is not your basic movie version of New York speech - "Toidy toid and toid" being an intersection in some movies - I do have to be careful with some words. Bottle, for instance tends to come out "boddle" and I have to watch chocolate and coffee lest they come out "chawklit" and "cawfey" and I do have trouble saying Long Island. In my mouth it's "Lawngisland," which is all right because it is a place name, and when it comes to those no one can hold a candle to what Californians have done with Spanish words.
Anyway, the point is that most of the time I have what's left of my accent under control, although, like the Southern woman booze tends to allow some strange sounds to escape my lips. And like the Southern woman, I know what she means when she talks about perceptions. For years, I worked to do away with my accent, to pass as just an American - maybe someone from the Mid-west with those atrocious "A's" or maybe someone from the Maryland-Virginia region with those horrible "O's". All this hard work paid off and I clearly remember the day in the rooming house where I once lived when I got into a conversation with a woman and was thrilled when she asked me where I was from. I could pass!
Understand that I grew up with those old war movies where there was always some dumb slob named something like "Flatbush" or "Brooklyn" who managed never quite to make it to the end of the movie expiring always from a fatal bullet wound soon after receiving a salami fron his mother. If you were young and you watched enough of these movies, you learned that the ones named "Farmer" or "Flatbush" or "Brooklyn" did. They never got the girl and they never made lieutenant, and they never were a hero. All they did was provide a few laughs with their accent and die before they could manage a proper apressalami burp. I would see that salami soming and just cringe in my seat. Goodby, Flatbush!
That was the stereotype and it did for the New York accent what Scarlett O'Hara did for the Southern accent.I bought both stereotypes and by the time I myself was in te Army I went into me throes of what was later diagnosed as pneumonia I somehow would up with a Southern doctor. He had this accent and while no doctor had yet been able to diagnose my ailment. I somehow thought that he stood the worst chance of all. He looked me over and he said he would have to "ponder" what it was I had. "Ponder" - I mean, that is a term for cowboys. But he summoned me the next day and he said I had pneumonia and he took me to the hospital in his own car and he treated me himself. He cured me of both pneumonia and that certain prejudice and I thank him for that.
Since then I have been on the lookout for this sort of attitude and I have noted in my head incidents when they come up. I was talking about this one night with a woman I had met from Mississppi. The woman from North Carolina said she understood. She said she was sick and tired of being considered some vaporous thing just because her speech is full of the South. We were sitting in her living room, and I was there with my friend, the professor. He has written three books and, of course, he has his doctorate, but he still has his accent - his New York accent.
Anyway, we were discussing the lady's accent and my friend was holding forth with his own and it occured to me how I had gotten over my prejudice about her accent, but not the one about his. I wished, for instance, that he would try to make his accent a bit less obvious, and I worried that someone would jump to the wrong try to make his accent a bit less obvious, and I worried that someone would jump to the wrong conclusion because of the way he talked. But the lady was talking straight at him and she was saying how she was proud of herself and proud of being a Southerner and she would be dammed if she was going to hide her accent in the back of her mouth someplace. Well, I looked at my friend and I listened to his speech and I thought for the first time that he sounded just great - absolutely brilliant.
And dat's da trut.