Trying out my new nibs with watercolors and watersoluble pastels…
and this one ain’t done yet:
…only the stuff worth talking about.
I have some Strong Feelings about accents. And no, I’m not referring to a fetish for Italian accents (actually, accent fetishes are a pretty big pet peeve of mine).
I just discovered that, like African American Vernacular English (AAVE), Southern American English gets an acronym too (SAE)! Unfortunately, it’s the same acronym as Standard American English, which causes some problematic confusion, but it can be forgiven.
I’ve also been reading a bit on the linguistic overlap between African American Vernacular English and Southern American English, which makes sense for a couple of reasons:
1) The Southern United States is historically the area most reliant on slavery, and therefore had a much higher population of enslaved black individuals than other areas of the country. Historians are now discovering that other historical local cultures were far more diverse than we had previously assumed– cowboy culture, for example: there was a significant population of black cowboys who had escaped slavery and traveled west. Nonetheless, even after slavery was ended, various unjust laws meant that a large portion of the black population remained in the South. So obviously, there’s been linguistic overlap between black and white Southerners.
2) Both of these vernaculars are looked down on, if not outrightly ridiculed, in a similar way within the United States. Other accents certainly encounter tensions and problems as well– a woman with a Spanish accent is often suddenly transformed (at least in the listener’s mind) into a voluptuous, sexual, hot-tempered stereotype, and Asian accents are most ridiculed for being the most humorous and/or difficult to understand. But at least in my experience, Southern and Black vernaculars are the most clearly associated with being uneducated and unintelligent.
A fair bit of cultural attention has been given to the topic of African American Vernacular English (AAVE), from the 90′s controversies over teaching “ebonics” in school systems to questioning President Obama’s adoption of a “blackcent.” I remember watching a funny-ish (at least at the time) special on VH1 back in high school about the drastic difference between Tyra Banks’ accent and voice depending upon whether she was interviewing a black or a white individual.* I was talking to a friend recently who went back to visit her family’s farm in Alabama after her father’s death. She said that she and her daughter spent the entire time being harassed by the extended family for being impossible to understand. “I kept telling them, ‘we’re just speaking correctly, we’re just trying to speak well,’ but they wouldn’t stop.” A friend of mine from New Orleans told me about a professor friend at LSU, who has one vernacular– accentless, and with correct grammar –when he gives a lecture, and a completely different voice the rest of the time. I met a woman in Washington D.C. who rolled her eyes when telling me about all the savvy DC residents who assumed that she was uneducated and/or unintelligent because she was from the Carolinas.
Think about how you are likely to imitate someone who says something stupid. Almost all of the time, the imitator adopts some version of a southern accent– even if the original speaker has no ties whatsoever to the American South. Even I do this, exaggerating my own accent, and I always feel gross immediately afterwards. It’s clearly an accent associated with redneck and hillbilly stereotypes, but the accent-intelligence assumption extends even to the privileged. A southern belle, for example, is often white and rich and worthy of playing the babe in a few Hollywood movies– but she is not often portrayed as the most intelligent creature.
So I’ve picked up a bit of a drawl after having been back with my family for the summer. I didn’t notice it until I came back to school, where a handful of gracious people have taken care to point it out. Or to be more precise, have made fun of it. For a girl with Something To Say, it is very frustrating to have your statement ignored while your diction becomes the subject.
Many white people don’t realize that accents are heirarchical. I want to amend that statement, though, by saying that many Northern white people don’t realize this. Or perhaps, Northern educated white people. It seems like an increasingly small group, but it’s the group that dominates the majority of U.S. politics, economics, educational system, and mainstream media. And they don’t recognize the accent hierarchy because they’re on the privileged end of the diction spectrum.
My point is bringing this up is that, when people pay attention to the way you say something, they ignore what you are saying. I go to a fairly prestigious school; I feel like there should be a general assumption that any student or professor here is intelligent. It turns out, though, that a lot of rich white kids are dumb as hell.
Here’s a few things I like on this topic:
*I noticed also that when I googled “ebonics” (to try to find the link about the Oakland controversy), that of the 92 user-submitted definitions on urbandictionary.com, the one that shows up in the google results is “a poor excuse for a failure to grasp the basics of english.” If I were a kinder soul, I wouldn’t mention that this definition is actually grammatically incorrect (which I think undermines the already somewhat racist sentiment).
At times the world seems to demand a moment of reflection: to bring your feet together and stand still, to breathe deeply the newly-crisp air.
In Virginia I was only just beginning to feel it: the peak of Harvest time, full of watermelons. But the academic calendar forced me to jump start a new season, driving north and skipping a few weeks forward into cooler weather.
So I thought (in my moment of reflection) that it would be a good time to revisit The Orchard. You know, that mental place where ripe ideas hang low on the branches, the namesake of this humble blog.
Ironically, I was sorting through poems entitled “The Orchard” when I came across a poem by Kathleen Norris, whose book of nonfiction sits just to my left, dog-eared halfway through. Her book Dakota got me through last Spring Break the same way that In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens saved me a few years ago. The poem is titled “The Monastery Orchard in Early Spring,” and ends:
Encounter with fruit is dangerous:
the pear’s womanly shape forever mocked him.
A man and a woman are talking.
Rain moves down and
branches lift up
to learn again
how to hold their fill of green
and blossom, and bear each fruit to glory,
letting it fall.
* * *
In one sense, the orchard resembles the garden in parallel world mythologies and fairy tales. It is enclosed; it is forbidden; it is the realm of the gods. More than the garden, though, the orchard is immortal; it is old (these are trees, after all, not daffodils).
Poor Persephone, who ate the pomegranate seeds from Hades’ orchard and was thus tied forever to the world of the dead. The Monkey King, on the other hand, stuffed himself with the Peaches of Immortality, setting off a long chain of events which ends with his elevation to Buddhahood. But Pomona, the wood nymph, tried to enclose herself in her orchard in order to keep suitors away, and was eventually forced to marry Vertumnus. Daphne too, being chased by Apollo, turned into a tree. Coincidence?
It’s a complicated place, the orchard: women running every which way, trying to find safety in trees, or running away from them. Some do find safety; others are victim to Trickster’s invasion (The Monkey King is China’s Trickster figure; Vertumnus disguises himself as an old woman to seduce Pomona, the Norse Trickster god Loki allows for the theft of the goddess Idun’s orchard, which contained the apples of immortality).
It’s a place where women, having always been the target of theft alongside the other ‘forbidden fruits,’ are beginning to climb trees.
And some are wandering into the woods, which are equally immortal but a bit more crooked than the orchard’s rows. Women are re-learning how to graft trees, which is the method for repairing fruit trees, and for making hardier breeds. Beautiful beautiful, to be grafting new trees from history.
Others are writing in the shade, resulting in something like Alice Walker’s Celie, who says, ”my first step from the old white man was trees.”
Kenyon’s psychology department contains several of the national leading experts on eating disorders, especially media images and eating disorders. Although these are serious issues that require confrontation, I found that I was disappointed with the effect that the department seemed to have on the women students around me. It seemed like every girl I met had bad self esteem, a history with eating disorders, and–here is what really struck me– they seemed to take it as an essential part of their identity. Furthermore, these girls complained about their relationships with men, and yet continued to act in unhealthy ways that deprived them of their own autonomy.
What seemed to be lacking was a pro-active approach, something that would change their own relationship to food (and perhaps to men) in a positive way. Instead of critiquing the same commercials and magazine ads over and over, they could have read Francis Moore Lappe‘s studies of women’s communities in Central America who are remodeling their food system in order to better ensure that their children all get regular meals, or communities of women in India who are fighting for (and winning) food and water rights.
They could have studied also the effects on young urban/suburban women who work or intern on farms. In a scene from The Real Dirt on Farmer John, a young woman intern talks about her self-consciousness regarding her voluptuous body– until working on a farm, where adjectives like “full” “plump” and “juicy” are words that signify health, not ugliness. In fact, the strongest and most peaceful women that I meet are not the ones that I meet in WGS classes; they’re the ones that I meet on farms.
For further reading:
When my generation of women walked away from the kitchen we were escorted down that path by a profiteering industry that knew a tired, vulnerable marketing target when they saw it.“Hey, ladies,” it said to us, “go ahead, get liberated. We’ll take care of dinner.”