Sometimes when I’m a long way from home, someone will hear my southern accent and ask me where I’m from. I used to be a little embarrassed to tell them I’m from a little rural community in southeastern North Carolina. After all, I had been off to college and traveled a good bit . I had even spent some time trying to get rid of my accent so that I could get a job doing radio and television commercials. I was never really successful in eliminating my native brogue. Now I’m glad of it.
I did spend some time in the broadcasting business and did lose a little bit of my accent. Every once in a while one of my co-workers would point out to me what he considered a mispronunciation of a word, and I would change my way of saying that world for a little while.
But now I don’t usually think about my accent. How I speak is a part of who I am. My accent is green tobacco gum and swamp mud. It’s white rice and collards. It’s mosquitoes and sweet potato pie. My accent is derived from a way of life that nurtured me and shaped me into whatever I am today.
When I was trying to get into the broadcasting business, I made an audition tape that the talent agency sent around to various advertising agencies. Weeks went by, and nobody requested my services. Finally, the agent asked one of the advertising guys what they didn’t like about my voice.
“Oh, we like his voice fine. It’s just like every other radio voice,” he said. “They are a dime a dozen. We need voices that are distinctive.”
So we went back and re-recorded that tape using my natural accent. I starting getting jobs. They were jobs advertising agricultural products or heavy equipment but the pay was the same as that paid by the banks and perfume companies.
“We like a southern accent,” said one New York advertising firm. “People feel like they can trust a southern accent.”
I trust a southern accent,too. I don’t mean the fake accents we hear on television but the real Sound of the South that takes me back to the swamps and tobacco fields, to the cotton mills and country stores of my youth.
All the education in the world can’t erase those sounds from my mind or eliminate them from my speech. I could live thousands of miles from here and still carry that sound of home with me.
I’m no longer embarrassed by my southern accent. I’m proud of it. It’s a reflection of a place that is changing like every other place in this country. We are more mobile now. We travel more frequently. We hear more kinds of languages and accents. We hope our children will grow up to be more educated, wealthier… and stay home. But they don’t. They leave home, taking with them, just as I did, a part of all they have experienced.
When I write my stories, I hear those accents. I hear the farmhands, the old men eating their noon meal from small lard-tins brought from home to the saw mills, the men and women gathered in the church yard after the Sunday morning sermon, and the young men down at the garage talking about stock-car racing.
I hear the sound of their voices. their southern accents ringing through my mind. They sound a lot like me.