To fit in with my peers, I changed how I spoke. Now, in the name of inclusivity, I’ve come back to my roots
By: Justin Quarry/Salon
The summer I was 12, my mother and I moved from a tiny Arkansas farm town to a university city, Jonesboro — home of Arkansas State — and from the first minute of the first day of seventh grade, when I uttered my affirmative to the roll call of homeroom, my unrefined Southern accent unwittingly marked me to my new classmates as “country.” Though I had never thought of myself as such, I’d spent nearly all my life up until that August 40 miles away in Walnut Ridge, a fundamentalist agrarian community my mother and I had left to escape the blowback of her divorce of my father, where the vast majority of my family had worked as sharecroppers for as long as anyone could remember. And so to that extent, it was true. I was country.
But apparently that wasn’t my only oratory fault. When I corrected teachers all morning and afternoon on my last name — my paternal family doesn’t pronounce “Quarry” the primary way, but the far less common tertiary one, rhyming with “scary” — some of my peers conspiratorially took note that it sounded not unlike the adjectival form of a homophobic epithet (a word that actually does not exist, but one that junior high schoolers were delighted to invent for torment). This, plus my status as an outsider, convinced them I was the worst thing they, or I, could imagine
Though I had never thought of myself as that either, it, too, I would discover, was true, however not until college, when I came to care so much for a gay classmate that I finally launched from the depths of my shame and, as I soared in my affection for him with abandon, didn’t care to admit that, wrong as my former persecutors had been in my treatment, they’d been right in my sexual identification.
But in the ten years leading up to college, I spent much of my young and anxious life trying to flatten and deepen my speech into a complete collection of sounds that to my peers — to most Americans, I was already absorbing — registered as neither deviant nor dumb. Into a steady pattern of talk that read as nothing beyond the norm, that spoke only to worthiness of belonging.
Indeed, recent studies have discovered that Americans with Southern accents, like me, have lower incomes and job attainment outcomes than those who speak with the Standard American English accent. However, for many Southerners — for many people from any part of rural America, I daresay — such statistics only confirm what we’ve always known: that our regional identity is a queerness, a foreignness in its own rite, conjuring for our listeners imaginings of the most garish stereotypes. Long before we’re employable, many rural Southerners learn, just as I did, the cost of the very sounds of our words — forget their content — even in the South itself.
Ultimately, I failed in my decade-long efforts to remake myself for the aural approval of others. For one thing, the ubiquitous Standard American English accent I observed on “General Hospital” and “The Young & the Restless” was all I could ever hear when I spoke. Also I excelled in my accelerated English classes. I knew my grammar was near, if not entirely, perfect. I loved rules, such as those of syntax, and clung to them. I took pride in my practice of them, both as a means of stabilizing myself amidst my parents’ still-frequent feuds and attracting positive attention from adults. I thrived as a perennial “pleasure to have in class.” If someone had issued me specific instructions to make my vocal expression, or any other aspect of myself, more palatable to people with whom I wished to gain favor, or at the very least acceptance, my 12-year-old-self would have strived to master them.
Years before, as a child, I’d recorded on a brown Fisher-Price tape player the most guttural and raspy death threats I could muster, replaying them to myself as I sat alone in dark and suffocating closets, in attempts to terrify myself. I had never succeeded. But one day in the fall of seventh grade, I recorded and replayed my plain voice for myself to try to detect my apparent flaws so I could correct them. I was mortified by what I heard. There it was, undeniable, like the aural equivalent of a cheese grater or sandpaper: my rough-edged, backwoods accent, the adolescent voice shaping it more Ellie May than Jethro. I could hear why, when answering the phone, callers sometimes mistook me for my mother. Forget trying to emulate the actors on soap operas set in affluent faraway suburbs — I didn’t even sound as polished as the bit-playing carpenters or salesmen of Atlanta on “Designing Women.”
I detested what I heard on my boombox that day. I never recorded myself again in all of my efforts to renovate my speech. Puberty would deepen my voice soon enough, I prayed — and it finally did, I realized, when calling customer service representatives stopped referring to me as “ma’am” or, most alarming, “the lady of the house.” Until then, when I spoke in class, I squashed my tone in such a way that must have made me sound like an android.
What I did instead was simply made certain to enunciate the -g on all my participles — I was never “communicatin'” and always “communicatingG” — and I rooted from my tongue the most telltale word in the Southern lexicon: “y’all.” In its place came “you guys,” the most stereotypically Northern phrase I knew. “Y’all,” as I began to understand it, put a target on my chest, identified me as outcast; “you guys” obscured me, added a layer of armor to my heart.
And so as I ultimately made friends, it was “you guys” I asked to see “Goldeneye” and “Romeo + Juliet” and “Never Been Kissed” and “Titanic” with me. “You guys” with whom I compared taste in music, “you guys” whom I told I would meet at the mall in front of Sam Goody’s. “You guys” with whom I condemned the mobs of rednecks, as we classified them, who trekked to Jonesboro — from places like where I once lived — on Friday and Saturday nights to cruise one of our city’s thoroughfares in a creeping clog. Advertisement:
By the time I left Arkansas as a first-generation college and then graduate student, I’d internalized all the negative assumptions of people who speak with Southern accents, and in particular the coarser incarnations like mine: their probable lack of education and sophistication, their poverty and their naiveté and their xenophobia. The same assumptions that indeed lead many managerial Americans, even fellow Southerners, to pay such speakers smaller salaries, to hire them less frequently. The assumptions that, in me, had festered and warped into self-loathing of my regional and sexual identities — assumptions that led me to assess anyone who reminded me of me, be they ostensibly country or gay, as less worthy.
Once the belief that my voice might inadvertently signal my inadequacy had become second nature, I policed it on high alert well into adulthood. After all, though in both my post-secondary educations I remained in the South, in each case I emerged into a larger, wealthier, far more cosmopolitan city than Jonesboro, into the elite institutions of Vanderbilt and the University of Virginia, where most of my peers had no idea that sharecropping, in which a number of my family continued to labor, still existed, believing it to have ended along with either slavery or Jim Crow.
Socially, I thrived among greater diversity and its unlimited buffet of accents, in which mine was but one of many. I took others’ occasional labeling of me as “country” — if not “damn country,” if not “goddamn country” — with the playfulness my designators now meant it. To some, my accent was even an object of fascination. But I still overenunciated my participles — “enunciatINGGG.” And by habit I still asked “you guys” what borough of New York City they were from, if they’d seen our dormmate drain his microwavable macaroni and cheese water directly onto the hallway carpet, if they’d heard about the labyrinth of secret tunnels supposedly under campus. In graduate school I asked: what are “you guys” writing, who are “you guys” reading? Advertisement:
Far more problematically, in the classroom, rather than continue trying to pronounce my words as dialectically neutral as I could, most often, I chose not to speak at all. Rather than make myself vulnerable in such public, cultured discourse, not only with my ideas, but also the mere sound of them, I chose the invulnerability — the intellectual and emotional isolation — of silence.
In fact, of the nearly 40 classes I took in college, I only spoke willingly, with any regularity, in five. And in these, all creative writing courses, I only did so because after the critique of my first short story, my professor held me after class to tell me he thought I had talent for words. And if I tried hard, very hard, he said, I might be able to do something with it.
Though a simple observation, and only tentatively affirmative, in the hibernation of my inhibition, this sentiment registered to me like the last and loudest call of spring that finally stirs the creature that might otherwise sleep through its starvation. The professor couldn’t have known the full force his nudge of encouragement would carry. But in the paralysis of my shame, it struck me as the animating permission to speak that I hadn’t even known I’d needed.
Over the years after that moment, writing offered me the supreme control of the presentation of my words that I’d long coveted, to produce as perfect and precise of a verbal expression of myself as I could manage. Furthermore, it served as my means to create tangible proof, if only for myself, that even if my voice wasn’t standard or neutral or normal, its strangeness might nonetheless someday — if I tried hard, very hard — add up to something of value and wonder. The practice of writing gave me greater and greater confidence in my written voice, which in time gave me greater confidence in my spoken voice — freeing me, even if only by degrees, to speak more openly, more publicly, less scripted.
Simultaneously, the resolve required to come out of the closet minimized all my other fears, including my fear of my own voice, in comparison. Nothing, I venture, is more mortifying than revising the label of one’s sexual orientation for one’s mother, knowing that, as she watches your lips move, delivering the information, all she must be able to imagine is what amounts to you as a protagonist on every page of a homosexual Kama Sutra.
Nonetheless, I still never fully shook self-consciousness of my speech in what I perceived to be high-stakes settings until I switched roles from student to professor. Then, given how ultimately affirming and transformative the classroom had been for my life, the sacred duty I felt to impart the best of myself to my own students — a largely performative act that allowed me no time to overthink, if I were to do it with any grace — eclipsed this ingrained social survival instinct. I strive to shake the connotations I carry of the sound of myself, of the sound of “country” — not only from my own mouth, but in the rare instance it shows up in the form of one of my university students, or when I hear it with regularity just outside Nashville, where I now live.
And yet “you guys” remains a staple of my vocabulary.
Years ago, a student in my course on monsters in fiction, one of my most popular classes, asked me why I teach on that topic. The simplest answer, I told her, is that it’s an introductory writing course most take to fulfill degree requirements, and so I want to teach it on a subject that might interest even someone who doesn’t like to read — as well as interest me. But the more I thought about it, I realized that monsters interest me because for years I’d searched for beings, for ideas, that were stranger, odder, more alien, more horrific than my perception of myself. And I often identify with their quests to belong, their struggle to ascertain self-realization and meaning in a world often hostile to the sight and sound of them, to their very existence.
As American culture inches closer toward full inclusion, with academia often at its forefront, it heartens me to witness greater space open in the classroom not only for my younger gay self but also that younger working class self, that first-generation college student self. That country self. While this more and more hospitable space continues to flourish years too late for him, it’s arriving just in time for my more and more diverse students, his proxies.
In doing my part to accelerate its expansion, I strive to create a classroom dynamic that invites students to speak and, even more, to simply be. It begins with the first few minutes of each course term, in which I go around my classrooms asking students to answer a ridiculous, inconsequential ice-breaker question — exactly the sort of thing that would have sent my younger, insecure self into a panic. That obligation to speak, the shortage of time to formulate and deliver an ideal answer.
“If you guys were WWE wrestlers,” I’ll ask, “what would your entrance songs be?”
“If you could have one superpower, which would you guys choose?”
“If you guys could dispense a condiment from your navels, which would you serve?”
“If you guys had to write a one-word autobiography, which single word would tell your story?”
Another thing that would have made him squirm: breaking the rules of grammar, especially, of all places, in an English class. But I, like most professors, now sometimes employ the third-person plural, “they,” to address a singular subject, in order to recognize and embrace people who are nonbinary. After all, why not? Especially when it costs me nothing to welcome someone to be who they are, to be who they’ve always been — which in turn fosters a world in which I am ever freer to be who I am, who I’ve always been, myself.
Most recently, though, after 15 years of teaching — and now that I give little thought to, nor do I have little care about, how I sound — I’ve come to realize the gendered way my old habit of saying “you guys” — which, in my association of it with the North, I once glamorized as urbane, perhaps even chic — in fact excludes at least half the world. And in one of the most ironic insights of my life, I realized the most obvious and inclusive solution was, in fact, to start using again the word I’d once believed to be its inferior, the one I’d once identified as my most obvious, most isolating problem.
In the last months I’ve tried to sow “y’all” back into the landscape of my speech, often with the awkwardness of self-correction, similar to the aftermath of having called a student or colleague or friend by the wrong pronoun or name. “Excuse me” or “sorry,” I’ll say—”y’all.”
That single word, often freighted and fraught with the worst racist horrors of a whole region when it comes out of a white Southern mouth. Its class implications, too: the highest rates of poverty and illiteracy and obesity and teen pregnancy in the country.
And yet, “y’all” is a word that in and of itself integrates rather than segregates. In this so-called New South, in this new century, it holds the potential to acknowledge and accept the entirety of a population, both rural and urban, in one of the most rapidly diversifying regions in the nation, and beyond.
Y’all. A word that, for me, in my renewed usage of it, both honors the difficulty of my familial and personal histories, and expresses hope in the complexity of my region’s present and future. A word that exemplifies my belief in the transformative power of knowledge of oneself, in the alchemical strength of intimate experience with the unfamiliar.
I don’t know how to describe what I sound like anymore. I only know that no one in Arkansas thinks I sound like I’m from Arkansas, nor does anyone in Nashville think I sound like I’m from Nashville. I only know that on occasion one of my students, almost always from the West coast, can’t understand what I’ve said — a long vowel unintentionally held for a beat too long is almost always the culprit. I know that strangers often trust me far too much, far too soon, and I’m convinced it’s not only because I’m short, not only because I’m gay, but also because I sound, as they might describe it, “country” — each quality, based on nothing but stereotypes, casting me as less and less and less of a threat to those I encounter. In this way, I sometimes wonder if I might have missed my calling as a spy or hostage negotiator — but I’ve learned, too, that there are just as many ways as a writer or educator to make this underestimation work to my advantage.
I don’t know what I sound like anymore because, still, I shiver to think of repeating my self-recording experiment of seventh grade. But I do know that, now, if I had a choice, I might well opt to sound more, not less, country, in order to elevate the sound of “country” from the pits of stereotypes to the influential fronts of elite classrooms, where I now often stand. To demonstrate who and what the sound of “country” might actually be to my students, the majority of whom will repopulate America’s upper echelon, and many of whom will go on to do America’s hiring.
When asking my students ice-breaking questions at the beginning of each semester, I always answer each first myself — after all, if I’m asking students to make themselves vulnerable, however minutely, it only seems fair for me to make myself vulnerable as well. For years, when sharing with them my single-word autobiography, I said “anxious.” In subsequent years, I admitted that while in truth my story was still probably “anxious,” I was, at least, working on revising it to “open-hearted.”
But now if I ask myself what one word encapsulates me, encapsulates both of those sentiments, what one word dramatizes my thus-far journey? “Y’all,” I might well say.
“Y’all,” I am permitting myself to say.
“Y’all,” I am working and working to say.
Justin Quarry teaches English and creative writing at Vanderbilt University and is working on a novel and collection of essays.