how you say a thing

"We were driving through Piedmont...my grandfather Bobby was holding a bottle half hidden by a popcorn bag...I lived a long time after that believing you could hide any sin in the Bible if you had a big enough brown paper bag. I wish they made them people-sized. I would carry one in my trunk, or sleep in one, just to be sure." ~Rick Bragg

I've been listening to The Prince of Frogtown by Rick Bragg on audio CD as I drive each day. I've liked Bragg's stories, the way he tells them, since I read All Over But the Shoutin' for a Creative Non-fiction class one hot and crazy summer. On the audio CD Bragg reads his own work. It is like sitting in a room with him, or at a kitchen table. There is a cadence to his voice, not just in the accent but in the words he chooses, where he pauses as he tells a story. It isn't like hearing someone read. I've heard many authors read their work and I'm always intrigued by where they rush through a passage or create dramatic effect through pausing, looking at the audience and speaking again. Bragg's story is not fiction, though, and hearing a man tell his own stories, coming to terms with himself and his family is an overwhelming experience. There is something almost too familiar about Bragg's history and his subsequent epiphanies. Though his stories are different from mine, they feel... they sound as though I've heard them before.

The way Bragg talks is slow, deliberate. His accent is deeper than mine, more drawled, more country. After listening to him for an hour, I hear my own thoughts in the accent of my childhood. I hear my own drawling voice and the nostalgia sets in. I am not quite sure what I miss about home but I think it has do with comfort. Here, in the place I'm building my adult life, I have to explain myself. I have to say, "I'm from Alabama" when people ask about the accent or why I sound "funny." The first time Michelle heard my voice she thought I sounded "ghetto." She says she did not know that I was from Alabama. When we spoke face to face, she says, "it all made sense."

Last night our Internet went down so I called the tech support to figure out why. Once I submitted a ticket on the issue I got a return phone call from the Network support hub. A guy in North Dallas spoke to me and I guess he was lonely or bored or thought that I sounded nice because he kept talkin' to me. He asked me, "Do you have a sister?"

I said, "Not that I know about."

"Oh," he said. "You sound just like my friend's fiancee. Just like her."

"Is she from Alabama?" I asked.

"He is" he answered.

"That must be it," I said.

"But you sound just like her" he said.

I shrugged though he couldn't see me. I didn't know what else to say.

"I traveled a lot, all over the country," he told me, "And I can usually tell a difference in accents."

"Well, I don't have a sister." I said.

"Hmmm" he said and laughed.

Gloria Anzaldua writes in her essay, How to Tame a Wild Tongue, “So, if you want to really hurt me, talk badly about my language. Ethnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity . I am my language.”

I suppose this is why those of us from the South get fightin' mad when we're made fun of for the way we talk. I am furious when drive-thru operators or customer service reps or automated voice mails cannot understand me. The rage hits me suddenly, full and hot. I can feel it course through me. I can hear it as my voice raises and strains against the anger tight in my throat. I did not realize, though, until a few weeks ago exactly why I get so mad. I read this Anzaldua essay. We talked about it in my freshman class and I found myself biting my lip as I began to understand that when I talk, I am my language. And to hear that language dismissed as redneck, backwoods hick talk is to hear myself called those names. If I am my language, if I am the Gulf Coast deep south Alabama then I am also Illinois, the cold wind across a corn field and elongated o's.

My time in Illinois has tempered my accent. When I go home, I sound Yankee to my family. My brother teases me when I say, "pop" instead of "coke." Here in Illinois, I stick out, because of my accent or the phrases I use: "might could," is a favorite. Hearing Bragg's voice, which does not sound like my own but sounds close enough that I start to echo his drawl, I wonder what it is I'm clinging to as I both love and hate the way I sound on tape or on my voice mail. I don't know. But I know there is a part of me that wraps the accent around me like a warm blanket, comfortable, content though not as easy to slip out of or put away for the next season.