When I was in elementary school, a teacher told me that I needed to speak “properly.” She said my twang made me sound unintelligent.
When I began serving on a state leadership board for high school students my freshman year, one of the first people I spoke to mocked my accent. She repeated my introduction back to me in the thickest Southern drawl she could muster and said, “Your accent is so funny!”
After these experiences and others, I began hiding my true voice around people not from my hometown. I would never be caught saying “holler” instead of “hollow.” I would never say “y’all” instead of “you all.” I felt like I had to prove that I had value despite my rural upbringing in Eastern Kentucky. I wasted so much of my life trying to convince others – and even myself – that I was different from the stereotypical Appalachian – that I was meant for bigger and better things.
I grew up watching Appalachia be portrayed in the media as a region of unemployed and uneducated bigots suffering from addiction, poverty and a plethora of health issues. And, for much of my life, I accepted this narrative without question. So, when I would leave town, I turned on my “proper speaking voice.” I would anxiously hope that no one would ask where I’m from, and when someone did, I would sigh and say, “Sadly, I’m from Hazard.” They, who had also seen only one portrayal of Appalachia, would cringe and offer me their condolences.
I wish I knew then what I know now about what my attitude in these interactions was doing. I did not understand that I was perpetuating the negative stereotypes about my region. When I laughed along with those who made fun of my accent and sighed when asked about my hometown, people got the message that I hated myself and my background. I thought that I was proving that there are people in Appalachia that aren’t the stereotype. But I should have been working to dismantle the stereotype altogether.
Instead of doing that work, what I was doing was code switching. NPR’s Matt Thompson defines code-switching as “the practice of shifting the languages you use or the way you express yourself in your conversations.”
Language and accents play a huge role in negative stereotypes, not just in Appalachia, but in regions throughout the country. Arika Okrent dives into this in her article for The Week, explaining that every dialect has its own set of grammar rules and “all dialects, from the very fanciest to the ones held in lowest esteem, are rule-governed systems.”
In Appalachia, certain words or phrases like “y’all” and “holler” add to the idea that we are unintelligent, that we lack formal education. That lack of education is a class issue, not one of ability; some are forced to drop out to support themselves and their families, and many lack the money and resources for higher education. My own grandfather had to drop out of high school so he could work to avoid going hungry.
“We want to fit in,” Thompson says of why we code switch. And that was exactly what mattered to me; I wanted to be shown the same respect as my non-accented peers. I wanted to fit in. And the language I use and the accent I have prevented me from doing that – at least, that’s what I thought. But thankfully, things have started to shift.
A couple years ago, while I was mentoring a group of middle schoolers at a leadership conference, my view of myself as an Appalachian changed in an instant. A few of the kids in my group started making fun of my drawl. I, of course, laughed with them because they’re young and I was used to it. I even confessed to my group that I attempted to suppress my accent around people not from my area. One of the middle school students looked at me in confusion and asked, “Why would you do that?” I was speechless: I truly didn’t know the answer. After I hesitated, he looked at me and said, “Don’t ever hide who you are.”
Something about this resonated with me. Perhaps it was the fact that I knew that this comment, which came from a 12-year-old, was so pure-intentioned. But I think it was really just that no one else had ever said it to me before. It’s amazing that those few simple words made such a difference.
There is a tweet from Silas House, one of Appalachia’s most prolific contemporary authors, that has really stuck with me: “Note to Appalachian young people: you don’t have to lose your accent. Flower can be flare. Oil can be one syllable. You don’t have to take it when people make fun of how you talk. If you choose to change it, that’s okay, but know you don’t have to give up that part of yourself.”
I know now, thanks to people like Silas House and the middle-schooler who gave me such great advice, that I do not have to change myself or my accent for anyone or for any reason. I’m not afraid to tell people that my favorite meal is soup beans and cornbread. When someone mentions my accent, I proudly tell them where I am from. I love to drive through “hollers” with my windows down listening to Appalachian musicians. At first, it was exhausting to code-switch in order to fit in. But as time went on, it became like a reflex or a sort of defense mechanism; it became something that I didn’t really control. It’s still something I’m working to unlearn.
I’m constantly reminding myself that my voice – with my true Appalachian accent – deserves to be heard – that all members of my community are more than just a stereotype. My region and its people have value. We do not have to prove our worth to anyone. I am not so different from other Appalachians, and I should never have to convince anyone that I am.
As my perspective on my accent has shifted, so has my relationship with my home. I’ve learned to love my hometown, and I want to continue to work on improving my region. Right now, I try to help Eastern Kentucky through community service. I’ve facilitated a number of donation drives, worked with Hazard’s downtown revitalization efforts, and volunteered at numerous community and region wide events. But I know that there is still work to be done. I’ll be attending the University of Kentucky in the fall to study business and economics. After I graduate, I intend to come back home, where I want to work as a financial advisor for local businesses.
I try to show others the beauty of my area whenever I can. When others laugh at my accent, I tell them about Appalachian culture. When they ask if life in Eastern Kentucky is as awful as it sounds, I show them the incredible art that our people create. When they call us hicks, I send them the New York Times article that includes photos from my town’s Black Lives Matter march (the largest in Eastern Kentucky).
Outsiders may look at me in pity when I tell them where I’m from, but I feel bad for them. They don’t know the feeling of eating fried bologna on the porch after a day of playing in the creek with your friends. I can assure you that it is the best feeling in the entire world.
Ava Dixon is a senior at Hazard High School. After graduating in May 2021, she intends to study business and economics at the University of Kentucky.