(An article urging urban Kentuckians, especially those in Louisville, to resist the bourgeois, neo-colonial impulse to further the cultural and linguistic divides between themselves and rural Kentuckians)
Not long ago, the news broke that a TV show – available for viewing nationwide, and slated for release in perhaps as little as one year’s time – would be set in my hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. Many of my Louisvillian friends and I felt conflicted about the news. On the one hand, it marked a major step forward, as Louisville – relative to its size and historical importance – is chronically underrepresented in US creative media, and so it was about time that at least one mainstream TV program currently on air routinely featured the city. On the other hand, the news left at least some of us feeling apprehensive about how Louisvillians might be portrayed on the show. For instance, what would the characters look like: that is, would the cast be racially diverse, or would our hometown get whitewashed? What would they do on screen: that is, would the characters’ work and leisure activities be authentic to the Louisvillian experience, or would the show invent or over-emphasize businesses and pastimes that masked or distorted the city’s true image? Finally – and, for many, most importantly – how would the characters sound? Many of my friends were anxious, in particular, that Louisville not come across as ‘too Southern’. There was a time in my life that I would have shared their concern, but, for reasons I will now explain, I now fear for the opposite – that Louisville’s Southernness will be erased, not only in its portrayal on screen, but in actuality.
Growing up in the suburbs of Louisville’s East End, I had scant affinity for Southern culture, and certainly no conception of myself as Southern. I strove from a young age to ensure that my accent was my best approximation of ‘non-regional’ – a desire that stemmed partly from my thorough indoctrination by a Connecticut nanny who had so abhorred the way I sounded at four years old, after spending the summer with my grandparents in South-Central Kentucky’s Cumberland County, that she took it upon herself to give me elocution lessons; and, still more so, from acculturation to the norms of Louisville’s white middle class, whose collective self-worth in my early years seemed predicated on the notion that Louisville was the scaled-down equivalent of some US-based global cosmopolis like LA or New York – at once from everywhere and nowhere; adjacent to, but aloof from, its hinterlands; in-but-not-of the place where it happened to be. Investing that belief with sufficient verisimilitude to make it believable to others required that as many Louisvillians as possible have accents that couldn’t be easily placed, and, knowing no better, I was all too happy to play my part in advancing that goal.
Eventually, I felt as though my adopted way of speaking was natural and right: that my non-descript accent was the Louisvillian (and, by logical extension, the Kentuckian) norm – or, if not a reflection of how most Kentuckians did speak, at least a demonstration of how they should speak. By the time I could count my years in double digits, the accents of working-class people from Louisville’s South End, and of people from most any social stratum in my grandparents’ home county, had begun to seem, at best, parochial and quaint; and, at worst, poor and uneducated. My observations of my classmates reinforced this view: the children of financially affluent families with stable homelives spoke relatively non-regionally; not so, our less-fortunate peers, whose accents could be called, neutrally, ‘Southern’ or ‘country’ – or, pejoratively, ‘redneck’ or ‘hick’. Like many of my fellow students, I internalized the message that the ‘better sort’ of Louisvillians sounded like they were from nowhere in particular, and began to subconsciously assume that having a Southern accent must be an indicator of social and financial ineptitude or unworthiness – somehow never considering, despite my own formative experiences, that the accent in question wasn’t absent from the middle and upper echelons of Louisvillian society because it was inherently inferior, but, rather, because the perception that it was inferior meant that most Louisvillians raised with it had either discarded it, or suffered social and economic penalties for failing to do so.
My youthful misapprehension that Southernness, stupidity, and poverty were inextricably linked was eagerly reinforced by almost the whole of US pop-culture, at least as it seemed in the 1990s and early 2000s: one of my favorite TV shows – Nickelodeon’s ‘The Amanda Show’, featuring then child-star Amanda Bynes – devoted an entire recurring sketch in its vaudeville-style line-up to making fun of people whose accents sounded like those of my grandparents; the hit 1995 film ‘Clueless’ (ever popular with substitute teachers and parents hosting sleepovers) ended with an off-hand put-down of the assumed marital mores of rural Kentuckians that was meant to garner cheap laughs; and, on many an episode of Saturday Night Live (then as now) the subaltern status of Southerners, their culture, and their perceived mistreatment of the English language was never much in doubt, and always liable to be dredged up for an easy punchline.
Such was my certainty – bolstered by the aforementioned constant stream of anti-Southern propaganda – that smart, well-heeled people simply must have non-regional accents (and that the best and most respectable way to be Kentuckian was not to seem Kentuckian) that, once, while taking part in an acting exercise at a youth theatre camp, I couldn’t bring myself to mimic the voice of my own mother, because I couldn’t cognitively accept that she (a practicing medical doctor, and the major administrative force of our household) sounded like the former resident of Cumberland County that she was. I heard her accent every day, but had long ago stopped perceiving it as I heard it, because it didn’t conform to my internalized world view and its linguistic prejudices: Mom (never Momma, although that’s what she called her own mother), being clever, wise, and a pillar of our community, simply couldn’t have a Southern accent; and the fact that I could plainly hear – day in, and day out – that indeed she did have such an accent couldn’t sway the conviction born of my internalized views on dialectal and cultural hierarchy.
Interestingly, I never failed to properly hear my grandparents’ accents, and, as far as I can recall, I never revered them less for the sake of their Southern rurality, despite my internalized disdain for those traits in other people. Looking back, I believe I felt they should be excused from the usual stigma owing to their advanced age. This was, in fact, consistent with the bias that had been my birthright as a bourgeois Louisvillian, because the existential framework I had internalized held that, in addition (or as an alternative) to connoting backwardness, a Southern accent could also imply the quaintness of a bygone era.
Encoded in this assumption was the implication that, at one time, that accent had been more normal and acceptable in Louisville than it was at present. This implication, as I now realize, rings true: middle-class white Louisvillians’ accent – or, rather, their practiced and almost successful lack thereof – is not what it once was, that being Southern. Evidence of this discrepancy can still be detected in the accents of many working-class families with Louisvillian roots; of white Louisvillians of most any class born before the outbreak of the Second World War; and even – much to the consternation of those who would claim Louisville as culturally and geographically Midwestern – of many communities to the north of Louisville, across the Ohio River in Southern Indiana. Louisville’s dominant accent is an anomaly, making the city a faux-Midwestern linguistic enclave situated within the natural bounds of the linguistic South – and I can tell you it came to be that way.
It is not, as in the case of Northern Kentucky (the Kentuckian region comprising the urban and suburban neighborhoods of Boone, Kenton, and Campbell Counties that is, in most respects, a cultural, economic, and civic extension of Cincinnati) a natural consequence of geography, population movement, and trade. A quick glance at an infrastructural and social networking map of the South and Midwest will show that, while the people in Northern Kentucky and Cincinnati transact business mostly with each other and their immediate hinterlands (thereby forming a distinct and decidedly inward-looking zone of culture and enterprise) Louisville has a high degree of social and economic contact with most of the Commonwealth of Kentucky and Southern Indiana (regions which, as I have mentioned, are in large part linguistically Southern). The hypothesis of Louisville’s dialectal non-regionality as a result of overpowering and isolationist cultural distinctiveness therefore has no explanatory power: whereas Northern Kentucky is a Northward-looking cultural isolate, Louisville forms the hub of a wheel with many a Southern spoke; and, whereas it is possible to speak of a Northern Kentucky/Cincinnati accent, the same cannot be said of Louisville, where deviance from the linguistic norms of rural Kentucky is an affectation of the white middle classes, and the resulting accent seems calculatedly non-descript.
In fact, I would suggest that the Louisvillian non-accent not only seems calculated, but is so; that, at some point during the post-war twentieth century, middle- and upper-class white Louisvillians decided to stop being perceived as Southern, and thus linguistically seceded from the rest of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, instead modeling their speech on the quasi-Midwestern ‘standard’ American English that had come to prevail on the airwaves with the maturation of the radio broadcast, and become yet further entrenched in society with the dawning of the television age. Their likely reasons for this cultural betrayal are readily apparent even today, in the form of the stigmas of Southernness that I internalized in childhood, and which, doubtless, Louisville’s mid-century bourgeoisie desperately wanted their own children to escape: the stereotype, then as now as baseless as it is pervasive, that Southerners of any color are indolent, addle-brained, culturally-inferior louts who deserve to languish in the material scarcity and discomfort that simply must be of their own making; and that white Southerners are, in addition, racist, homophobic, transphobic, bigoted, and anti-feminist (although such traits and their cultural antecedents, would, at the time, have been denoted simply by use of the rather less specific adjective, ‘backward’).
Having jettisoned their most obvious ties to Southern culture in the interest of their emotional wellbeing and material prosperity, Falls City’s elite then set out – wittingly or unwittingly – to convert the less-well-off members of Louisvillian Society to their new linguistic norms, conveying, by their very continued existence atop the city’s social and economic hierarchy, that, while non-regional speech connoted affluence and style, a Southern accent implied their opposites.
In the twenty-first century, Louisville’s dialectal transition away from Southernness is nearly complete: Southern accents in in the city are looked on as the province of a pitiable minority of old folks, poor folks, and rural newcomers. Louisville’s pernicious influence is even beginning to mute the once robust regional speech varieties of outlying communities at or beyond the periphery of Jefferson County – forming a Kentuckian dialectal equivalent of the Dublin Pale in the long-ago marginalization of the Irish language in Ireland, or of the Lowland burghs in the diminution of Scottish Gaelic in Scotland.
Given time, the bourgeois de-culturation that has beset Louisville could eventually spread throughout the Commonwealth of Kentucky, hastened by the influx of new residents from other dialect regions that will almost certainly accompany future stages of the worsening climate crisis. Kentucky could thus cease, even in its rural heartlands, to be a culturally or linguistically Southern state.
There are those, of course, who would welcome the loss of Kentucky’s current regional identity. Central to this conceit, for many, is the aforementioned false assumption that Southern culture is necessarily little more than a vector for various kinds of ignorance, bigotry and social disadvantage. I have, on numerous occasions, encountered urban Kentuckians – especially middle-class, white, progressive Kentuckians – who see the loss of Kentucky’s Southernness as a pre-requisite to its hoped-for adoption of anti-racism, anti-ablism, LGBTQ+ acceptance, and feminism. Such people fail to appreciate the richness and multiplexity of Southern culture, or to consider the terrible irony of professed social justice activists condemning an entire region and its people based on groundless stereotypes informed by the United States’ longstanding program of internal colonization. In truth, Southernness comprises a plethora of interconnected but regionally-specific traditions of cuisine, agriculture, horticulture, textile arts, architecture, music, dance, visual art, literature, and dialect – a patrimony which could easily be shared and cultivated without regard to unjust hierarchies of race, gender, ability, sexual proclivity, or neurotypicality. To fail to uphold the rights of Southerners to maintain these traditions – indeed, to actively encourage them to abandon their cultural heritage, and to make them pariahs in mainstream society should they decline to do so – is a gross miscarriage of justice, and one for which no one should stand.
Others who would happily see Kentucky cease to be Southern are those Kentuckians who, while they do not necessarily espouse popular notions of Southern cultural and ethical inferiority, feel that they or the communities to which they belong have no place within Southern culture at large. I know, for instance, of Appalachian Kentuckians who – when they consider the ‘South’ – think only of the Deep South, or of the states of the former Confederacy, and who therefore situate the Appalachian cultural region mostly or entirely outwith the South.
I would argue, however – on the basis of various cultural commonalities, not the least of which being dialect – that much of the Appalachian cultural region (even insofar as it pervades West Virginia, and extends into southeastern Ohio, and Southwestern Pennsylvania) is essentially Southern in character.
Although some would retort that the Appalachian mountains reach far into New York, and even New England, and that they could, in these northern extremities of their range, scarcely be described as Southern, I would insist that the cultural region popularly called Appalachia either resides wholly within the South, or extends not far beyond its bounds – with the people living along the Monongahela river South of Pittsburg, for instance, having more cultural and linguistic commonalities with the typical resident of Tennessee than with that of coastal Pennsylvania; and the people of West Virginia having relatively little – culturally speaking – that distinguishes them from mountain-dwelling Virginians proper.
The solidly pro-Union dispositions of West Virginia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania in the Civil War have no bearing on the cultural Southernness of their Appalachian counties; as I have repeatedly urged in the past, the Confederacy and the cultural South should be looked on as two wholly distinct entities, and the former (a failed state artificially propped-up by slave-owning aristocratic elites for less than half a decade, all the while for nefarious purposes) should in no way be allowed to influence perceptions of the latter (a centuries-old and still vibrant source of much of the world’s most creative and influential music and art, and home to myriad interwoven social and ecological systems that sustain the lives and hopes of millions upon millions of people, many of them materially poor despite their cultural wealth).
Some Appalachians would, and have, denied the Southernness of Appalachia on the further basis that they perceive their home region as having insufficient commonalities with the rest of the South – in particular, the Deep South – to merit its inclusion in the Southern gestalt. As far as I can tell, this objection springs from a largely antiquated notion that presupposes vast cultural differences between Appalachians and other Southerners based mostly on assumed differences in their speech patterns, especially the presence or absence of rhoticity. A long-standing trope in US popular culture depicts Southern accents – especially deep Southern accents – as being mostly or completely non-rhotic (that is, disinclined to pronounce most final and some medial ‘r’s). An example that springs immediately to mind is that of the cartoon character Foghorn Leghorn, as voiced by the inimitable Mel Blanc (who also gave the world the voices of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and Yosemite Sam, among others). Foghorn Leghorn – an anthropomorphic talking chicken, presumably from somewhere in the South – drops almost all of his ‘r’s. You wouldn’t be likely to encounter anyone who sounds remotely like him in Kentucky, even in the parts of the Commonwealth, outwith the urban pales, that have not yet been linguistically divested of their Southernness. Although some Kentuckian accents occasionally delete medial r’s (in words like ‘rural’ or ‘horse’, for instance), their final ‘r’s, tend – if anything – to be over-emphasized by comparison to standard American English, deploying the distinctive ‘bunched r’ that predominates in many (indeed, in most, as will later be discussed) varieties of Southern US English.
Hollywood largely has yet to make note of this distinction. The fact that Kentucky’s Southern accent is rhotic seems, for instance, to have been wholly lost on actor Owen Wilson when he portrayed a supposedly Kentuckian pilot in Wes Anderson’s ‘The Life Aquatic’ – much to the consternation of many a Kentuckian fan of the film. I suspect that it is in no small part because of portrayals like Wilson’s that some Kentuckians – Appalachian and otherwise – balk at the notion of Kentucky’s Southernness, reasoning that if Southern speech is fully non-rhotic, then even rural Kentuckians must not really be Southern.
This was certainly the assumption of a classmate of mine at the University of Louisville who hailed from still-robustly-accented rural Greenup County in Appalachian Kentucky. When preparing a piece for a monologue contest in Chicago that required a Southern accent, she went fully non-rhotic in her presentation of the character – doubtless drawing on decades of received wisdom garnered from watching the performances of actors like Blanc and Wilson – only to be sorely disappointed when the Midwestern adjudicators of the contest marked her down for the linguistic ‘inauthenticity’ of her character. In retrospect, I am almost certain that my friend’s own accent would have been much closer to the ‘authentic’ Southern sound the judges were expecting – and, ironically, their expectation would have been more in keeping with the linguistic realities of the modern South than those imagined by my unfortunate fellow student.
Despite the non-rhoticity preferred by Hollywood voice and screen actors modelling Southernness for their nation- or worldwide audiences, non-rhotic Southern accents are far from normative, even in the rural Deep South. Even in the bygone days when they were more prevalent (in some places, more than a century ago, and counting) – non-rhotic accents only occurred in a minority of the Southern population. A popular and plausible theory – if not yet a full academic consensus – holds that Southern non-rhoticity was itself artificial, starting off as an affectation of antebellum planter-aristocrats, and spreading, by the process of elite emulation, to their overseers, fieldhands, and slaves. With the collapse of the plantation economy in the lattermost third of the nineteenth century, the prestige of the non-rhotic Southern accent waned, and it began to subside in prevalence throughout the South, leaving most of those who had adopted it to revert to the aforementioned ‘bunched r’ that had always predominated (then as now) outwith the areas dominated by the plantation system. Today, almost the only Southern accents that have uniform non-rhoticity can be found in the older generations of some communities along the coasts of the Atlantic Ocean and the Mississippi River (most famously in New Orleans, Louisiana and Charleston, South Carolina); in many of the Ebonic varieties of English – also known as African American Vernacular English (AAVE) or Black Vernacular English (BVE) – spoken in predominantly Black communities either in the South or established elsewhere in the US by Southern Black migrants during the twentieth century’s Great Migration; and – as earlier mentioned – in Californian and New York studios frequented by non-Southern actors and recording artists.
As the situation stands, rural Southernness is thus, by some measures, more linguistically uniform than it has ever been – bourgeois urban and suburban incursions of standard English such as have occurred in Louisville not withstanding – with ‘bunched’ rhoticity occurring in almost all non-BVE speaking Southern communities from the northern panhandle of West Virginia to that of Florida, and from the Appalachian Mountains of the eastern Carolinas to the Ozarks of Oklahoma and Arkansas. The lands and communities compassed by that latter east-to-west axis – which some have termed Greater Appalachia, or the Upland South – has always had a relatively coherent and largely rhotic dialect continuum, and, with the subsidence of non-rhoticity, it is the speech varieties of this more northerly Southern region that have become normative in the South at large. Arguably, then, the increasing uniformity of Southern speech represents the pan-Southern adoption of Appalachian norms, or what I term its ‘Appalachiation’: a process which should remove any sense of alienation that Appalachians feel regarding the reaffirmation of their Southern identity.
Some Southerners from Appalachia or elsewhere in the Upland South (what I deem the Trans-Appalachian or Tramontane South, to signify that it constitutes the part of the South in, and inland of, the Appalachian Mountains) might still profess a lack of Southern identity on the basis of their regions’ ecological incongruity with the Deep South – the Upland South being a land of snowy winters, pawpaws, and white oaks; and, the Deep South, one of ice-less winters, mayhaws, and live oaks – often decked with Spanish moss, no less, and under which one might encounter the occasional alligator (which would, I assure you, be a most unexpected and unwelcome visitor to Kentucky). I would argue, however, that these differences are climatic rather than climactic, presenting no great impediment to the notion of a culture that is recognizably Southern, if, in many small respects, regionally diverse. In any case – and for better or worse – whatever intra-Austral (that is, ‘within the South’) cultural differences do stem from underlying variations in flora and fauna are likely to lessen as climate change elides the natural distinctions that undergird them. For instance, Kentucky has, since the turn of the millennium, become home to thriving populations of armadillos and black vultures (animals once thought of as endemic only to the far Southwest of the Southern US); it is entirely possible that live oaks, Spanish moss, and even alligators might likewise eventually head northward.
Of course, Appalachians are not the only subsection of the Southern population of which some members feel ill-represented by the construct of Southernness. Many speakers of BVE – even if they reside within in the South – either feel cut off from Southern cultural identity because they perceive it as belonging exclusively to white Southerners; or actively shun it because they consider it irredeemably tainted by the legacies of chattel slavery, the Confederate rising, the failure of Reconstruction, and the (arguably resurgent) Jim Crow era. The gulf between Black and White Southerners is harder to bridge than that that exists between Appalachian and non-Appalachian Southerners, because whereas the exploitation and suppression of Appalachians has largely occurred at the hands of non-Southerners, the general antipathy of white Southerners toward Black Southerners (and, indeed, to Black people in general) has arguably been the greatest historical cause of the latter group’s suffering, from the time of the establishment of the plantation system to the present day. Given that history, it is fully understandable that many Black Americans – including and perhaps especially those with Southern ancestors – would choose Black racial solidarity over regional cultural solidarity based in the South, even if they lived in Southern communities, or had accents with Southern origins. Even so, there is no reason that Southernness should exclude Black people; in fact, I see it as imperative that it be completely racially inclusive, with anyone who was either raised in a community that upholds Southern cultural traditions (including those of Black Southerners), or who has adopted Southern cultural practices through their acculturation to such a community, looked on as Southern.
It should be remembered that the construct of race, as it exists in the US, is a relatively recent notion –dating from the late seventeenth century at the earliest. Until that time, the concept of race was largely indistinguishable from those of ethnicity and nationality, all of which had more to do with what language someone spoke and what culture they grew up in than what they looked like (the modern idea of race), who their ancestors were (how some people, in my opinion erroneously, define the modern concept of ethnicity), or of what country, if any, they were considered a citizen (the modern definition of nationality). It was possible, for instance, to speak of the Gaels, the Frisians, the Yoruba, and the Chickasaws (to choose four peoples at random) as distinct ‘races’; and, even though the former two ‘races’ would now be considered as together belonging to the ‘white’ race, before the advent of whiteness, they would have been thought of as having nothing in common but Christianity. Indeed, the justification for indigenous genocide and African chattel slavery in the Americas by European settler-colonists originally rested on Christian supremacy, rather than white supremacy – but this presented slave owning European settler colonists with a serious problem when, by the mid-1600s, they had succeeded in forcing most of their slaves to convert to Christianity. By their earlier logic, Christians – being fundamentally equal to other Christians – could not be kept in perpetual bondage, and so the wealthy planters had to contrive another justification for treating human beings as their property. The initial solution in most places was to reserve human rights to people who belonged to the ‘race’ (in the pre-modern sense of the term) of the ruling classes of the colony in question. In English-speaking North America, that meant English settlers. This solution, too, proved problematic, however, because by excluding people of other European ‘races’ – like the Gaels, the Welsh, and the Lowland Scots – it allowed for people from these groups to develop more solidarity with the African slaves than with their English landlords and bosses, which endangered the landowners’ hold on power. To remedy this problem of working-class solidarity across racial lines, the English settlers began decreeing that European-descended colonists of other ‘races’ could be honorary Anglo-Saxons, even if they didn’t come from England or speak English as their first language. Eventually, this privileged category came to encompass almost any European-descendent with pale skin (so everyone with ancestors from the British Isles, and most people from Scandinavia, Germany, northern France, northern Italy, and northern Spain); and, by the mid-twentieth century, even people of European descent who had ‘tan’ or ‘olive’ skin (like people from Andalusia, southern France, southern Italy, Greece, and the Balkans). Thus, by the early 1700s, the idea of the white race (which had full human rights) as opposed to the Black race (which did not) was born. Even as the category of whiteness mutated in encompass all people who are now considered white (with the most recent entrants being pale-skinned Jewish people, as of the 1950s and later), it retained its earlier synonym of ‘Anglo-Saxon’ (as evoked even today by right-wingers like Marjorie Taylor Greene) – though it has come to include a much larger group than just the English, and the connections between whiteness and Englishness, at least in the US, are not always readily apparent outside the question of language choice (with ‘This is America, speak English!’ having become one of the most widely recognized slogans popularly understood as being emblematic of whiteness).
As can be seen from the above history, interracial solidarity among downtrodden Southern people predates whiteness, and it was against that solidarity that whiteness arose, a prejudicial smokescreen to sow dissention among the united poor and defend the ill-gotten privileges of the wealthy few against masses they exploited for their enrichment. As that contest now stands, throughout the capitalist hellscape that is the United States, whiteness has the upper hand – but we, as modern Southerners, need not let it triumph. We can still turn the tide in favor of solidarity, by creating a Southern identity unfettered by hierarchies of color or of wealth – but we will only succeed in doing so with substantial emotional and identarian investment from Black Southerners. I nurture a great hope that this investment will materialize: already, there is widespread recognition within the US Black community that Black Southerners played a founding or perfecting role in many of the cultural commodities traditionally considered Southern – from musical styles like Old-time, Bluegrass, Country, Blues, and Jazz (often most famously played by Black musicians, or on instruments such as the banjo and the dobro that hail originally from Africa), to horseracing (in which many of history’s greatest jockeys have been Black), to whisky distilling (which, although of Gaelic origins, might never have become a widespread industry in America if not for the contributions of Black distillers), not to mention the South’s many varieties of famously Black and/or Black-influenced cuisine. Although many in the Black community would sooner use the Black history of the South to assert the South’s essential Blackness than to assert the essential Southernness of Black people, I am confident that, given time, the two propositions will come to be seen as intrinsically linked and mutually validating – two sides of the same coin: one that we might one day redeem for a future in which people in the South consider themselves, foremost, to be Southerners, and in which they give little if any thought to the color of their skin.
I am firmly of the opinion, in the face of the many potentially catastrophic existential changes soon to plague the waiting world – the climate crisis and its ravages among them – that the people of the South would do well to band together, and embrace a common cultural identity that could transcend the old, white-supremacist divisions of race, and allow them to present a unified front against the constant onslaught of anti-Southern regionalism. This identity need not be – indeed, must not be – homogenous: every Southern family and community has its own story to tell, its own folkways to practice, and its own perspective on life. Even so, my travels within the South, and my interactions with Southern people living in various locales throughout the world, have convinced me that, culturally speaking, more attributes unite Southerners than divide us; and that those in the South who reject Southern identity tend to do so on the basis of either internalized anti-Southern prejudice, or misconceptions about what, where and for whom Southern culture is – both of which have been normalized and disseminated on a global scale by the US mass media. It can be easily – and convincingly – argued that this normalization and dissemination constitutes one aspect of the US empire’s ongoing project of internal and external colonialism, in which distinctive regional identities and their associated commodities both within and outwith the United States are continually subsumed to an ecologically and culturally rootless identity based in US hyper-patriotism, white supremacism, and consumerism, operating under the tacit assumption that the development of competing identities would undermine US imperial interests and must therefore be prevented.
In order to avoid succumbing to this colonial process, and to effectively adapt to the numerous crises that will existentially threaten the South in the coming decades, Southerners should stand together in asserting their cultural distinctiveness, rejecting the debilitating narrative of Southern cultural worthlessness and backwardness, and, with it, the false consciousness of white supremacy – working in solidarity with other historically disadvantaged groups within the United States to establish a common cultural framework that affirms the intrinsic value of the South and of all people who live here.
To play their part in this undertaking, Louisvillians and other urban Kentuckians should stop denying that Falls City forms part of Kentucky, and that Kentucky (with the arguable exception of its Greater Cincinnati suburbs) forms part of the South; they should stop looking down on the workers, community elders, and recent arrivals from outwith Jefferson County who either cannot or will not attempt a non-regional accent; and they should stop pretending that Louisville’s creeping linguistic levelling is the inevitable result of ‘cosmopolitanism’ or technical proximity to the Midwest, and accept that anyone in Kentucky who brags about having ‘no accent’ is either a perpetrator of our country’s ongoing program of internal colonization, or its unwitting victim. They should also stop telling themselves, in order to distance themselves from the painful legacies of white supremacy, the blatant untruth that only the South is racist, and that they are not part of the South.
Whether Louisvillians like it or not, they are Kentuckians and Southerners. To pretend otherwise is either disingenuous or delusional, and to painstakingly breathe that fallacy into the fullness of life by affecting multi-generational language shift is to sacrifice an invaluable and irreplaceable aspect of Kentucky’s cultural heritage to a self-serving lie.
In short, when this TV show airs, I hope it plays Louisville as Southern – not Southern in the way of Foghorn Leghorn, or Owen Wilson’s ill-starred Louisvillian pilot, or (God forbid!) the long-dead CSA. I want to see the Kentuckian South – the South of my parents, and my grandparents, and my great-grandparents (but without the classicism and racism that held so many of their neighbors down); the South of the pawpaw and the wild persimmon; the South that calls ‘fireflies’ lightnin’ bugs, and ‘morels’ dry-land-fish; the South of those who, for generations, have come into Louisville out of counties from Pike to Fulton, and – despite what bourgeois city people might or might not have thought of them – stayed and prospered; the South that I grew up in, pretending it wasn’t mine, but that I now want to reclaim, and bequeath to my children; the South to which Louisville once unashamedly belonged, and to which – I hope – it will one day fully belong again.