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Fightin’ Words

Kaitlin Wright

TW: The piece below includes references to homophobic language which could disturb some readers.

Delaney, don’t you know that all those Yankees and all those Nothin’s out there are always going to think of you as racist, incestuous, and horrible? They think they’re better than you, and they’re right, because no matter how high you climb, no matter if you follow Granny’s example and erase your accent to gain a drop of respectability, no matter if you move up North and never look back, they’ll always think of you as a low down Southerner who’ll never be able to yank up her roots.

Dig those roots deeper, Delaney. Grow them farther and thicker, so thick there ain’t a trowel or hoe in all of Dixie that could sever ‘em. You were born a Southerner and there’s nothing you can do about it, so you better be the best damn one the world has ever seen. Act right. Sing Dixieland at the top of your lungs in church right after a hymn, fly that Confederate Flag right next to your American one, maybe even tattoo it on your arm if your parents will let you, and by God don’t you go around actin’ like a Yankee and don’t you ever—do you hear me Delaney?—don’t you ever marry one.

Don’t forget the lesson you learned when you were seven, in an ill-fitting bathing suit, running back to the house from the lake, legs speckled with decomposing oak leaf flakes and dirt, hair knotted and heart free. You pulled out the garden hose before your momma made it up to help you. The first water out the spout was hot from pooling in the tube, but immediately after it was ice cold well water that didn’t run up the bill. You sprayed your feet. Momma took the hose from you, got your back. You wiggled impatiently, searching for Daddy and Kade.

“You guys!” you called to them as Daddy carried two-year-old Kade up from the water. “Hurry up!”

Momma started laughing. The water from the hose splashed across the ground.
It wasn’t a nice laugh, Delaney, and you could tell.

“You sound like a little Yankee!” Momma snorted, “We’re from the South, Laney, we say ‘y’all’.”

You nodded, shifting on your feet, rubbing your thighs together like Kade did when he needed to pee.

Think back, Delaney. Was that when it started? Your parents’ crusade, I mean. Or had it always been there, whether or not you—or they—were aware of it? Kade picked up the phrase ‘cool beans’ from his favorite teacher, and Momma and Daddy decided that teacher was a Yankee, shook their heads and were thankful she didn’t teach history. What would have happened if she’d taught him what’s in the history books instead of indoctrinating everyone to chant “states rights” on command? What then?

Do you remember when you first realized that going to a public school called Robert E. Lee Elementary was strange? It wasn’t until college, right? That’s what I’ve been telling you about learning from liberals and Yankees. They’ll try to change your mind.

There’s one thing that can be said for your parents. They sure taught you the consequences for acting like a Yankee. “Them’s fightin’ words,” right?

Kade’s speech issue, when he was young, boy they used it to their advantage. He spoke too blame fast, too harsh, couldn’t pronounce things. Y’all’s dad would crack a beer, thunk into his Lay-Z-Boy and snap at Kade to talk right. He couldn’t have his son speaking like a Yankee. Fightin’ words, indeed.
Can you recite the rules back to me, Laney? I bet you can.

1. Drink Coke. Pepsi is a Yankee drink. Never mind that it was invented in North Carolina, that’s barely the South anyway.

2. Call things what they are. They’re lightning bugs not fireflies, tennis shoes not sneakers, supper not dinner, buggies not shopping carts.

3. Emphasize that diphthong, child.

4. Look me in the eyes when I’m talking to you.

5. Say ma’am and sir to everything that moves.

6. And talk slower, boy, you sound like a Yankee.

Delaney, hon, why do you still have these problems? Those practiced defenses wouldn’t feel like bile if you let yourself say them.

My grandmother was embarrassed, she trained us to talk right. I went to a snooty preschool and the teachers were Yankees. I’m from the Coast, accents aren’t as strong there. You haven’t seen me when I’m mad or when I go home. It comes out at home, I swear! I do have an accent. I have to have one, otherwise—

It’s your own fault, Delaney. You screwed up, and you’re doing it more and more. Remember when you spoke to your professor about applying to grad school and he said you’d have it easier because you don’t sound Southern? Remember how that offended you, not because Southerners were being discriminated against, but because he called you out for forgetting what you’d learned at that good for nothing redneck high school?

You’ve got to play it up if you want people to know you’re from around here. And you do want people to know that, more than anything, it’s a compulsion, a need at this point. You can’t be anything else but what you are—Southern.

Like the rule said, add the diphthongs, drop the g’s, lengthen the words, add that bit of honey that only happens when you’re thinking about it.

Oh, don’t be so defensive. I don’t mean you perform it every time it leaves your lips. I’m sure your accent really does get stronger when you’re home. It just seems to me that more and more often you’re just existing there at college, surrounded by those Yankees and Nothin’s, forgetting to turn it on.

Do you remember why your dad calls people who aren’t Southern or Yankee “Nothin’s?” It was from some old racecar movie, right? Where one guy says a Californian is a Yankee, and the other guy says, no he ain’t, he’s nothin’? Your dad thought that was real funny, huh?

Daddy’s a real piece of work. He likes it that way.

You didn’t let the little things bother you, and you shouldn’t let the other ones either. Who cares if Daddy hated Abraham Lincoln, or if he complained when the radio station played “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” during its patriotic spot? You didn’t think that disliking Ol’ Abe would cause any harm, and even though you liked “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” you could keep it to yourself.

Do you regret that, now that he’s so much worse? Do you wish you’d fought with him then, over that, so you could fight him now, over this?

You’d never have been able to fight with him. You’ll never be able to fight him. You’re weak like that.

Besides, are you sure he’s not right? Think about everything you’ve ever been taught. Are you sure that when he comes home, blustering about the Boy Scouts in Kade’s troop being faggots and mommas’ boys and how he had to step in as Scoutmaster and teach them to be men, are you sure he’s wrong?

You didn’t fight him then, you went back to meekly stirring the gumbo pot, the Conecuh sausage and Creole spices turning rancid in your nose, listening and trying not to hear.

You know, Delaney, that’s what I don’t get about you. You oscillate so intensely between love and guilt, homesickness and disgust. Even when you love the South, you feel bad about it, and when you hate it, you’re a turncoat. That twist in your gut won’t ever go away. Learn to live with it. Learn to live with me.

I can remind you of the good. The Coast, your hometown and its traditions, gumbo and jambalaya, fried shrimp and crab claws, biscuits and gravy and grits with breakfast and supper, y’all’s little shack on Perdido Bay that blew down during Ivan, the staticky white noise of the bugs on the hot, humid nights, bonfires and camping, the crooning of old country music and the fun of the new stuff, your ‘96 truck that barely runs but has been in your family forever, get togethers with your great aunts and uncles, listening to their stories and trying to picture their lives, football games on fall Saturdays, the brand of a seatbelt left in the sun, thunderstorms every afternoon in the summer, no snow ever, even though you always dreamed of it, sweet tea and Diet Coke, unsweetened options for the diabetics, that feeling of home when the neighborhood band plays David Allen Coe and everyone sings along. Isn’t that all you’ll ever need?

But no, no, Delaney, you’ll have to go and dwell on the times Daddy gets drunk and sings Dixieland, when you find a folded Confederate flag in your closet even though you never put it there, when Daddy jokes about the fact that his ancestors owned other people, and he shows you documents that prove it, documents that list the birth and death and marriage and life of your ancestors but only say two things about the slaves: bought and sold. When Momma goes on and on about how things just aren’t right and the world’s falling to pieces because gay marriage is legal, when Great Aunt Anne has surgery and calls her doctor the n-word while under the influence of anesthesia, when Kade comes home from school and says that if his best friend of five years turns out to be gay, he’ll stop being friends with him, when those automatic defenses rise in your throat in class, when you want to cry “states’ rights!” or “not everyone was racist!” even though you think both of those things are probably false, when Yankees come down and go on and on about how different everything is, and you wonder what life elsewhere could be like, when you sit at home, tears silently streaming, listening to Daddy fill Kade’s head with awful things and you’re too weak and cowardly to stand up to him, when you realize that going home gives you panic attacks, but staying away leaves you lonely, when you can’t balance the love and the guilt and the fights and the words, when you wonder what’s so blame wrong with Yankees anyway?

You already know what’s wrong with it, Delaney, if you’d just listen. I’ve been trying to tell you. Maybe you should be writing it down . . .


Interview with the Author

What was the inspiration for this piece?

The inspiration for this piece came from my pent-up frustrations surrounding my identity as a young Southern woman. I was hearing all these different things from all these different people about what it meant to be Southern, and I ended up letting a lot of frustrations out on the page. Some aspects are based entirely on my own experience, some are exaggerated, and some are made up. It was more catharsis for me than anything else. It’s hard to love where you’re from and the people who raised you while also acknowledging their faults, and writing this story was a major step towards unifying the two voices in my head and understanding that it’s okay to still love the South. If I were to sit down again, I would probably not write this story this way anymore, but it reflects the way I was feeling at the time, so for that I think it’s only fair to leave it alone.

What was your creative process?

This piece started out as a project for a Honors College class about Southern Women Writers. It was more of a basic third-person limited short story from Delaney’s point of view remembering and reflecting on things in her life, with some elements added to make it relevant to the class. I didn’t come back to the piece until a few months later because some of the issues I try to address in the piece flared up again, and I got the inspiration to change the narrator to be that voice in Delaney’s head that she feels she’s constantly fighting against. Part of me wants this piece to only be read aloud because I think there’s a way it sounds in my head that can’t be fully put down in text.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Just that I understand why lots of Southern Writers use pseudonyms, because the idea of certain people I know reading this is terrifying.