“’Cause a Mississippi girl don’t change her ways, just ’cause everybody knows her name.” As I power-walk laps around the first-year quad to the sound of Faith Hill’s sappy twang in my earbuds, I realize I’m already having an identity crisis. I’ve only been at Amherst for two weeks. Most first years have to go through this kind of change when they arrive — trying to find the balance between keeping their identities from home while trying to fully embrace the new, exciting world of Amherst. As a Nashville, Tennessee native, I’ve realized this transition can be particularly hard for Southerners. Coming from a culture with such a well-known sense of pride — a pride sometimes mistaken for ignorance — I have a lot to lose in terms of my identity as a Southern woman (yes, more than fried chicken and fishin’ and the like) as time distances me from home.
I’ve already had interactions where I had to explain myself and my southern ways. Again, I have my earbuds in. I’m sitting next to a new friend I’ve made on my LEAP trip, so naturally the stakes are very high. I’m listening to my favorite playlist, self-titled “play somethin’ country,” so album cover after album cover of men with enormous cowboy hats and belt buckles, looking longingly off into the distance with guitars in their laps, flash on my screen. I try to recede into the side of the bus, hoping no one can hear “I got that real good feel good stuff / up under the seat of my big black jacked up truck” through my earbuds. My face gets warmer as my friend looks over, she starts to giggle … and from there I have to explain myself.
Sitting on the stairs in front of North Hall, I’m having a casual chat with a couple of friends I just met. We’re bored and getting to know each other, and I reveal that my favorite band is The Dixie Chicks. As his eyes widen, one of my friends laughs sarcastically, saying, “That’s a charged name,” referencing the Confederate origins of the word.
It takes everything in me not to fire back and tell him how the band is actually the most outspoken liberal group in country music, how it lost a huge chunk of its fan base when its members openly criticized President George W. Bush while playing overseas, how my mom and sister singing their words in the car got me through my parents’ divorce, but I remind myself that I shouldn’t take things so seriously. Yes, it is a charged name. It just seems that people think they know a lot about what’s important to me because I value basic Southern traditions and culture.
Other things that have been said to me in the short period of time I’ve been here:
“What is a Southern belle? Are there a lot of Southern belles in Nashville? Like with big dresses? You kinda look like one.”
“Is history taught in a slanted way in the South? Like the Civil War?”
“There must be a lot of fried food where you live. You must eat a lot of fried food.”
“It’s just funny to me that you like country music.”
“Have you ever shot a gun? What do you think about gun control?”
“Do you go muddin’ with your friends? Like, I don’t know … driving trucks into mud puddles.”
“Music in L.A. is very different from music in Nashville!”
“Okay country girl, calm down.”
“I went to Indiana once. They had this big square-dancing party. It was kinda cool.”
“You’re the first Southern woman … I’ve ever met.”
All of this is to say that I’m thankful to be in a place where people do not know much about the South. I’m happy to challenge and strengthen my pride among a sea of voices and opinions. I hope myself and other students from the South can prove some people’s preconceptions wrong — or right. But I miss corn fields. I miss honky tonks and cigarette smoke. I miss the whole room stopping in the middle of a party to belt Alabama’s “Song of the South” together. I miss the appreciation of the simple life I came to Amherst to leave behind.