In my interior memory I hear the drawl of leisurely Southern voices. Best spoken by women, black or white, who come to call, but also possible to appreciate from the lips of a gentleman. Where did this languid, inviting speech originate? Recently in Charleston, my mother’s neighbors Diane and Clare led me into rendition of our shared past–a tiny portion where their coming to Wappoo Heights overlapped with my parents’ living there. “Ed rounded the corner off Folly Road and there, a few houses from the corner, he slowed the car. On a deep wrap-around porch, sat a couple eating their dinner by candle-light. ‘Diane,’ he told me, ‘that is the place for us. They seemed to be enjoying the cool breeze, the candle-light, and whatever they fixed for dinner. Not worried at all about traffic or anyone bothering them.'” My Midwestern mother, with a casualness rare in true-blue Charlestonians, loved “porch picnics,” where candlelight soothed, enhanced, offered the possibility of romance. Queen of romantic voyaging, yet with scarcely an ear for foreign languages or accents: all her intelligence in her eyes and orderly brain. She settled my father’s estate all by herself when she was 80, and filed her taxes solo, with no help from H & R Block well into her last decade.
Of our family, my sister was the only one who picked up a truly Charlestonian drawl: she had the ear. I remember someone from out of town phoning us up and getting my sister. Later the caller told my mother, “I didn’t except to hear a little Southerner on your Yankee telephone.” If I’d answered, such a comment wouldn’t have arisen.
I’m no expert on accents, but I can detect the New Yorkese from cultivated Brooklyn Heights of a graduate school friend. Add to that Boston or eastern New England speech: friends here in St. Paul retain their muted Rhode Island and New Hampshire twang. Though I can’t tell the two state origins apart, I hear the region speaking through them: friendly but with a Robert Frost’s well-made wall. Not that Charleston drawls can’t also “draw a line.” They simply do it with a veil of enchantment which leaves the hearer so appealed to, so cosseted that all differences or hidden agenda are forgotten.
The founder in 1676 of Magnolia Plantation on the Ashley River northwest of Charleston came from Barbados. So did many other early Charleston plantation settlers, both white owners and enslaved black people who were brought with them. Originally from England, the Drayton family speech like so many others must have been affected by the African languages and accents of their servants and field hands, and of course, vice versa. Deep in the large sea islands between Charleston and Savannah, huge plantations often housed an entirely black population. Years ago I tried to study the Gullah dialect which survived there, and listened to recordings of services held in tiny off-the-road churches. Gullah itself to my ear was almost indecipherable. Yet hearing it helped teach me that the rich sounds which emanate from African-American throats are rarely duplicated by whites. I know: any recognition of racial distinction can sound goofy, if not dangerously racist. Yet, what is wrong with considering how eons of living in warmth, sending the voice across acres toward a resounding answer, might shape the way a people create a speech? My sister sends me a digital holiday greeting which includes a lovely rendition of “Silent Night, Holy Night,” quintessentially German melody of snow-stilled fields. “Does anyone else associate “Silent Night” with British boy sopranos?” she writes at the end. There’s that extraordinarily acute ear of hers: I heard only soprano, neither boy nor British.
When Toni Morrison reads Beloved on books on tape, her story of the black woman who steals herself and her children from Kentucky slavery and crosses the Missouri river into Cincinnati enriches my ear with a deep unmistakable voice. Her story includes a decent slave-holding family who sacrifice to avoid selling these humans they have enslaved. This fiction reminds me of the history I learn when Diane and I tour Magnolia Plantation’s house. Owned before the Civil War by a fourth-generation Drayton who served God as an Episcopal minister and as a fellow gardener working with the black people on the plantation, the Magnolia Plantation house was burned just before the war ended. The white family had left for North Carolina. It is possible, suggests the most recent young Drayton in charge, that the black people living there throughout the war set the house ablaze. I think about this while I stand in front of photographs showing a Christmas gathering of blacks and white on the steps of the current plantation house. Yes, a kind of family, but divided by their shared history. Such a division can happen anywhere; but the particular form it has taken in the American South brings that schism intensely alive and public. Accents and voices will always carry different burdens. Yet, Magnolia Plantation today stands as a remarkable effort on the part of its family-run board to make the racially complex history of plantation Carolina available to visitors. The day Diane and I visited, it was too cold to walk through the row of slave cabins and hear the stories their curators could relate. Think how cold it must have been to live there in such weather two centuries ago, I say to myself, not wanting really to feel that hardship.