Even though I’ve been warned I continue to ask people that I meet where they are from. The warning concerning the use of this interrogative stems from its use as a means of putting “Them” in their place. Asking, “So where you from?” is sometimes used by white nationalists in an asinine attempt to diminish folks from foreign lands, people whose native tongue is not English or whose skin is darker than eggshell. I never ask the question as a pejorative but rather as a conversation starter. I asked it at least twice on Wednesday, 09/18, once in the early morning and again in the late afternoon, and while both times my question was posed to someone with a mocha complexion in neither case did “race” or foreignness play into the equation.
Fanta was my a.m. encounter and the two of us couldn’t have been any closer as we sat millimeters apart, her fingers touching me in a most intimate yet entirely chaste manner. Wednesday was my semi-annual dental checkup, MS Fanta my new hygienist, and our hour together had us rove and range over a variety of topics. At some point she asked me where I was from and after giving her a quick overview of my ten State curriculum vitae I returned the inquiry. Fanta and I have both lived in a lot of places but she hails from New York, the same US State as my wife, though Fanta grew up in the northwest snowbelt of New York while Durga hails from the southeast corner of The Empire State, a village a scant 60 miles north of the megalopolis that shares the State’s nombre.
While my darling spent her formative years in a part of the country noted for strong accents for the most part her enunciation has been tempered with her subsequent residence in seven additional States and one foreign country over the succeeding two-score years. With exposure and immersion in new places her New Amsterdam flowed to more melodious and less odious intonations. I frequently tease Durga that if she could just learn to properly say coffee, dog, drawer, orange, order, quarter and another half-dozen nails-on-chalkboard words she could pass as a Midwestern American, we whose tall-corn nasality is deemed “neutral” in the land of the free.
Fanta had not a trace of New York in her tone and she explained that (A) her parents had both been military and she had moved quite a bit and (B) her father encouraged her not to speak with his Memphis drawl, her mother’s deep-south gumbo nor the harshness of New York. Elocution was revered in MS Fanta’s upbringing. And so it was in De Wayne’s, my afternoon inquiry and the real impetus behind my story.
De Wayne entered my work place in search of a small item he’d left behind. I searched in one spot, failed to find his grail, then searched in another. Eureka! What once was lost now was found.
De Wayne was very complimentary about our work place and we chatted a bit. Referencing our common vintage we spoke about his grandparents down in Georgia whom he and his dozen-plus cousins converged on every summer back in the 1960’s. Having lived in Georgia I asked him where he’d summer. He said a small town southeast of Macon and I asked, “Dublin?”
De Wayne was flabbergasted. I explained that I lived in Atlanta for 8 years and that Dublin hosts a big Saint Patrick’s Day bike ride every year. We reminisced about “back in the day,” joys such as hot summer nights without air conditioning and I asked where he was from. His answer of New York City took me by surprise as he had not a lick of New York about his vocal cords.
“That would be both my parents and my grandmother. I remember going down to Georgia and the kids couldn’t understand half of what I said because I’d been brought up in a house that emphasized Proper English.”
“Well,” said I innocently, “my wife is from New York and most of the time you’d never know but some words just scream New York. You on the other hand can pass one-hundred percent.”
De Wayne did not look at me askance. He did not narrow his eyes. He let my faux pas go. I had just told a man older than the Civil Rights Act that he could “pass.” A term a half-century out of date and a poignant reminder of the United States barbaric record concerning race relations. It is irrelevant that I tell my wife this and that you, dear reader, skimmed right over the phrase in the last sentence of paragraph three with nary a twinge. De Wayne just let it pass, just gave me a pass and took my indiscretion in stride.
My hat’s off to De Wayne and I’m going to credit the same parents and grandmother who emphasized elocution for his graciousness. My guess is they emphasized a lot more about civility than merely sounding good.