For the last few months I’ve been keeping an eye out for good socialist candidates who can primary some of our centrist Democrats in office. A friend suggested I consider myself for the role, but I immediately eschewed the notion. I’m not an “on-stage” personality. Perhaps time and experience could help me overcome my shyness and fear of public speaking. Or maybe I could just learn to fake it. But they’ll never completely cure me of my Midwestern accent. I won’t let them.
I’ve worked on two progressive political campaigns for Midwestern-bred women running in the south. Both lost but came really, close considering they were outspent underdogs. And both faced opponents whose main modes of attack were essentially, “She’s not from here, don’t trust her.” One particularly slimy opponent warned of my candidate bringing “Detroit values” to our southern city, even including images of abandoned factories in his campaign materials. Sadly, these tactics work. Never underestimate the power of provincial xenophobia. But I also wonder if these women would’ve been more warmly received had they come from some other faraway place with a more sophisticated or less noticeable accent. I heard voters make fun of both these women candidates’ voices. People who aren’t from around those parts really hate the way we speak.
I love the way we speak. I love Midwestern women. They’re my favorite group of people. So many times since I moved to the south, I’ve met some charming, plainspoken lady with a hilarious, dry wit and wondered, “How’s she so cool?” Then I find out she’s from Cleveland, or rural Indiana, or somewhere around Chicago, and I think, “Ohhhh, THAT’S why I like you so much.” Then I notice they make some of the same nasal vowel sounds that I do.
Of course I speak of many accents – a white woman from Cedar Rapids doesn’t sound the same as a black lady in Flint. But I appreciate them all because they’re the perfect complement to the down-to-earth, no-bullshit, wholesome truth of what we say. A Midwestern woman’s spoken wisdom is like a big old scoop of mashed potatoes slapped down on the plate in front of you. Maybe it’s not the most delicate delivery or elegant presentation, but that doesn’t make the mashed potatoes any less delicious. Why would you complain about rich, creamy carbs? Dig in!
When I hear a Midwestern woman tell the truth in her mashed potato voice, I feel inspired. These sirens of the rust belt and the cornfield are my role models. Roseanne Barr busted my heart by proving herself an unhinged bigot, because I used to considered her the patron saint of Midwestern women. That loudmouthed, sarcastic, working class Illinois mom she portrayed on TV reminded me of countless women I’ve known (sometimes myself). But I no longer care to honor her legacy. So instead, I seek inspiration from these notable daughters of the heartland ~
- Kim Deal, but especially that outtake from “Surfer Rosa” when she tells the rest of The Pixies about the pedophile high school coach (“All I know is that there were rumors he was into field hockey players…”). Here’s this cool as hell woman bassist, performing on one of my all-time favorite rock albums, alternately trilling and shredding her voice on songs like “Gigantic” and “River Euphrates”. And then for a moment you hear her conversational voice and she sounds like a judgmental Ohio mom talking very frank shit about a very bad man. That twang when she says, “They were so QUIET about it,” fills me with joy. That’s the sound of home. I feel protected.
- Mary Wells and Madonna, but specifically their inability to pronounce the “t” in “wanted.” Listen to “You Beat Me to the Punch” or “Crazy for You.” According to these Mitten State ladies, the appropriate pronunciation is “wah-nid.” That’s that sloppy mashed potato quality coming through, and I love it. But also they’re pop music icons, so who’s gonna argue with it? On that note, I’d like to say to every snobby, out-of-state student at the University of Michigan who ever had the nerve to move to my state and tell me I pronounce Mary, merry, and marry wrong – guess what? They’re all pronounced the same. Suck it!
- Rep. Rashida Tlaib, when she said of Trump, “We’re gonna impeach the motherfucker.” Much as I admire and respect this congresswoman for trash-talking our troll president, and specifically for referring to him by that apt epithet, I didn’t watch the clip of her saying those words until a few days ago. I read 99% of my news, which is how I learned about her glorious taunt. It never occurred to me she would be making this beautiful statement in the same tone of voice I associate with every blunt, salty woman from my hometown. (Speaking of which, Midwestern Muslim women are a particularly lovable subset of my favorite group of people – they consistently disprove every stereotype you might believe about their supposed timidity.)
Obviously, I never noticed these accents until after I moved to the south and people would make fun of the way I say words like “cotton” (slightest hint of a t-sound, more like “KAHt-ihn”). Just as I’ve learned to sprinkle “y’all” throughout my everyday dialogue, I’ve found myself pronouncing my Ts a little harder. When I go back to Michigan, I’m stunned by the strength of my friends’ accents, which had been invisible to me before I moved away. Like so many other aspects of the rust belt, I suppose I adore that sound more for its familiarity than its pure aesthetic value. But it isn’t just nostalgia that feeds my admiration. There’s an authenticity in this manner of speaking that feeds my soul, much like a hearty pile of mashed potatoes.
I know what people from other places think. They find us annoying, unrefined, lowbrow. They complain about the women’s voices more than men. Maybe it’s the higher pitch combined with those nasal vowel sounds that irritates them. Or maybe misogyny is just that pervasive. Either way, their snobby aversion just makes me wanna turn up those nasal vowel sounds and drop my middle-Ts even more. I believe there’s power in using that grating siren sound to tell the truth. And whether or not I can get myself elected to office, I’m gonna use it.