A Recommendation for Y’all. And Some Receipts.

Image shows the bottoms of several faces, some white, some brown, some Black, gathered under a cowboy hat with the word "Y'all" on it.
Illustration for the New York Times Magazine by Clay Hickson.

For the New York Times Magazine, I wrote a letter of recommendation for “y’all,” a word I shied away from in my youth as a transplant from Dallas to Miami and have since circled back to not once, but twice. Here’s an excerpt:

Growing up in Miami, I dreaded being told that I sounded like a hick. In my teens, a boyfriend pointed out that I tended to say “sow” (as in the female pig) in place of “saw.” But most verbal indicators of my Texas roots fell away in nursery school, after my family moved from Dallas and I took to using the word “toilet” rather than “commode.” The way I began to say “pie” flummoxed my parents. It sounded, to their ears, like “poi.” When my mom joked that I was becoming a Yankee, my father scolded her and taught me “Dixieland.”

Raised in the Mississippi Delta, he was an ardent believer in the Old South who glorified our antebellum ancestors and published letters in Southern newspapers denouncing politicians as scalawags. My father defended slavery, demanded the subservience of women and adhered to “spare the rod and spoil the child.” (When contacted by this magazine, my father broadly disputed my memories of him.) He mostly ignored the changes in my speech, but one thing I said made him clench with fury: “you guys.” The term was “y’all,” he said, tightening his jaw. Little girls were not guys.

From “Y’all: the Most Inclusive of all Pronouns

It’s often impossible (apart from confirming and documenting memories of other family members who were there) to gather evidence of events from troubled childhoods when those events are disputed, but sometimes people say a tiny bit of the quiet part out loud, for posterity.

This was the case with some letters, written by my father and sent to various southern newspapers in 1980, policing southernness and characterizing Jimmy Carter and Southern Reconstructionists as “scalawags,” a term with a racist history. Similar letters appear in at least two newspapers: the Asheville Citizen-Times (September 1980) and the Greenwood Commonwealth (October 1980). Here they are:

Image of an opinion letter published in the Asheville Citizen-Times under the headline "Is President A Southerner By Action And Deed?" and referring to then-President Jimmy Carter as a "Scalawag."
Image of an opinion letter published in the Greenwood Commonwealth under the headline "Floridian says Carter no longer true Southerner" and referring to then-President Jimmy Carter as a "Scalawag."

If you liked my essay, you might enjoy my book, Ancestor Trouble. Thanks for stopping by, y’all!


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