“Louisville, Kentucky,” I say, already anticipating what the response will be.
“Sorry, what was that?”
“Loo-uh-vl,” I articulate automatically. I slur my words as precisely as I can. “Y’all gotta say it like you’re drunk on bourbon. That’s how the locals say it.”
Everyone at the dining hall table laughs. I am oh-so-cute and provincial! I even threw a “y’all” in there for good measure. These things stick out when you’re up North. You see people smile. Occasionally, you see them smirk. They most always ask questions.
“Is the grass really blue in the bluegrass state?”
“Do people in Kentucky marry their cousins?”
“Do people there wear shoes?”
I stop myself before I smack my forehead with the palm of my hand.
I am from Loo-uh-vl, Kentucky. I wear shoes. I know zero people who have married their cousins, and the grass is actually a lovely shade of deep green, a coloration that occurs because of the fertile limestone soil. It’s perfect for grazing horses.
“No, we’re pretty much like normal humans, and Louisville’s just like any medium sized city. Nothing special–– except for the Kentucky Derby. You know, the big horserace.”
Internally, the students at the table are visualizing that event they saw on ESPN as they were flipping channels, the one with the Longines sponsorship. Or perhaps they’re remembering the special edition Kentucky Derby Vineyard Vines tie they almost bought once. Whatever the case, when I mention these two words, everyone perks up and proceeds to ask questions about fancy hats and betting. I’m validated by “Kentucky Derby’s” five hollow syllables. Instead of the down-home hillbilly, I become a cultured local from a city that houses one of America’s greatest traditions––someone with worthwhile experiences to share.
But when I say “Kentucky Derby,” it is not internal pride that I feel. In fact, I’ve never actually been to the Kentucky Derby. My one experience at Churchill Downs, the track where the annual race is held, was on the day of the Kentucky Oaks, the running of the fillies. To give you a little background, Oaks is the day when we locals go out to the track to do our excessive drinking and smoking and betting so that we don’t have to hang out with lame tourists who participate in their reprehensible activities (i.e., excessive drinking, smoking, and betting).
Don’t get me wrong, the event is wonderful in many respects. Churchill Downs partners annually with Susan G. Komen for the Cure in making the race a massive platform for breast cancer awareness. Everyone wears pink, and there’s even a parade with survivors who walk around the track in one huge celebration of life before the races begin. The whole thing is quite inspirational if you have a good enough seat to see it––although perhaps the caveat should be if you are sober enough to see it. The food, though overpriced, is actually delicious. And of course, the people-watching is unparalleled. Women with hats that rival those of the royal family. Men wearing sharp suits in snazzy patterns and colors (if I had a dollar for every plaid blazer…). People with homemade hats complete with those charming glue gun cobwebs. Vomit stained T-shirts. When we come out to the track, we come out in all our glory.
But to a gal who can afford only general admission to the infield, the area of trampled grass on the inside of the track, Churchill Downs can also be a very jarring place. Have you ever seen a thirteen-year-old smoking a cigar? How about a fully grown adult urinating in broad daylight?
The Kentucky Oaks and Derby are supposed to inspire pride and camaraderie among locals, but that’s a hard sell when differences in socioeconomic status are as physically distinguishable as the difference between a towel in the infield and a seat in the stands. In my 18 years, I have never felt more aware of my demographic identity than at the racetrack. Every facet of my being was suddenly crammed into two boxes labeled “Middle-Class” and “Female.”
Given how rotten I felt on the ride home from Churchill Downs, it is interesting that at Yale, I feel compelled to not only willingly place myself within these two boxes, but to cram myself into a third one labeled “Southerner.” People back home would laugh if they knew. But as I sit on the floor of a suite in Vanderbilt Hall and chat with a collection of southerners, I realize that I am hardly alone in assuming a more pronounced southern identity while at Yale.
Carrie Dean, a freshman from Laurinburg, NC, describes her town as a place nearly 100 miles from every major city in North and South Carolina. A town which is simultaneously racially diverse and racially divided.
“Back home, I don’t really identify with any part of southern culture––I was actually super excited to leave. But because [being southern] is something that makes me distinct, because there are so few southerners here, I feel like it does become more a part of my personality,” she says during a late night conversation peppered with relevant subjects from southern politics to the objective superiority of Cookout milkshakes. “I’m the girl from North Carolina.”
Others find that their increased southern-ness is a product of nostalgia. Jazzy Fisher, SY ’20, found herself buying Atlanta hats and stickers labeled “Georgia on my mind” over the winter break in spite of the fact that she never really engaged with the southern culture of her native Marietta, Georgia. “Now that I’m here, being southern is a part of my identity that I cling to, and I’ve decided it’s important to me,” she says. “Being in the North, I’ve grown in appreciation for the South.”
Jazzy recounts stories of warm southern hospitality, often taking on a sweet, syrupy southern accent. She smiles when she says she wants to move back down to the South when she’s older. The smile is genuine.
As the discussion turns to the ubiquity of Chick-fil-A restaurants in the suburbs of Atlanta, I begin to feel as if someone is scrubbing off a thick layer of makeup from my face. Unlike Carrie, I am not from the south South. Louisville is just about as far North as you can get in the state of Kentucky. It’s five hours south of Chicago. That’s a mere five episodes of The Bachelor. And unlike Jazzy, I have no real desire to return to the South in any kind of hurry. I’m not trying to say my southern identity is fabricated––I’ve lived in Louisville for eleven years. But Like a layer of skin-toned makeup, it is still not completely natural.
On the ride back home from Churchill Downs, in the midst of my disillusionment, the Uber driver struck up a conversation. My friends and I learned that he grew up in a rural town marked by a gas station, a couple of fast food restaurants, and some half-lit neon signs. He told us that in his community, some could still remember the exploits of coal company bosses. These people did not purposely conform to stereotypes that I would later selectively pick and choose in a college dining at Yale University.
“Y’all did the right thing getting out of there early,” he said. “The race is more fun to watch on TV anyway.”
Y’all. It sounded so genuine, so natural.
Somehow, when I say it these days, it doesn’t feel quite the same.