I never thought such a seemingly innocuous moment would weigh on me so profoundly.
The visit to my father’s home, the house I grew up in, in Leland, Mississippi in the middle of the Mississippi Delta region, was uneventful. We played dominoes. We ate. I spent countless hours lazing about on his couch, futilely attempting to distance myself from the work that dominated my consciousness.
Then, on one of these regular, slow Mississippi Delta days, my dad walked in and asked about food, just as he had done dozens of times before. Only this time I heard him differently, “Well we need to figure something out because I’m hongry.” Hongry. It would be cliché to say that the word struck me, but it definitely raised my eyebrows, gave me pause. It was the first time that I’d noticed the word. As a part of my regular speaking pattern borne of my immersion in Delta culture, the word had been invisible to me. When we were hongry, we ate. Simple. This time, when we were hongry, I wept.
I had become aware of the accents of my hometown. That awareness meant that I was different, that I no longer spoke that way, that I no longer said “hongry;” I was, I am, educated, sophisticated, refined, cultured. I am like the Yankees, like the whites, like the uppity Negros on television; I now say “hungry.”
The word has become much more than a code switch for me, a word that I pronounce deliberately in mixed company because I’m hyper-aware of my accent. It’s no longer in the arsenal of words that makes me self-conscious of how I speak. It’s off that list. It just…rolls off the tongue. It comes out as naturally as if I had always said it that way, as if my community says it that way. It wasn’t supposed to be that way. Code switching is supposed to be temporary. You’re supposed to be able to turn it on and off, put on a show for the people in power and be real with the people who aren’t. But when the code doesn’t have to switch as much as it used to, you’re forced to acknowledge that even as you stand next to the lines that demarcate the boundaries between yourself and the powers that be, people who formerly stood next to you may look up to find similar lines separating you from them.
The word is loaded now. Its meaning stretches far beyond its dictionary definition of “feeling of displaying the need for food.”
Hungry represents my growing distance from my home communities.
Hungry represents my privilege relative to the people I grew up with.
Hungry represents all of the things that I was so sure that I wouldn’t become: isolated, different, smug, slowly drifting away from the things, people, and places I used to know and love.
But the messages conflict. This is what everyone wanted, right? I was one of the chosen ones, right? The smart one, the ambitious one, the “good” one, to go stand on the national stage and make the community proud. And I certainly haven’t forgotten where I came from, but it appears that ambition, that desire to prove myself and succeed both for myself and them, has its costs.
Where I’m from, success means leaving. You’re supposed to “go off and be somebody.” We frown upon staying home. We frown upon coming back. We say, “There’s nothing (t)here,” “Go do something,” and in some ways, with a black poverty rate over 40 percent, it’s accurate. So in a fashion reminiscent of the Great Migration, we send our kids to the city. But this time rather than Chicago and Detroit, we send them to Houston, Atlanta, and Charlotte, where they can get good educations, get good jobs, and learn to say “hungry.” And some of us do learn to say it. We learn that we’re hungry. We learn to close the door. We learn to appreciate hardwood floors. But to what end? How does pouring resources into forms of tokenistic escape improve the prospects of the people in the community? How does alienation from their home communities negatively affect those who have been shipped out into the world to represent the community?
The fact is that it doesn’t do anything for the community and losing a sense of home can be a dangerous thing, but that’s what happens when we teach that distance is the way success. For me, my connection to the place where I forged my identity, a connection that I have worked so hard to maintain, a connection that I thought I had found successful ways of maintaining, seems to be dissipating, slowly, innocuously. And as I continue along this path, making my living through the country’s elite academic institutions, I have no idea how to stop the bleeding.