And Then What Happened?: A Yankee who says y’all


For the Recorder
Published: 2/5/2023 3:25:45 PM

Lord y’all! Something happened in my brain recently, if not in my speech, that left me pondering my very identity.

I was born and lived until my early 20s in North Carolina. My parents were intellectual beatniks of the day, and we four children were raised to be activists. My youngest brother’s earliest memory in life is of standing on the steps of the post office, protesting the Vietnam War. That sort of thing didn’t go over well in North Carolina in the 1960s, nor did the school integration practices that my parents promoted. My forebearers were kicked out of the Lutheran Church and the Parent-Teacher Association for their stances on most things.

That was the North Carolina I grew up in. But the good parts of the area enveloped me in warm humidity and imprinted on my heart — the diversity of the people who were trying to integrate, the local speech, the laid-back friendliness, the “Do Whatcha Wanna” attitude.

In 1981, I got on a train and went to New Orleans for a 10-day visit with a friend there. I got off the train, looked around, and 15 minutes later I knew that that historical southern place was my real hometown and those were my people. I didn’t even go home to get my things. I moved to New Orleans and slid deeper into my hot southern culture.

Twenty-five years later I came to visit another friend in Ashfield while I was in the area to work on the Green River Festival. While I was here, Hurricane Katrina passed through my adopted hometown and wiped it clean. The levee failures resulted in my house being filled with 8 feet of water, snakes and alligators, rendering it unlivable. And every one of my possessions drowned with it.

So, I stayed in Ashfield. And this is where the story gets interesting. I liked Massachusetts, but in my heart I was a southerner. A North Carolinian, a Louisianan. Ask me where I’m from and, even if it makes no difference to the conversation, I find I always say, “I live in Massachusetts, but I’m from New Orleans.” I identify as a New Orleanian though I’ve now lived in Massachusetts nearly as long as I lived in Louisiana. But Yankees ain’t my people. I don’t talk like them, I don’t think like them. I’m a southerner, y’all.

At this moment I am in New Orleans, working on my 39th New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Last Wednesday I was walking down the street, shaking my head at the eternally ripped-up streets of this city when I said with a bonafide eyeroll, “In Ashfield, (Highway Superintendent) Tom Poissant fixed the whole street I live on in about six hours! He’d never take this long, disrupting life ’til he got around to doing it.”

And when the windows of my pickup truck got smashed twice in eight days by people allegedly looking for guns, I declared, “This would never happen in western Massachusetts! Not even in the city!” Then I stopped. I looked around and I asked, “Who said that? Who is this person who looks so much like me, haughtily, disdainfully identifying with the folks of Massachusetts as my people?”

Yet, it’s true. I look at New Orleans and I think, “Y’all were fun when I was younger, but y’all need to grow up and take some responsibility for yourselves, your streets and your children. What do you think this is?”

The thoughts were involuntary; that was how I knew they were real. They even made me stop walking for a moment. “Am I a Yankee now?”

Am I a Yankee who says, “Y’all?” Can there be such a thing? This many years in and I’ve lost my identity. Or have I gained a new one, a sculpted, blended, national one? Is this what it feels like to be a standard American? Or am I a Nan Without a Country?

I love Ashfield’s 300-year history. I love the dug-in-the-mud obstinance of its old-timers. I even appreciate how long it took them to let me in, precisely because I was from the south. There’d been a war 145 years earlier, and they had to make sure I remembered those differences.

But to claim to be from Ashfield? I understand that, since I was not born within the village limits, I cannot claim the place anyway. Does agreeing with that make me one of them?

Does the fact that I now snort that, “Ashfield’s not like it was when I came here,” make me a card-carrying Ashfielder? It sure makes me sound like one.

For now, I’ve got a little more time here in the south. I’ll let you know what evolves.

Nan Parati lives and works in Ashfield, where she found home and community following Hurricane Katrina. She can be reached at


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