There have been many things to surprise me over the past couple of years, not least of which is the rise in conversation about the ‘hillbilly’. Due in part to J.D. Vance with his poorly written, stereotype-enforcing book “Hillbilly Elegy” and the rise in discussion about Appalachia and its role in the 2016 election, ‘hillbilly’ has become a buzzword.
But what’s in a ‘hillbilly’?
But what’s in a ‘hillbilly’? What’s behind this traditionally derogative phrase?
This blog is called The Oxford Hillbilly for several reasons, chief among them my claim on the identity. I’m from rural Kentucky and my familial roots are deep in the Appalachian hills of this state – since before it even was a state and was still part of the Virginia wilderness. In essence, we’ve been ‘hillbillies’ for a real long time. Yet I’ve found criticism and ridicule for my identity rampant – perhaps showing up most in the silly response I’ve had by some to the title for this blog with comments like “You’re not even a hillbilly?” or “Well, shouldn’t you be ashamed of that?”
Well, there is a lot to unpack there.
…my identity is also just as tied to the very hills I’ve been raised on and the culture of the hills my people came from as the books I read and the ideas I discuss.
Yes, I am educated. Yes, I’ve got my schooling and looking to get more in grad school. But my identity is also just as tied to the very hills I’ve been raised on and the culture of the hills my people came from as the books I read and the ideas I discuss. Y’all, I am a hillbilly and proud of it. It has taken me a long time to get here and to stop practices I picked up to be more ‘sophisticated’ – like code-switching my natural ‘hillbilly twang’ – but here we are and I’ll very well be damned if I start to back down from reclaiming my identity and standing up to the stereotypes now.
If you stick ‘hillbilly’ in the good old-fashioned search box of Google, you come up with this front and center:
Toothless. Dirty. Classless. Bigoted. Racist. Anachronistic. Uneducated. Male-oriented. Misogynistic. All of this comes to mind when we think about ‘hillbillies’ as a stereotype. However, this is not what I know of hillbilly culture – or at least not the full picture.
Now, some people I know from my part of the world are racist and bigoted. But guess what? So is the rest of the United States of America – and while this is a conversation for another post and another time, I’m right sick of bigotry and racism being almost exclusively attributed to the ‘ignorant’ Appalachian South. Get off your high horse. If 2016 taught us anything, it’s that there are racists and bigots everywhere en masse in this nation and no amount of explaining or excusing can allow us to ignore that any longer. I am not a racist or bigot apologist, but I am irritated of this being the only identifier of my ‘hillbilly’ kin while the Washington State racists get off scott-free.
Above all else, there is an intricate and beautiful and incredible culture in the hills that is heading toward extinction…
Digression aside, what the Appalachian South is, is poor. Impoverished. That much is true. Eastern Kentucky houses five of the ten poorest counties in the United States of America and the poverty rates in some of these counties exceed 40 percent. The Appalachian South – through its coal, timber, and other resources – is nearly single-handedly responsible for the prosperity in much of the rest of the United States through the Industrial Revolution. Much like how oil-rich countries experience devastating income inequality, Eastern Kentucky, Appalachia and the rest of the hillbilly nation experienced similar effects. Industry poured into the counties, money poured out, and once the industry left, these poor communities became destitute.
But this is not the only story of the Appalachian South or the ‘hillbilly.’ Above all else, there is an intricate and beautiful and incredible culture in the hills that is heading toward extinction at the hands of poverty, drugs, and mainstream portrayals of Appalachia.
I have vivid memories of visiting my family in Eastern Kentucky and stories that were told to me of my family and roots there. Folk traditions, incredible story-telling and musical talents, and other traditions of these people – my people – have colored my identity and my life in a way that I could never and would never want to separate from myself. It is as much a part of me as the color of my hair or my skin.
Hillbilly culture is not exclusively white, brown, black, impoverished, rich, white collar, blue collar, etc.
So yes, by all means I claim being a hillbilly. But more than that, I claim the right to define what that is and stand up for the colorful and diverse background that entails. Hillbilly culture is not exclusively white, brown, black, impoverished, rich, white collar, blue collar, etc. Hillbilly culture and identity is just as diverse as a New York or SoCal or Chicago identity is, and there can be just as much pride in it. Fighting the stereotypes is the first step in preserving this culture in the way it deserves.
Appalachian Reading List:
For those interested in learning more about Appalachia and hillbilly culture from the sources, see a few recommendations below.
“Uneven Ground: Appalachia since 1945″ by Ron Eller – A good academic read about the history of the region as it relates to the US as a whole and Appalachia today.
“Appalachian Elegy” by bell hooks – A short anthology of poetry by critically acclaimed bell hooks about the complexities of Appalachian identity as a black woman.
The Trillbilly Worker’s Party – A sometimes explicit, but always entertaining podcast form Eastern Kentucky locals dealing with everything from Appalachian stereotypes to the prison industrial complex to women’s health, etc. With a good helping of pop culture on the side.
“Clay’s Quilt” by Silas House – A local Appalachian author, House encapsulates the complex identity issues of modern Appalachians in this piece of a larger literary trilogy, though this is certainly an excellent stand-alone book.