It’s the anger that’s the hardest for me to communicate.
Years of education has disciplined me to avoid expressing anger in my writing. Starting in junior high English class, and continuing on through college courses and beyond, I’ve been taught to write structured essays with restrained arguments free from emotional adornment. Yet thinking about that Hillbilly Elegy book — and now the movie — turns me into a cussing, hopping mad hillbilly.
What’s even worse than the book, though, has been the gullibility of the people who bought Hillbilly Elegy hook, line, and sinker. That book managed to do serious harm by fooling people who never cared to know anything about hillbillies before Hillbilly Elegy hit the best sellers list into thinking they had learned something about us. I checked J.D. Vance’s book out from the library back when it first got so much love and attention. Even though there was a wait list to get it, I’m glad that I didn’t buy the damn thing. If you haven’t read it, you shouldn’t. And don’t buy into the hype around the movie: you shouldn’t watch it. Hillbilly Elegy will teach you nothing true about hillbillies, and it’s offensive to boot.
Hillbilly Elegy isn’t anything more than a minstrel story written by a hillbilly adjacent guy for newly minted hillbilly enthusiasts. It’s a literary — and now a theatrical — depiction of a certain type of poor white folks for people who know next to nothing about those being depicted. Just as the old blackface minstrel shows portraying a white-person’s view of African Americans were harmful and offensive even though the shows were, no doubt, fun for audiences and perhaps even educational in ways that are hard for contemporary Americans wrap our heads around, Hillbilly Elegy is both harmful and offensive. It doesn’t matter how many people enjoyed the book or thought that it was informative; it’s inaccurate and offensive.
I believe J.D. Vance when he says that he loves hillbillies and wants to help us rather than harm us. I don’t doubt that Vance and his admirers mean well in a superficial sense, just as white performers could don blackface and sing old slave tunes portraying racist tropes while professing a sincere but shallow love for the people being caricatured. It’s not a matter of intent; it’s a matter of outcomes. In the case of Hillbilly Elegy, those outcomes include sowing confusion as to who hillbillies are and hurling slurs at us, all while lining the pockets of an outsider who’s profiting off of us. While the old blackface minstrel shows were far worse than Hillbilly Elegy because they were ubiquitous sources of inspiration to a violently racist culture, that’s a very low bar for a book or movie to clear.
Anyhow, to begin with, J.D. Vance isn’t even a hillbilly. As he describes his raising in the introduction of his book, he “grew up poor, in the Rust Belt, in an Ohio steel town that has been hemorrhaging jobs and hope for as long as [he] can remember.” More precisely but less poetically, Vance grew up in a working class suburb of Cincinnati. It’s rather obvious but apparently bears mentioning: Cincinnati isn’t in Appalachia. J.D. Vance is claiming to be a hillbilly despite not being from the hills.
Granted, the geography of your childhood alone isn’t what makes you a hillbilly, but “hill” is right there in the term. I’ve known plenty of people raised in the hills by families from outside who didn’t grow up to be hillbillies themselves, but it’s hard to claim hillbilly status when you haven’t actually lived in the hills. That Vance has fond memories of spending a couple of weeks every summer in the Appalachians of Kentucky is a slender reed upon which to hang his claim to membership in a group that literally defines itself based on place. Bear in mind that our hillbilly sense of place isn’t just based on gross geography like mountain ranges, but on specific geography like hills, hollers, ridges, and river valleys. It matters whether you come from the ridgeland or bottomland, or which river was closest to you growing up. You can’t wave away place when you’re dealing with a group of people who care about place as deeply as we do.
Since his geographic claim to hillbilly status is, at best, impaired, Vance tries to claim hillbilly status through his Scots-Irish roots. Now, as a Scots-Irish American myself, I think that our big, extended family of trouble makers are an interesting bunch. I enjoy reading about us. I like our musical traditions. I love the stories we tell. We’re not the One True Version of America, but we definitely are A True Version of America. All that said, Scots-Irish and hillbilly are far from synonyms. While many of us Scots-Irish are hillbillies, many more are not. Similarly, while most of us hillbillies are of Scots-Irish descent, many others are not. It’s the sort of thing an actual hillbilly would understand, but it’s something Vance apparently doesn’t understand because, well, he’s not a hillbilly.
Vance seems to mostly stake his claim to being a hillbilly on a direct family line through his grandparents, who traveled a short distance up the Hillbilly Highway from Kentucky to settle in Middletown, Ohio. His grandparents were unquestionably hillbillies by raising, and they certainly put down roots in an area with plenty of others who were also hillbillies by raising. Urban enclaves of hillbilly transplants like Vance’s hometown are certainly hillbilly adjacent, but the cultural and economic forces that draw people to the city and then keep those people there also melt the distinctive hillbilly edge off of them within a generation or less. Hillbilly adjacent people like Vance have blood-ties that offer them a fuller view of hillbilly life than total outsiders can ever dream of getting, but it doesn’t make them actual hillbillies. They’re just folks who get invited to Thanksgiving dinner.
There are two problems with a hillbilly-adjacent person like Vance lecturing us about hillbillies as if he’s the Tenured Trotline Chair of Hillbilly Studies at Rocky Top University. First he misinforms. Then he offends.
It’s hard to imagine a worse candidate to teach the general public about hillbillies than someone who’s merely hillbilly adjacent. An honest to goodness hillbilly can speak from personal experience about us, while a true outsider can be objective. A hillbilly adjacent person lacks both first-hand knowledge and perspective. The hillbilly adjacent can be valuable translators and interlocutors to serve as go-betweens for hillbillies and outsiders, but that’s not what Vance is attempting with any of the incarnations of Hillbilly Elegy. Instead, he’s falsely claiming hillbilly membership and then declaring that his (non)hillbilly lived experience is a prism through which the entire world can understand hillbilly life. It’s the worst kind of bullshit, in that it’s plausible enough to convince people who don’t know any better to believe him while still being entirely wrong.
And, let’s face it, Vance gets a lot wrong about hillbillies, and what he gets wrong has serious consequences if you’re actually trying to understand us. The biggest thing Vance gets wrong about hillbillies (and in the interest of brevity this is the only error I am going to yammer on about at any length here) is that he defines “hillbilly” in a way that’s unrecognizable to the people who actually consider ourselves to be one. I understand his motivation to define us in a way that enables him to claim membership, as Vance’s prose certainly evokes a peculiar yearning to belong among the hillbillies, but that doesn’t make his definition correct or useful.
I’m not going to dispute the sincerity of Vance’s desire to be considered a hillbilly. I have no way to know what’s going on in his head or in his heart. What I can say is that the problem with Vance’s approach is that defining hillbillies so broadly as to include Scots-Irish kids from the suburbs of Cincinnati erases the very real differences between the diverse groups that make up the white working class. It also excludes a whole mess of non-Scot-Irish hillbillies from the club. When Vance lumps “hillbillies, rednecks, [and] white trash” together into a single heap of Americans of Scots-Irish descent, he elides not just the reality of hillbilly existence, but also the existence of all of the other groups (and not just the Scots-Irish) that are hillbillies (or rednecks or white trash, for that matter).
Vance isn’t alone in making the mistake of assuming that all poor white people are hillbillies and that all hillbillies are poor white people. Outsiders often misclassify groups of people they claim to care about. This isn’t a classification mistake that a hillbilly would make about ourselves for the same reason practically no one in the “Latinx” community would actually describe themselves as “Latinx.” Those who are in a group know who’s in it, and we get to decide what to call ourselves.
This desire to group people and communities together based on a superficial similarity impedes understanding and outreach. I realize that the educated people who read books like Hillbilly Elegy struggle to tell the difference between “Latinx” communities of Mexican-Americans, Honduran-Americans, and Guatemalan-Americans, so it’s no surprise that they also struggle to tell the difference between hillbillies, cowboys, and prairie Bohemians — or any of the other vast number of distinct cultural groups that make up rural and ostensibly white America. The educated elite of America may think that all of the poor, rural whites are the same because they’re all poor, rural, and white, but they just aren’t — no more than a third generation Mexican-American born in the U.S. is the same as a freshly naturalized U.S. citizen born in Honduras.
Even within the group of us that can call ourselves hillbillies, we’re a varied lot. I, for example, am an Ozark hillbilly. The Ozarks are smaller in both area and population than Appalachia, the region from whence J.D. Vance’s hillbilly kin hailed. The settlers of European descent who first arrived in the Ozarks in substantial numbers were mostly Scots-Irish settlers from Appalachia who brought their culture with them in an Antebellum migration. As a result of that common lineage, my Ozark branch of the hillbilly family tree shares a lot of similarities with our cousins in Appalachia.
On the other hand, it’s been a long, long time since my ancestors who settled the Ozarks left Appalachia. Over the last century and a half Appalachia and the Ozarks have faced different challenges and different realities, so naturally our hillbilly cultures have evolved differently. Appalachia had coal mining, with all of the attendant jobs, pollution, black lung, labor organizing, and desolation after mines closed. Here in the Ozarks we never mined much coal (although in some parts we did mine lead, zinc, and even iron), but we did cut the ever-loving hell out of our native forests, which led to very different perspective on both the natural world and class consciousness in the Ozarks than in Appalachia. The Appalachian mountains are higher, deeper, and less accessible than the Ozarks, which left Appalachian culture to evolve in greater isolation than Ozark culture did. The other side of the isolation coin is that here in the Ozarks our Scots-Irish culture has had the opportunity to absorb elements from the German, Italian, and even French communities that were built in these hills. The distribution of those settlements from over a century ago means that Ozark hillbillies from the Salem Plateau (like me!) grew up in a different culture than the Ozark hillbillies from the Boston Mountains. This also means that not all hillbillies are of Scots-Irish descent. Aside from the hillbillies descended from the German, Italian, and French people who settled in the Ozarks, we’ve had African-American and even Asian-American hillbillies in our midst — not that Hillbilly Elegy would acknowledge them.
Now, I don’t expect America’s educated elite to appreciate the nuanced differences between hillbillies and cowboys, or between Ozark hillbillies and Appalachian hillbillies, or between Salem Plateau Ozark hillbillies and Boston Mountain Ozark hillbillies. Entire books can and should be written about these differences. I don’t expect anyone from outside to understand the sort of nuances that take a lifetime to appreciate. On the other hand, I most definitely DO expect America’s educated elite to stop sweeping all of the poor white folk into a single pile labeled “hillbillies.” For what it’s worth, I also expect them to stop sweeping everyone with a Spanish-sounding surname into a pile labeled “Latinx,” but that’s not really my fight to wage. I just know that those of us in the piles deserve better.
The second problem with Vance not being a hillbilly is that it makes the way he talks about us offensive. I’ve thrown the term “hillbilly” around pretty liberally so far, but I should be clear: it’s an offensive term when it comes from an outsider’s lips. Do I call myself a hillbilly? Yes. Do my friends and family members refer to themselves as hillbillies? Yes — but only amongst ourselves. Am I okay with a yahoo from Cincinnati calling me and my people hillbillies? Hell no.
In the pantheon of offensive slurs, I suppose that “hillbilly” ranks pretty low, but it still most definitely ranks. “Hillbilly” isn’t as offensive as the racial and ethnic slurs that may be popping into your mind as worse examples as you read this, slurs that I will not write or speak, but it’s still offensive. I don’t mean to conflate “hillbilly” with the sort of slurs that used to be hurled at lynchings and are still shouted by racists who don’t think that Black Lives matter that much. I’m not trying to create a false equivalence.
Just because, to my knowledge, no one’s been brutally murdered for being a “hillbilly” doesn’t mean that it’s not a term that’s been used to mark people like me as outsiders for a long, long time. Records weren’t labeled as “Hillbilly Music” to indicate that they were fit for playing in fancy parlors, and I note that the rich tradition of African American music featured genre labels that also served to warn polite, cultured music fans away from the wrong sort of records made by the wrong sort of people. Hillbillies who moved up the Hillbilly Highway to industrial cities for work didn’t form their own enclaves with slang names like Hillbilly Heaven because the newcomers didn’t want to put up with the other inhabitants of town; the newcomers weren’t welcome and had to live in the places they were allowed to. I’ll also note that it wasn’t the recently arrived hillbillies who gave their communities those names.
Hillbilly is a slur. It may be something we call ourselves to be funny or to make a point or to reclaim the term, but it’s not something an outsider gets to label us with. Dwight Yoakam can sing about hillbillies, because Dwight’s one of us. It’s not okay for, I don’t know, Beyonce to use the term, because she’s not one of us. (Now, to be fair to Beyonce, I know next to nothing about her. I am pretty sure that I would know if she’d sang a song about hillbillies, though, so as far as I know she’s not an offender here. She’s just the only pop musician that comes to my hillbilly mind.)
The folks who thought Hillbilly Elegy was the gospel truth are all outsiders to us. J.D. Vance is an outsider who’s painted himself up like an ersatz hillbilly for fun and profit. None of them get to use the term without us being hopping mad about it. It’s a slur when they say it. It’s a slur when they write it. It’s offensive.
The entire damn Hillbilly Elegy construct has been misleading Americans about my people while lining Vance’s already well-filled pockets with royalties. It’s just another hillbilly minstrel show, updated with more grit and less cornpone than was featured in the early days of the Grand Ol’ Opry. And bear in mind that the original version of the Opry, as well as its predecessors and competitors, mostly featured actual hillbillies performing the minstrel show to entertain other hillbillies. Hillbilly Elegy is nothing but an outsider pretending to be one of us to make money by telling lies about us to other outsiders.
So, seriously, #$@% Hillbilly Elegy. Both the book and the movie.