Another key addition to the important backlash against Hillbilly Elegy and J.D. Vance’s grift on liberals who just want to understand those white people.
The fact that people will read his book, and assume that all Appalachian people are trying to actively run away from their culture, and that if they are smart, they will understand it to be less than and the people they came from to be crazy lunatics is, to me, one of the more personal attacks that Vance hurls at Appalachian people in his 261-page simultaneous fetishization and admonishment of my culture.
“Elegy” has no class, no heart, and no warmth. It’s a poorly written appropriation of Appalachian stereotypes that presents us as a people who aren’t worthy of anything but derision and pity, and who cannot be helped because we refuse to help ourselves. It ignores the systemic capitalist oppression that encourages persistent poverty. It assumes there is some special sect of the working class that is especially dedicated to white people. It is rife with fragile masculinity that actively diminishes the critical role that Appalachian women play in the culture, the resistance, in the workforce, and in the new economy.
I come from dignity and grace and laughter and joy, and while I do not discount the difficult childhood that Vance lived through and his own lived experience, “Hillbilly Elegy” erases and erodes any Appalachian experience outside his own non-Appalachian experience by reinforcing repeatedly that Appalachian “hillbilly” culture is somehow deficient and morally decrepit, and that it is something to be overcome.
Misrepresentation of Appalachia matters for several reasons. It obscures and intentionally eclipses the pride and dignity of being Appalachian. It has told us we should be ashamed of who we are, where we come from, and the people in our blood. It says to us that we aren’t worthy or deserving of anything more than being the butt of a joke. It hits us hard in our guts because the truth is way more complicated and way more real, and nobody likes tales to be carried about them.
But I think the thing that bothers me most is this: Appalachian misrepresentation actively and intentionally ignores and excludes the real life, lived experiences of all but a minority of Appalachian people. It ignores my fierce Granny Della. It ignores my Granny Hazel, who smelled of starch and taught me how to feed the chickens and always had breakfast waiting on me when I had to stay with her on a sick day. Misrepresentation certainly doesn’t tell the stories of my Grandpa Earl, who liberated concentration camps, who referred to me exclusively by my middle name, Jude, and who always had a Werther’s candy ready for me. My Mom and Dad are left out. They owned a gas station that hired local high school kids. They hung Modigliani and Van Gogh and Paolo Solari prints on the walls of our home. They played NPR every Sunday morning. They fought the dam at Red River Gorge, the racists in Hazard, the strip mining companies for which Dad used to work, and they both went back to school later in life and got degrees.
It ignores me: a young, queer Appalachian with roots ten-generations deep in eastern Kentucky, who holds within me the fierce loyalty and determination of my Granny Della, the unconditional compassion of my Granny Hazel, the individuality of my parents, and the mountain heart and soul of all my ancestors combined. My family is totally, completely, utterly left out and ignored, and so are the families of so many other Appalachians that are just like mine. We are Appalachian, too, but in “Hillbilly Elegy,” and so many other representations and think-pieces like it, we are cast aside for the lies we tell ourselves about the mythical other and perceived, inherent difference.
Yes, it turns out that the people of Appalachia are as complicated as anywhere else and that we shouldn’t’ take the words of someone who is writing explicitly so that liberals who can’t understand Trump voters will buy his book seriously.