What is a Hillbilly?

“We’ve got some hillbilly kids out of control.”

That’s how Dick Cheney, in one sentence, harnessed a century of stereotyping to explain the horrors of the Abu Ghraib torture chambers during the US occupation of Iraq. The UK’s Daily Mail echoed the same sentiment in an interview with the convicted torturer Lynndie England in her West Virginia hometown. The Mail dubbed her “the trailer trash torturer,” as she lamented that she “…can’t even hunt squirrels no more, because I’m not permitted to own a firearm.”

No high-ranking officers were ever convicted for these crimes of racism and imperialism. The occupation authority continued on with its business of occupation and slaughter. Rather than an indictment of the US government’s regular practice of mass murder, pillage, and torture, Abu Ghraib was seen as an aberration; one to be pinned on deviant “hillbillies” like England.

Deliverance jpg

Cheney’s specter of the deviant hillbilly was an old one. It harkened back to the violent, sexually depraved characters in the movie Deliverance. It fed on the myth of a lower class of white people, isolated in the hills, that departed from the norms of white civilization long ago. But, the myth-making of the hilbilly “other” is no anachronism—it continues in the form of “hillbilly elegies” and Trump-country narratives today.

Origins of the Hillbilly

Now widely understood as “white,” the hillbilly is a social construction that has mutated over the last one hundred years. Some historians have mistakenly traced the first use of the word in print to an April 23, 1903 newspaper article in the New York Journal, which described a hillbilly as “…a free and untrammelled white citizen of Alabama, who lives in the hills, has no means to speak of, dresses as he can, talks as he pleases, drinks whiskey when he gets it, and fires off his revolver as the fancy takes him.”

Yet, an 1896 newspaper article in Our Mountain Home reported on “…a small political sensation in the shape of a tall mulatto running for coroner” in “Talladega County, where the hill-billies live,” who “appeals to the Republicans and Peoples party for support.”

During the mid-1890s, the southern Democratic party—the party of the white supremacist Confederacy—was facing a new challenge in the midst of the Populist upheaval. As the Democrats scrambled to disenfranchise Blacks, it also instituted strict new laws that disenfranchised many poor whites. Faced with an economic catastrophe, the onerous crop-lien system, small farmers and landless whites gravitated toward the Republican Party and the newly organized People’s Party, which grew out of the various farmer’s alliances.

White planters, firmly in control of the Democratic Party, sought to villainize poor whites who made the traitorous mistake of rejecting the party of the white man. Frank Burkitt, for instance, left the Democratic Party for the Populist movement, attacked restrictions on the franchise, and advocated for free public education for both Blacks and whites. The Klan reacted by burning down his office. Responding to Burkitt’s departure from Mississippi, an 1893 newspaper article in the Vicksburg Evening Post recalled the “prejudice” which “‘Hill-Billies’ cherish” against the Delta’s ruling-class.

Large plantation owners, fighting to defend white supremacy deep in the heart of the Black Belt were routinely frustrated by the lack of enthusiasm for their Democratic Party by the “hill-whites” of eastern Tennessee, West Virginia, and eastern Kentucky who upset the mythology of the “solid south.”

The “hillbilly” was born in the midst of the agrarian revolt of the 1890s and soon became synonymous with the people of Appalachia.

From “Mountaineer” to “Hillbilly”

Although the term only began to appear in print in the 1890s, the people of the southern Appalachian region had long been characterized as something other than respectable white people. While early settlers in the region were celebrated in popular accounts for their adventurous individualism, the development of the timber and coal industries required a different conception of the mountain people. As capitalists scrambled to exploit the Appalachian region’s rich resources, mountaineers were recast as “squatters” on valuable land. Local color novelists published dozens of books, depicting mountaineers as uncivilized, gun-toting savages.

These were followed later by popular cartoons.

and movies

…which lead to advertising opportunities

and wrestlers!

and board games

FeudinTime HasbroBoardGame jpg

and Saturday Night Live skits

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With this history of the social construction of the hillbilly in mind, we must understand the current media characterizations of Trump-loving “coal country,” ravaged by an epidemic of opiods, where people stupidly vote against their own interests, as part of the process where poor and working-class Appalachian people are cast as an “other” that doesn’t fit the norms of respectability and whiteness. The legacy of racism is what continues to make this possible.


Eric Kerl is a Kentuckian living, working, organizing, and writing in Chicago. His articles have appeared in International Socialist Review, Socialist Worker, and elsewhere. He is the author of White Bred: Anti-Racism and the Boundaries of White Racial Solidarity, forthcoming from Haymarket Books.

A Hillbilly Syllabus

“Some people call me Hillbilly
Some people call me Mountain Man
Well, you can call me Appalachia
’Cause Appalachia is what I am”
—Del McCoury

Since the publication of JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, just before the “election” of Donald Trump, the people of Appalachia have been discovered again. Perplexed by the specter of white poverty and apparent backwardness, liberals and progressives turned to Vance’s Elegy to understand Appalachians. Instead, what they found was a blame-the-victim and culture of poverty narrative that wouldn’t pass the smell test of racism in any other case.

Unfortunately, Elegy is now the touchstone for any discussion about Appalachia. Yet, there is a rich tradition of Appalachian scholars and writers, writing from the Left, about the topics of poverty, racism, underdevelopment, and struggle.

This is a partial list of some of the most useful resources that I’ve come across and recommend for people to read after/instead of Hillbilly Elegy.

 

§ § §

 

For starters

RaceClassSouthernAppalachia

Race & Class in Southern Appalachia

a talk by Eric Kerl at the Socialism 2015 Conference

For generations, southern Appalachia has remained among the poorest places in the United States. Now mostly white, Appalachians are still ridiculed as “hillbillies” and worse. Yet, a rich tradition of interracial class struggle and socialism is an inextricable part of Appalachian history. This talk will examine the development of capitalism and racist ideology in the Appalachian region along with the response from Black Appalachians and the mountain “hillbillies” often considered less than “white.”

Listen here.

 

ramphollow

Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia

by Steven Stoll

In Ramp Hollow, Steven Stoll offers a fresh, provocative account of Appalachia, and why it matters. He begins with the earliest European settlers, whose desire for vast forests to hunt in was frustrated by absentee owners―including George Washington and other founders―who laid claim to the region. Even as Daniel Boone became famous as a backwoods hunter and guide, the economy he represented was already in peril. Within just a few decades, Appalachian hunters and farmers went from pioneers to pariahs, from heroes to hillbillies, in the national imagination, and the area was locked into an enduring association with poverty and backwardness. Stoll traces these developments with empathy and precision, examining crucial episodes such as the Whiskey Rebellion, the founding of West Virginia, and the arrival of timber and coal companies that set off a devastating “scramble for Appalachia.”

At the center of Ramp Hollow is Stoll’s sensitive portrayal of Appalachian homesteads. Perched upon ridges and tucked into hollows, they combined small-scale farming and gardening with expansive foraging and hunting, along with distilling and trading, to achieve self-sufficiency and resist the dependence on cash and credit arising elsewhere in the United States. But the industrialization of the mountains shattered the ecological balance that sustained the households. Ramp Hollow recasts the story of Appalachia as a complex struggle between mountaineers and profit-seeking forces from outside the region. Drawing powerful connections between Appalachia and other agrarian societies around the world, Stoll demonstrates the vitality of a peasant way of life that mixes farming with commerce but is not dominated by a market mind-set. His original investigation, ranging widely from history to literature, art, and economics, questions our assumptions about progress and development, and exposes the devastating legacy of dispossession and its repercussions today.

Read an excerpt here.

 

elizcatte

What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia

by Elizabeth Catte

In 2016, headlines declared Appalachia ground zero for America’s “forgotten tribe” of white working class voters. Journalists flocked to the region to extract sympathetic profiles of families devastated by poverty, abandoned by establishment politics, and eager to consume cheap campaign promises. What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia is a frank assessment of America’s recent fascination with the people and problems of the region. The book analyzes trends in contemporary writing on Appalachia, presents a brief history of Appalachia with an eye toward unpacking Appalachian stereotypes, and provides examples of writing, art, and policy created by Appalachians as opposed to for Appalachians. The book offers a must-needed insider’s perspective on the region.

Read an excerpt here.

 

UnevenGround

Uneven Ground: Appalachia Since 1945

by Ronald D. Eller

In Uneven Ground: Appalachia since 1945, Eller examines the politics of development in Appalachia since World War II with an eye toward exploring the idea of progress as it has evolved in modern America. Appalachia’s struggle to overcome poverty, to live in harmony with the land, and to respect the diversity of cultures and the value of community is also an American story. In the end, Eller concludes, “Appalachia was not different from the rest of America; it was in fact a mirror of what the nation was becoming.”

 

FightingBackInAppalachia

Fighting Back in Appalachia: Traditions of Resistance and Change

by Stephen L. Fisher

Sixteen original essays document the extent and variety of citizen resistance and struggle in the Appalachian region since 1960. The contributors-all organizers or activist intellectuals-describe how and why some of the dramatic Appalachian resistance efforts and strategies have arisen.

 

DeerhuntingWithJesus

Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War

by Joe Bageant

Years before Hillbilly Elegy and White Trash, a raucous, truth-telling look at the white working poor — and why they have learned to hate liberalism. What it adds up to, he asserts, is an unacknowledged class war.

By turns tender, incendiary, and seriously funny, this book is a call to arms for fellow progressives with little real understanding of “the great beery, NASCAR-loving, church-going, gun-owning America that has never set foot in a Starbucks.”

Deer Hunting with Jesus is Joe Bageant’s report on what he learned when he moved back to his hometown of Winchester, Virginia. Like countless American small towns, it is fast becoming the bedrock of a permanent underclass. Two in five of the people in his old neighborhood do not have high school diplomas or health care. Alcohol, overeating, and Jesus are the preferred avenues of escape.

 

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Racism, Gender, and Culture

AppalachiansAndRace

Appalachians and Race: The Mountain South from Slavery to Segregation

by John C. Inscoe

African Americans have had a profound impact on the economy, culture, and social landscape of southern Appalachia but only after a surge of study in the last two decades have their contributions been recognized by white culture. Appalachians and Race brings together 18 essays on the black experience in the mountain South in the nineteenth century. These essays provide a broad and diverse sampling of the best work on race relations in this region. The contributors consider a variety of topics: black migration into and out of the region, educational and religious missions directed at African Americans, the musical influences of interracial contacts, the political activism of blacks during reconstruction and beyond, the racial attitudes of white highlanders, and much more. Drawing from the particulars of southern mountain experiences, this collection brings together important studies of the dynamics of race not only within the region, but throughout the South and the nation over the course of the turbulent nineteenth century.

BlacksInAppalachia

Blacks in Appalachia

edited by William H. Turner and Edward J. Cabbell

Although southern Appalachia is popularly seen as a purely white enclave, blacks have lived in the region from early times. Some hollows and coal camps are in fact almost exclusively black settlements. The selected readings in this new book offer the first comprehensive presentation of the black experience in Appalachia.

Organized topically, the selections deal with the early history of blacks in the region, with studies of the black communities, with relations between blacks and whites, with blacks in coal mining, and with political issues. Also included are a section on oral accounts of black experiences and an analysis of black Appalachian demography. The contributors range from Carter Woodson and W. E. B. Du Bois to more recent scholars such as Theda Perdue and David A. Corbin. An introduction by the editors provides an overall context for the selections.

Blacks in Appalachia focuses needed attention on a neglected area of Appalachian studies. It will be a valuable resource for students of Appalachia and of black history.

 

ReconstructingAppalachia

Reconstructing Appalachia: The Civil War’s Aftermath

edited by Andrew L. Slap

Families, communities, and the nation itself were irretrievably altered by the Civil War and the subsequent societal transformations of the nineteenth century. The repercussions of the war incited a broad range of unique problems in Appalachia, including political dynamics, racial prejudices, and the regional economy.

Andrew L. Slap’s anthology Reconstructing Appalachia reveals life in Appalachia after the ravages of the Civil War, an unexplored area that has left a void in historical literature.
Addressing a gap in the chronicles of our nation, this vital collection explores little-known aspects of history with a particular focus on the Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction periods. Acclaimed scholars John C. Inscoe, Gordon B. McKinney, and Ken Fones-Wolf are joined by up-and-comers like Mary Ella Engel, Anne E. Marshall, and Kyle Osborn in a unique volume of essays investigating postwar Appalachia with clarity and precision.

Featuring a broad geographic focus, these compelling essays cover postwar events in Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania. This approach provides an intimate portrait of Appalachia as a diverse collection of communities where the values of place and family are of crucial importance.
Highlighting a wide array of topics including racial reconciliation, tension between former Unionists and Confederates, the evolution of post–Civil War memory, and altered perceptions of race, gender, and economic status, Reconstructing Appalachia is a timely and essential study of a region rich in heritage and tradition.

 

hillbilly

Hillbilly: A Cultural History of an American Icon

by Anthony Hawkins

In this pioneering work of cultural history, historian Anthony Harkins argues that the hillbilly-in his various guises of “briar hopper,” “brush ape,” “ridge runner,” and “white trash”-has been viewed by mainstream Americans simultaneously as a violent degenerate who threatens the modern order and as a keeper of traditional values of family, home, and physical production, and thus symbolic of a nostalgic past free of the problems of contemporary life. “Hillbilly” signifies both rugged individualism and stubborn backwardness, strong family and kin networks but also inbreeding and bloody feuds. Spanning film, literature, and the entire expanse of American popular culture, from D. W. Griffith to hillbilly music to the Internet, Harkins illustrates how the image of the hillbilly has consistently served as both a marker of social derision and regional pride. He traces the corresponding changes in representations of the hillbilly from late-nineteenth century America, through the great Depression, the mass migrations of Southern Appalachians in the 1940s and 1950s, the War on Poverty in the mid 1960s, and to the present day. Harkins also argues that images of hillbillies have played a critical role in the construction of whiteness and modernity in twentieth century America. Richly illustrated with dozens of photographs, drawings, and film and television stills, this unique book stands as a testament to the enduring place of the hillbilly in the American imagination.

 

HillBillyWomen

Hillbilly Women: Struggle and Survival in Southern Appalachia

by Skye K. Moody (Kathy Kahn)

“This book tells what it means to be a woman when you are poor, when you are proud, and when you are a hillbilly.”

First published in 1973, Skye Moody’s Hillbilly Women shares the stunning and raw oral histories of 19 women in 20th-century Southern Appalachia, from their day-to-day struggles for survival to the personal triumphs of their hardscrabble existence. They are wives, widows, and daughters of coal miners; factory hands, tobacco graders, cotton mill workers, and farmers; and women who value honest labor, self-esteem, and dignity. Shining a much-needed light into a misunderstood culture and identity, the stories within reflect the universally human struggle to live meaningful and dignified lives.

 

OurAppalachia

Our Appalachia: An Oral History

edited by Laurel Shackelford and Bill Weinberg

The words on the page have the ring of truth, for these are the people of Appalachia speaking for themselves. Here they recollect an earlier time of isolation but of independence and neighborliness. For a nearer time they tell of the great changes that took place in Appalachia with the growth of coal mining and railroads and the disruption of old ways. Persisting through the years and sounding clearly in the interviews are the dignity of the Appalachian people and their close ties with the land, despite the exploitation and change they have endured.

 

§ § §

 

Political Economy

PowerAndPowerlessness

Power and Powerlessness: Quiescence and Rebellion in an Appalachian Valley

by John Gaventa

Explains to outsiders the conflicts between the financial interests of the coal and land companies, and the moral rights of the vulnerable mountaineers.

FirstAmericanFrontier

The First American Frontier: Transition to Capitalism in Southern Appalachia, 1700–1860

by Wilma A. Dunaway

In The First American Frontier, Wilma Dunaway challenges many assumptions about the development of preindustrial Southern Appalachia’s society and economy. Drawing on data from 215 counties in nine states from 1700 to 1860, she argues that capitalist exchange and production came to the region much earlier than has been previously thought. Her innovative book is the first regional history of antebellum Southern Appalachia and the first study to apply world-systems theory to the development of the American frontier. Dunaway demonstrates that Europeans established significant trade relations with Native Americans in the southern mountains and thereby incorporated the region into the world economy as early as the seventeenth century. In addition to the much-studied fur trade, she explores various other forces of change, including government policy, absentee speculation in the region’s natural resources, the emergence of towns, and the influence of local elites. Contrary to the myth of a homogeneous society composed mainly of subsistence homesteaders, Dunaway finds that many Appalachian landowners generated market surpluses by exploiting a large landless labor force, including slaves. In delineating these complexities of economy and labor in the region, Dunaway provides a perceptive critique of Appalachian exceptionalism and development.

 

AppalachiasPathToDependency

Appalachia’s Path to Dependency: Rethinking a Region’s Economic History, 1730–1940

by Paul Salstrom

In Appalachia’s Path to Dependency, Paul Salstrom examines the evolution of economic life over time in southern Appalachia. Moving away from the colonial model to an analysis based on dependency, he exposes the complex web of factors―regulation of credit, industrialization, population growth, cultural values, federal intervention―that has worked against the region.

Salstrom argues that economic adversity has resulted from three types of disadvantages: natural, market, and political. The overall context in which Appalachia’s economic life unfolded was one of expanding United States markets and, after the Civil War, of expanding capitalist relations.

Covering Appalachia’s economic history from early white settlement to the end of the New Deal, this work is not simply an economic interpretation but draws as well on other areas of history. Whereas other interpretations of Appalachia’s economy have tended to seek social or psychological explanations for its dependency, this important work compels us to look directly at the region’s economic history. This regional perspective offers a clear-eyed view of Appalachia’s path in the future.

 

TransformingAppalachianCountryside

Transforming the Appalachian Countryside:Railroads, Deforestation, and Social Change in West Virginia, 1880-1920

by Ronald L. Lewis

In 1880, ancient-growth forest still covered two-thirds of West Virginia, but by the 1920s lumbermen had denuded the entire region. Ronald Lewis explores the transformation in these mountain counties precipitated by deforestation. As the only state that lies entirely within the Appalachian region, West Virginia provides an ideal site for studying the broader social impact of deforestation in Appalachia, the South, and the eastern United States.

Most of West Virginia was still dominated by a backcountry economy when the industrial transition began. In short order, however, railroads linked remote mountain settlements directly to national markets, hauling away forest products and returning with manufactured goods and modern ideas. Workers from the countryside and abroad swelled new mill towns, and merchants ventured into the mountains to fulfill the needs of the growing population. To protect their massive investments, capitalists increasingly extended control over the state’s legal and political systems.

Eventually, though, even ardent supporters of industrialization had reason to contemplate the consequences of unregulated exploitation. Once the timber was gone, the mills closed and the railroads pulled up their tracks, leaving behind an environmental disaster and a new class of marginalized rural poor to confront the worst depression in American history.

 

ColonialismInModernAmerica

Colonialism in Modern America: The Appalachian Case

edited by Helen M. Lewis, Linda Johnson, Donald Askins

Colonialism in Modern Americais a series of essays exploring the economic and social problems of the region within the context of colonialism. It is a relatively simple task to document the social ills and the environmental ravage that beset the people and land of Appalachia. However, it is far more difficult and problematic to uncover the causes of these tragic conditions.

 

WhoOwnsAppalachia

Who Owns Appalachia?: Landowndership and Its Impact

by Charles C. Geisler  and The Appalachian Land Ownership Task Force

Long viewed as a problem in other countries, the ownership of land and resources is becoming an issue of mounting concern in the United States. Nowhere has it surfaced more dramatically than in the southern Appalachians where the exploitation of timber and mineral resources has been recently aggravated by the ravages of strip-mining and flash floods. This landmark study of the mountain region documents for the first time the full scale and extent of the ownership and control of the region’s land and resources and shows in a compelling, yet non-polemical fashion the relationship between this control and conditions affecting the lives of the region’s people.

Begun in 1978 and extending through 1980, this survey of land ownership is notable for the magnitude of its coverage. It embraces six states of the southern Appalachian region―Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Alabama. From these states the research team selected 80 counties, and within those counties field workers documented the ownership of over 55,000 parcels of property, totaling over 20 million acres of land and mineral rights.

The survey is equally significant for its systematic investigation of the relations between ownership and conditions within Appalachian communities. Researchers compiled data on 100 socioeconomic indicators and correlated these with the ownership of land and mineral rights. The findings of the survey form a generally dark picture of the region―local governments struggling to provide needed services on tax revenues that are at once inadequate and inequitable; economic development and diversification stifled; increasing loss of farmland, a traditional source of subsistence in the region. Most evident perhaps is the adverse effect upon housing resulting from corporate ownership and land speculation. Nor is the trend toward greater conglomerate ownership of energy resources, the expansion of absentee ownership into new areas, and the search for new mineral and energy sources encouraging.

Who Owns Appalachia? will be an enduring resource for all those interested in this region and its problems. It is, moreover, both a model and a document for social and economic concerns likely to be of critical importance for the entire nation.

 

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The Radicalization Last Time

HillbillyNationalists

Hillbilly Nationalists: Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power

by Amy Sonnie and James Tracy

THE STORY OF SOME OF THE MOST IMPORTANT AND LITTLE-KNOWN ACTIVISTS OF THE 1960s, IN A DEEPLY SOURCED NARRATIVE HISTORY

The historians of the late 1960s have emphasized the work of a group of white college activists who courageously took to the streets to protest the war in Vietnam and continuing racial inequality. Poor and working-class whites have tended to be painted as spectators, reactionaries, and, even, racists. Most Americans, the story goes, just watched the political movements of the sixties go by.

James Tracy and Amy Sonnie, who have been interviewing activists from the era for nearly ten years, reject this old narrative. They show that poor and working-class radicals, inspired by the Civil Rights movement, the Black Panthers, and progressive populism, started to organize significant political struggles against racism and inequality during the 1960s and 1970s. Among these groups:

+  JOIN Community Union brought together southern migrants, student radicals, and welfare recipients in Chicago to fight for housing, health, and welfare . . .

+  The Young Patriots Organization and Rising Up Angry organized self-identified hillbillies, Chicago greasers, Vietnam vets, and young feminists into a legendary “Rainbow Coalition” with Black and Puerto Rican activists . . .

+  In Philadelphia, the October 4th Organization united residents of industrial Kensington against big business, war, and a repressive police force . . .

+ In the Bronx, White Lightning occupied hospitals and built coalitions with doctors to fight for the rights of drug addicts and the poor.

Exploring an untold history of the New Left, the book shows how these groups helped to redefine community organizing—and transforms the way we think about a pivotal moment in U.S. history.

 

AppalachiaInTheSixties

Appalachia in the Sixties: Decade of Reawakening

edited by David S. Walls and John B. Stephenson

In The Southern Appalachian Region: A Survey, published by the University Press of Kentucky in 1962, Rupert Vance suggested a decennial review of the region’s progress. No systematic study comparable to that made at the beginning of the decade is available to answer the question of how far Appalachia has come since then, but David S. Walls and John B. Stephenson have assembled a broad range of firsthand reports which together convey the story of Appalachia in the sixties. These observations of journalists, field workers, local residents, and social scientists have been gathered from a variety of sources ranging from national magazines to county weeklies.

Focusing mainly on the coalfields of West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, southwestern Virginia, and north-central Tennessee, the editors first present selections that reflect the “rediscovery” of the region as a problem area in the early sixties and describe the federal programs designed to rehabilitate it and their results. Other sections focus on the politics of the coal industry, the extent and impact of the continued migration from the region, and the persistence of human suffering and environmental devastation. A final section moves into the 1970s with proposals for the future. Although they conclude that there is little ground for claiming success in solving the region’s problems, the editors find signs of hope in the scattered movements toward grass-roots organization described by some of the contributors, and in the new tendency to define solutions in terms of reconstruction rather than amelioration.

 


 

Eric Kerl is a Kentuckian living, working, organizing, and writing in Chicago. His articles have appeared in International Socialist Review, Socialist Worker, and elsewhere. He is the author of White Bred: Anti-Racism and the Boundaries of White Racial Solidarity, forthcoming from Haymarket Books.