Who Gets To Be A Hillbilly?

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As I was scrolling through Instagram this morning, I came across an opinion piece published in the Washington Post that had been shared by Reading Appalachia called “When J.D. Vance called himself a hillbilly, it made me mad. Now I’m upset that he stopped.” by Cassie Chambers Armstrong. In it she discusses her frustration and ire that Vance used his connections to eastern Kentucky for profit and then abandoned them in his run for the U.S. Senate in Ohio. 

She also discusses her own identity, comparing the way she identifies and her connections to Kentucky to Vance. 

Like Vance, I have roots in eastern Kentucky — roots in the Appalachian Mountains that run deep and anchor my family tree. Eventually, I left Kentucky to pursue an Ivy League education — another thing I share in common with the best-selling author of ‘Hillbilly Elegy.‘”

However, unlike Vance, Armstrong returned to Kentucky to work with low-income women. When people ask where she’s from she offers something along the lines of 

My family is from Owsley County, Ky. I spent a lot of my childhood there. But I would say that I grew up in Berea, Ky. I moved away for a decade or so, then I moved back. Now, I live in Louisville.” I want to acknowledge that I am from eastern Kentucky, while recognizing that I am no longer of eastern Kentucky.”

That distinction of from and not of seems to be a sticking point for her. It frustrates her that Vance called himself a hillbilly when he’s actually never lived in Kentucky, only visiting his family from there throughout his childhood. 

She defines hillbilly and situates Vance in relation to it like this: 

“The word “hillbilly” refers to people from the hills of Appalachia. It is used by the community to describe the community. Vance was, at best, a generation removed.”

She then returns to the issue that “Vance spent years making plenty of money from the claim that he spoke for the mountains, describing a “culture in crisis” and he has now abandoned those people – the folks he claimed were his kin – to run on a political platform that renders them invisible. 

Like Armstrong this makes me angry, but that’s not what this post is about. Like pretty much all my other posts, this one is about identity. Her definition of hillbilly and questioning of that identity (and to be clear, I think rightfully so) for Vance made me think about who gets to say what identity folks can(n’t) lay claim to. 

Honestly, I think I’m guilty of this as anyone and definitely when it comes to Vance. And like most folks, the trouble for me is how it connects to me as a person and my own experiences. If you’ve done any reading on my site or watched my most recent Reading Rural YAL series about Jeff Zentner’s IN THE WILD LIGHT on YouTube, you know that I, too, identify as hillbilly. 

Both sides of my Dad’s family are from the eastern part of Tennessee, and I grew up hearing stories and building a collective hillbilly identity with those family members. I’ve done so even further removed from Vance in that my immediate family has lived in Indiana for a good while, although some of them have returned to buy property and build cabins near Dale Hollow Lake. So, does that mean that I don’t get to claim a hillbilly identity? Because I’ve actually never lived in Appalachia myself? It might feel easy to say yes.

Where my dad’s family grew up before moving up to Indiana

But the thing about place is that it’s not as fixed as it seems. Although I’ve never lived in Appalachia, I’ve built my identity around folks who did all my life. Culture is more than just where a person lives – and it moves where they do. Hillbilly isn’t just a place designation, it’s also a cultural and linguistic one, and those go with people when they leave the location where they were developed. It’s also an identity that might not be claimed by everyone who lives in that region. Despite movements of reclamation, hillbilly comes with a heavy history of baggage related to its use as a pejorative to marginalize the folks who fit the description. 

This line of thinking leads me to more questions: What if we thought about this in terms of transnational people? For example, my husband’s parents immigrated from Gujarat, India in the 70s. He’s been to India precisely once as a kid in the early 90s. Does that make him any less Gujarati – any less Indian? Would it if he weren’t visibly brown? If Appalachian people were differently melanated or had some sort of defining physical characteristic, would that change how descendants of Appalachians who out-migrated were permitted to identify? 

Is it okay that I claim a hillbilly identity because I don’t proclaim to speak for all hillbillies? Because I’m not making money by very visibly painting hillbillies in a deficit light and instead work to show the capability, the resilience, the pride and honor of hillbilly people? Because I don’t abandon that identity when it’s convenient for me? Is that the major difference here?

I can’t not identify as hillbilly. It feels like the cornerstone of my being. If I were forced to remove it, the entire structure of my identity would crumble to the ground. Clearly that’s not the case for Vance, as he seems completely comfortable and content leaving it by the wayside. Not me. 

An original version of this piece appeared on Literacy in Place.

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