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  • Writer's pictureAppalachian Retelling

Hillbilly Elegy & Appalachian Representation

Updated: Oct 21, 2021

Seated beside the Hillbilly Bear in the Pikeville, KY city park, Dr. Jordan Laney, Postdoctoral Fellow at Virginia Tech, explains why she finds widespread acceptance of the portrayal of Appalachia found in Hillbilly Elegy to be problematic.


Full video transcript:

It's difficult to talk about stereotypes about Appalachia because I never saw my community that way. Like, we enjoyed it because it was not true. And that was just mind blowing to me. And then when I began teaching about it and found out that it was actually, like, weaponized and used to harm people, that was mind blowing in a different way.

I'm from western North Carolina, McDowell County. I have my Master's degree in Appalachian Studies, my PhD in Social and Cultural Theory. And I've taught Appalachian studies at Virginia Tech for the past seven years. And, yeah, I've spent most of my life in Central Appalachia.

The piece of media that has really impacted me the most about Appalachia, in a not always positive way, is Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance, 2016-2017 New York Times bestseller. And it tells this story about Appalachia that is very common. Like when I'm reading his work, or talking to people about it, it's like, yes, this is all true. It's all happened to him, and it happens in every community, I would say, in the U.S., that there's drug use, that there are family dynamics that are difficult, that there issues with poverty and unemployment. But it tells a story about a place that, I mean, in Vance's words, Appalachia's problem is lazy men, unquote. And that if we worked harder, we could leave. And that's very similar to the story that Diane Sawyer told in 2018 with "Hidden America: Children of the Mountains," that if you grew up here, you should leave.

I don't want to, I mean, discredit his work ethic or talent as someone who's able to, you know, network and move in many different circles. But telling this story of a white, male place filled with lazy white males impacts policy, it eraces women, it erases people of color. It erases all of the hard work being done.

Hillbilly Elegy works from a place that believes in what we call a culture of poverty model, that poverty is something that's inherited, something that's a genetic trait, which led to the eugenics movement, which led to countless individuals in, I know Virginia, specifically from my own work, being institutionalized and sterilized against their will or without even knowing because they were economically disadvantaged. So it's, it comes from this place of like, believing that poverty is something that is just inherent and that people are lazy and don't want to work hard.

Of course I would've told the story differently, because my story is really different. I was the first person in my family to attend college. I was the first person to really leave western North Carolina. Going back to the 1700s, we were farmers on the census. So like Vance, I was really attracted to school and to learning, but not moving away. And I think that's something really different. I never wanted to move away from home. The drug use that Vance talks about is also very much a part of where I grew up. My first close friend who died from an overdose was in my senior year high school. So it's something that I know very intimately as, like, being part of the culture, but my experience is nothing like him. I know that doors opened for me because yes, I worked hard, but there were support systems and there were people wanting to help me and wanting to see me succeed, even if it wasn't always clear what that was. What I see is a lot of similarities with Vance, but I also don't see it as my story because there's so many different people and so many different pieces.

But there are so many people with amazing stories about resilience and stories about what the region does well without romanticizing it, but without painting it as a place that has given up, but rather, you know, showcasing it in its diversity and saying, OK, this is one man's story, and then the systems and structures in place revealed. Like systemic poverty, looking at school systems, looking at health care, looking at mental health, if these issues were revealed rather than this one narrative of just work harder, I think it would paint a truer picture of the region and a picture that would actually help.

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