The real purpose of the hillbilly stereotype is explained

A Liberal Dose


Sometimes I ask students to list off for me some of the stereotypes of Appalachians widely held outside our region. Here’s what I tend to get: backwards, lazy, alcoholic, moonshiners (or meth-heads), barefoot, inbred, toothless, poor, uneducated, violent, racist. Some students from the region tell stories of being called these things when they travel. Some students from outside the region - even other parts of the South -confess to having believed those stereotypes before coming here.

Then I ask them to name some famous people who were associated with Appalachia BEFORE the Civil War. This takes more patience, but they usually come up with Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, and Andrew Jackson. How have those guys always been portrayed in popular culture, memory, and history? As brave, resourceful, clever, strong, and as violent in a more positive, patriotic way (unless, of course, you are Native American or Mexican). Indeed, those guys - and men like them -are portrayed as the very epitome of Americanness.

And yet. Their descendants are viewed as ignorant, toothless, inbred morons. When did that change and why? That is a very important question, and one that almost no one ever thinks to ask.

(When I ask students to name a living Appalachian, they never think of anyone non-white - and are surprised when I tell them they missed Samuel L. Jackson, of Chattanooga).

I’ll tell you when it started to change. The 1870s, picking up substantial speed in the 1880s, and then increasing for the next half-century. The “local color” school of American literature - roughly 1875-1925 - played a big part. This was the approach of using local dialect and culture in works of fiction, which is not in itself a bad thing - Mark Twain used it to great effect. But it was also used by a very large number of authors writing about moonshiners and hillbillies, almost always presenting them as ignorant and immoral. Meanwhile, throughout the 1880s, newspapers across the nation were obsessing over the Hatfields and McCoys feuding on the West Virginia/Kentucky border. The “feud” itself, while violent, was nowhere as widespread or as lethal as it was reported to be - nor was it more deadly than similar things happening at the same time in other parts of the country. These two families, though, quickly became a cautionary tale of how violent, unpredictable, and backward mountain people were. The theme was repeated often over the years, from numerous early silent films to cartoons to potboiler novels, until it was understood as gospel by most Americans. The 1925 Scopes trial in Dayton, Tennessee, brought about a renewed emphasis on the stereotype.

That’s the how. What is the why?

It is no accident that everything I just described - the rapid shift from viewing Appalachians as pioneer heroes to backward morons - coincided exactly with the rapid growth of extractive industries like coal and timber, often backed by investors outside the region, into Appalachia. Most Appalachians were content to be farmers, and did not want to sell their land, their resources, or their labor to these new companies.

And virtually overnight, they were being portrayed in all the negative ways I described. Most of all, they were portrayed as obstacles to “progress,” selfishly blocking the advances that, they were told, would benefit everybody. And at the same time, practices that farmers had used for generations to augment their income - turning their grains into potent liquids - became subject to heavy taxes and jail. Appalachians were, essentially, “othered” in the same way racial minorities were. “They are too backward to make their own decisions, so someone needs to make decisions FOR them - for their ‘own good.’”

First they were forced off their land into the mines, then punished for organizing. The stereotype was but one item in the toolbox used to trap Appalachians into a cycle of hopeless poverty and despair, to make other people money.

J.D. Vance never told you that part.

--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.       


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