When I Say ‘Hillbilly’, I Say It With A Smile

I live in Appalachia, and when I say ‘hillbilly” I say it with a smile. I say it with a smile because I know hillbillies, and find the people who will admit claim to being of this group quite a fine sort of people, and vastly different from the characters portrayed on The Beverly Hillbillies TV show.

I’m from New York, so I can not be a hillbilly. That’s okay, because I can play my own part in the drama of life in Appalachia, which includes hillbillies. I like living here, and believe that the hillbillies I know (which is not the entire part of the population) are some of the smartest, sometimes most knowledgeable in certain areas, often the most humorous and generous people I’ve had the pleasure to know even including the peoples from all the places of the earth I’ve met in travels and in life.

I don’t like it when Huntington, West Virginia is held up as an example of slow-thinking folk who can’t figure out how to eat to get healthy. It feels a bit like the Hillbilly Syndrome to me, which plays out in places where people live in a higher-than-usual rate of poverty. Ignorance is suspected by those in the know, those who have more.

I don’t pretend to know why some people have less, some people more, in any definitive sense. I’m fairly sure that geography plays a part, along with many other things. But I do not think, myself, that being poor has to do with being ignorant or stupid . . . and it is this inference that the people of Huntington are being hit with – in the form of Jamie Oliver’s voyage of mass media missionary-ism.

I say ‘hillbilly’ with a smile because I know these people are no stupider than the next guy, in a general sense. I say it with a smile because hillbillies know they are looked at in a certain way, and they exploit it. They mock themselves, they pour the idea of themselves into a stark sharp humor that takes the worst and which expands upon it for the world to gape at – as they laugh behind their hands as the world does gape with mouths hanging open. And then they politely -oh so wonderfully politely – say ‘Howdy, Ma’am’.

Hillbillies live close to the soil, most of them. They raise livestock and have acres of vegetables. They know how to do these things from their Maws and Paws, not from a book or a class. Farming is not a cute thing to them, it is work – and it may be the only work they can scare up.

When I say ‘hillbilly’ I say it with a smile. The word, the people, deserve it.


6 thoughts on “When I Say ‘Hillbilly’, I Say It With A Smile

  1. Thanks Karen for this fabulous article! I also say Hillbilly with a smile! My husband makes fun of me because sometimes I say ”hillybilly” !
    Imagine, with my French accent! Anyway, I just love the word. And, although, I have never met any hillbilly, I am pretty sure they are hard workers and down to earth people. Cheers!

    1. Ah, Lila . . . I can imagine! πŸ™‚ But I do have to say that just like every other variety of person on earth, people in the group others would call ‘hillbillies’ can be hard worker or not hard workers, etc. etc. Most of what I was trying to say here lands within the framework of three different things – yet these things are related. First – ethnocentrism* is alive and well, though sometimes found in unusual guises. Second – there is something terribly wrong in setting out make a buck or to make a professional reputation while using the fruits of an audiences’ subliminal ethnocentrism to yield a higher ‘buzz’ level. Third – the poor should not be considered more ignorant than the well-to-do, particularly in a world where the information superhighway permeates every nook and corner of the world.

      You know the world most ‘foodies’ inhabit, as well as I do. It is a fairly privileged world, a very well-educated world, a world where the people who are part of it have not ever been really hungry. How often have I heard the people of this world speak of those who are poor, or who do not eat in the same way, the same things as they do – as if the poor need to be ‘taught’ by them how and what to eat. I just don’t like it – don’t like the tone, don’t like the self-satisfaction and the assurance that they ‘must’ be right.

      What I do like, is to follow not just the latest trendy idea – to listen to not just the latest hot celebrity who’s got the highest level of buzz – to not patter off motto after motto without questioning if it really is right. I like to listen to all sides, and I like to read the words of historians who also raise excellent (though unpopular, being not ‘of the crowd’) and rigorous questions about whether the current celebrity patter is as ‘true’ as one might like it to be.

      And I always remember the words of a guy I once knew well versed in administration of operational finances. “Keep your finger on the money,” he would say. And this is a good thing to do in any sort of business where the question of ethics, morals, behavior, and ‘how people should act’ (or even ‘what people should eat) is involved. Watch where the money is going.

      Because it matters. To find the most accurate truth available within any situation, it matters.

      * P.S. Correction of terminology: I was searching for the right words to use and lacked them. This morning they were found, in the body of a friend’s writings. The correct term is ‘cultural hegemony’. I detest the word hegemony but will apparently have to use it. πŸ™‚

      1. Karen, could not agree with you more. This echoed with me the loudest. It isn’t about who we are, it’s what we are. It’s all about the people. When I go to the farmers market, I don’t go just to get my food. I go to see the people, the farmer who so lovingly stops to give me a tip about his special tomatoes. Who cuts me a slice of cucumber and tells me, “here just try it, just smell it.” I love to look at their rough hands while they lovingly put my bounty into my shopping bag.

        My youngest daughter, (with 3 degrees) has been struggling to secure ANY job and in doing so got one, as a wait staff close to home at a great “Eats joint”- more of a country cooking family dining. She called me on her third day out and told me she wasn’t sure if she would stay. The staff was “different” like they were from the backwoods (some didn’t have teeth) and although they were treating her like gold, they scare her. She said, Mom, “I think I’ll wait for that other upmarket fine dining job, I know they will be calling me.”

        BREAK – FULL STOP, I told her “no” she wasn’t going anywhere – there were things, many things she had to learn and could learn. I told her that “these people” are the “salt of the earth,” HELLO! these are the worker-bees, these are the true backbone of America – we derive from them. I reminded her that her grandparents were immigrants. These can be wonderful people to get to know, even though they don’t wear designer jeans (the great identifier). Two days latter she called me and told me, she loved the people she was working with – I had been right. it was going to be a great job, and she was learning a lot and even having fun.

        Today! here, this very spot where I stand, the money is meaningless to me right along with the prestige and power. it’s all about genuine people, and I don’t give a flying fig, about what kind of jeans they were.
        Thank you,

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