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.