Race loomed large in my upbringing, or at least one particular aspect of it: Ohio fought for the Union in the civil war, a fact that meant “good white people” understood the legacy of slavery and the civil rights struggle (things like Jim Crow and Reconstruction added nuance to this picture, but that came way later). This was the era of busing, so we had a lot of black kids in my elementary school. I know that busing stirred up all kinds o’ shit across the country, but I neither saw nor experienced any of that controversy. Black kids were kids just like me and that’s all the thought I put into it.
The kids from Kentucky, on the other hand? Total and absolute fair game. We called them “grits,” at least in Glendale. One of my more vivid second-hand memories involved my sisters holing up in a phone booth next to the pharmacy down the road because they called this kid we all knew a “grit” and he lost, oh, just about all his shit (wait, “grit” or “skag-butt”? We had a couple favorites). The phone booth was the only shelter they could find and he wailed on the outside of that until he wore himself out. They got home safe in the end (side note; my sisters could fight, too), but I’ve got a dozen stories that follow the same basic plot: we went after kids from Kentucky, or Tennessee, as escapees from the lands of the former Confederacy, the mad progeny of the Hatfields and McCoys. We were sophisticates, they were scum, etc.
What I didn’t know until I read Vance’s genuinely great memoir was how baked into the culture that conflict was. Here’s one relevant snippet from Hillbilly Elegy:
“Most of [Middletown’s] inhabitants had move there for work in the new industrial plants, and most of these new workers were from Appalachia. The family-based hiring practices of the major industrial firms had their desired effect, and the results were predictable. All over the industrial Midwest, new communities of Appalachian transplants and their families sprang up, virtually out of nowhere.”
Vance goes on to talk about how his grandparents – both absolutely central characters to, and blessings in his life – struggled to adapt to life in Ohio. He also references their reception:
“To the established middle class of white Ohioans [AHEM!], these hillbillies simply didn’t belong. They had too many children, and they welcomed their extended families into their homes for too long…In other words, many parts of their culture and customs meant with roaring disapproval from native Middletonians.”
Ahem! Sorry, something in my throat…
Or, to state it directly, I lived and joined in cultural snobbery that stoked the resentments of…let’s go with roughly the same population of people who just handed the country to Donald Trump and the Republican Party. For all I know, some kid pulled the lever for Trump with a headful of memories of some skinny toe-headed asshole (aka, me) calling him “skag-butt” for no reason at all.
Then again, no need to exaggerate my role (or the pretend it truly existed), and Vance doesn’t either. In Hillbilly Elegy, he explores the details of his chaotic upbringing, and how endemic all that was within his community: the inherent violence of the culture that his family brought up from the hills of Kentucky, the wild instability of his nuclear family, which was headed by a mother who struggled both with addiction (mostly to opiates) and forming even remotely successful relationships with men (see Vance’s glum recall of a parade of boyfriends and would-be fathers). His mother didn’t abuse only drugs; she abused just about everyone she could reach with a swinging arm. He’s still processing that hell and, based on his account, there’s absolutely no mystery in that.
Vance survived and, later, thrived, but I’ll let him tell that story to anyone who wants to read Hillbilly Elegy (strong recommend from this corner, though). If there’s an irony in this story, it’s how much he owes his successes to his grandparents, Mamaw and Papaw, two people steeped deepest in the “hillbilly” culture. His Mamaw, in particular, threatened just about anyone who crossed any relation of hers – to be clear, that’s with literal violence, not harsh words - but that brand of loyalty runs deep in the Scots-Irish cultural tradition. Belligerent as they might have been, the defining trait that shows up repeatedly in both Vance’s grandparents is simple intelligence and wisdom. And, here, I don’t mean some folksy bullshit “simple,” but genuine, practical comprehension and intellectual flexibility. It showed in how his grandfather turned a school-day humiliation into tutoring his grandson in mathematical concepts and processes. One story still stands out, largely due to how much it goes against presumed types. I hope Vance doesn’t mind the (continued) borrowing (because it’s a great, great story):
“I broached this issue with Mamaw, confessing that I was gay and I was worried that I would burn in hell. She said, ‘Don’t be a fucking idiot, how would you know that you’re gay?’ I explained my thought process, [ed. Also worth the read.] Mamaw chuckled and seemed to consider how she might explain to a boy my age. Finally she asked, ‘J.D., do you want to suck dicks?’ I was flabbergasted...She repeated herself, and I said, ‘Of course not!’ ‘Then,’ she said, ‘you’re not gay. And even if you did want to suck dicks, that would be OK. God would still love you.’”
Hillbilly Elegy is littered with examples of the people in Vance’s life – even his mom, at times – who explained the world to him and supported him as he grasped one comprehension after the other. He was raised by thinking people and that saved him. The point he keeps making, and it’s worth repeating often as he does it, is how much the people around you impact how any person ends up. Whatever form it takes, nothing beats a good support structure and nothing gives someone courage like feeling loved and protected. Vance spent his childhood watching domestic violence, drug abuse, visits from law enforcement; if his childhood had a soundtrack, it’s adults screaming at one another, with a sub-chorus of family members shitting on each other behind one another’s back, and all of that with plates flying into walls in the background like goddamn cymbals crashing.
With all that in his background, I’m thrilled to report that Vance absolutely lapped at least one of those “established middle-class white Ohioans” in the game of life (me). The man deserves all of it. And he wrote one hell of a book besides.
The 2016 Election brought the pathologies of “working class white Americans” to the forefront. After reading Hillbilly Elegy, I’m not sure they belong there – or, to put that another way, their particular issues deserve a place, but not one above the place of any other struggling community. As I reflected on what I would write about this book, the one name that kept coming up was Ann Coulter’s. I will not claim to be an expert on her work – she’s a hack on a good day, so I don’t read her (well, just tippled a little poison (fuck me, she’s a moron) – but I’ve heard through a couple grapevines that she’s one to make much about the “pathologies” in various communities of color and very keen on demanding that we stop giving “those people” a pass. What’s fucked up about all that every argument she makes about why, say, the black community struggles – e.g. broken families, drug addiction, absentee fathers – applies in spades to non-urban white communities. For Coulter, though, the latter are victims, the former...fuck it, won't dignify her idiocies.
The irony is that media clowns like Coulter do as much damage to those same communities than just about anyone else; no Coulter just does damage. Even beyond the utterly toxic work of pitting communities against each other, Coulter’s rhetoric about one group “stealing” from another (e.g. she sometimes “champions” black people by blaming Mexican illegals for stealing their jobs) introduces a sort of learned helplessness in those economically-cratered, largely white Midwestern communities. Telling them it’s someone else’s fault, regardless of the group, sends them on snipe hunts and contributes to the problem of everyone screaming for their piece of the pie, and grasping for it when they can, instead of everyone sitting down, looking at the pie, and figuring out the best way to get everyone a piece…or, god forbid, how to build a bigger fucking pie. Screw it, she’s just protecting her corner of the market and that’s every bit as craven as it sounds – or worse, given all the evil that piece of shit puts into the world. The world’s crawling with “thinkers” like that (sorry, scare quote-heavy night) and that’s a problem on all its own – e.g. the army of professional assholes who crowd into TV studios to scream into the microphone.
The point of all the above, is that Vance is not one of those people. His grandparents weren’t either. I’m not proud to admit that, had I met them when I was a kid, or maybe even now, I would have heard that country twang and made assumptions. Given proper introductions, or at least based on Vance’s memories, I would have got on great with Mamaw. Small surprise, too, given that one side of my family comes from highly similar stock. The only difference is, it was my dad who stepped out of it, while Vance is the one taking the first step away. I spent the past weekend with my dad, and we talked about Hillbilly Elegy, and the hillbilly cousin we used to put up sometimes when we still lived in Ohio. There was also my grandpa, who, in his early 80s, one-armed and basically blind, had every intention of killing some poor bagging clerk at a Seattle Safeway because he cut him off with shopping carts or something like that.
Working past bigotry is hell. I’m on my way to auditing the full coursework on Rural America Ed. (just picked up Sam Quinones' Dreamland, which, to credit that author, takes in more than rural America, even as it’s based on Ohio), and that’s part of the process.
I think it’s really easy for liberals and progressives to assume that no one in rural America is making the same effort, but I believe they’re falling into the same, lazy “fuck you” thinking that brought us Trump (also, semi-related, there was this fascinating piece on how empathy isn’t necessarily the best emotion that the Wall Street Journal ran over the weekend). If nothing else, the children of those communities reach out to the Blue States by moving to them, and then returning home over the holidays. If this country is going to survive – and, honestly, I’m not always sure it will – we need cultural exchanges so we can at least talk long enough to broker a truce. At any rate, read Hillbilly Elegy. You’ll be richer for it, no matter what anyone else does.