While I am not a native Kentuckian, I am a native Appalachian, hailing from the southeastern Ohio region in which “Hillbilly Elegy” author J.D. Vance once resided, only a short drive from Louisville. Vance and I even went to the same undergrad.
As both a native Appalachian and scholar of Appalachian Studies, I struggled through Dr. Ricky L. Jones’ recent article, “New Kentucky’s Elegy vs. Old Jefferson Davis Debate,” in which he promotes Vance’s work as a must-read for understanding Kentucky’s current social and political climate, including debates about confederate statues such as the one of Jefferson Davis at the state Capitol. While Vance’s work has been lauded by cultural outsiders since its initial publication, Appalachian scholars have vehemently contested its historical accuracy and the stereotypical metanarrative it presents.
Vance portrays his personal memoir as evidence of a culture in crisis, using his emerging “theory” to reinforce a political paradigm. Promoting his work serves to only endorse the negative stereotypes which have long contributed to the political and economic oppression of the region. Those stereotypes are what encourage outsiders to “steer clear of the region,” serving as nothing more than confirmation bias.
Perhaps promoting the progressive movements that have historically shaped the region, along with the “scholars, writers, cultural critics, organizational leaders, philanthropists and even politicians” to which Jones points, may instead encourage outsiders otherwise. And, when outsiders do come to the state and region, it is my hope they take the time to thoroughly study the history and culture, while avoiding stereotypes that disservice the region and its people.
One need not look further than UofL’s Ekstrom Library stacks to find notable Appalachian authors and scholars describing the history of stereotyping by outsiders, and the traditions of insider resistance that have shaped the region.
The war Jones describes is not a new elegy for either Kentucky or Appalachia.
For example, look at the events of Matewan, West Virginia, in which mineworkers united across racial and ethnic lines to organize the United Mine Workers of America in the southern coalfields resulting in the Battle of Matewan in 1920. A year later, the largest labor uprising in U.S. history would happen at the Battle of Blair Mountain, and people continue marching there today. In the late 1970s and early ‘80s, John Gaventa, along with activists and scholars, conducted a land survey that would enable the region’s people to advocate for fair land ownership policies.
These are just a few examples of progressive resistance in Appalachia. Explore the works of Dwight Billings, Ron Eller, Katherine Ledford, Stephen Fisher and the numerous Appalachian scholars and activists.
Consider how art, music and language empowered social movements across time throughout the region.
Check out the Highlander Center, Appalachian Voices, and the myriad organizations that have long been upholding the liberal ideals Jones cites as “budding” progressivism in Appalachia.
Today, Appalachian scholars and activists continue to study how we can enhance education for our youth, work endlessly to accurately portray the region’s history and political context, advocate for better labor and environmental conditions and actively resist the negative stereotypes often perpetuated by outsiders.
We are not newly budding here. We have been here all along.
Stereotypes like the ones presented in Vance’s work confirm the idea that Appalachians are “conservative, backward-looking, and racist,” and are used intentionally, in some spaces, to justify corrupt political and economic practices. Unwitting outsiders unfamiliar with the long, complex history that has created our current cultural and political climate often propagate the same stereotypes.
What Jones does get right is that we still have much work to do. However, this is not a new “war of 19th vs. 21st century sensibilities,” but rather one that has long raged, swept quietly into the holler to benefit the pockets of fat cats, and self-deprecating tourist traps.
And, yes — Davis was a disgrace. •
Hopkins holds a doctorate in Educational Administration, focusing her research on culturally-responsive leadership and education in Appalachia.