Essay by Ivy Brashear
Excerpted from Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to “Hillbilly Elegy”
Header photograph by Kevin Eaves
Della Combs Brashear had had enough.
She backed her Cadillac long-ways across the one-lane road in front of her house, lit the Virginia Slim in her mouth, pulled her .38 pistol from her purse, and waited, stone-faced and determined, for the next coal truck to come along.
The trucks had been running day and night up and down the head of the Left Fork of Maces Creek in front of her house every day for weeks. They were coating every bit of furniture in and outside her home with a thick layer of gray coal dust. Her kitchen counter; the rocking chair she sat in while watching “The Price Is Right” in the morning and “Wheel of Fortune” in the evening; the porch swing; the hanging ferns that encircled the porch. Nothing could escape the intrusive, insidious dust kicked up from the road by the trucks as they barreled back and forth to the strip mine on the overlooking mountain. The dust swirled in thick, gray clouds around the house, seeping in under the front door and closed windows. It buried everything. No matter Della’s efforts to keep the tides at bay, coal-dust tsunamis were inescapable.
There’s only so many times a woman bound to the code of Clorox, Pledge, and Windex can clean up after someone else’s mess before the time comes to act.
She wasn’t afraid of jail. “They’ll give me three hot meals a day and a place to sleep,” she proclaimed to my dad when he tried to persuade her to remove her one-woman barricade. And she wasn’t really making a political stand against an oppressive, thieving industry. She was more interested in defending her home from unwanted, unclean intrusions.
She didn’t make the trucks stop forever, but they did turn around and go home that infamous day when she couldn’t take it any longer. A small victory for a woman who fought for nearly everything she had.
Fierce is a good word for Della Combs. Fiercely loyal to her children and grandchildren. She once threatened a coach at the local high school so he would give her son a letterman jacket. Fierce advocate for doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. Legend has it she kept most of the hungry children in Christopher, Kentucky, fed their entire childhoods. Fierce mountain woman who had big dreams of city life, playing piano and singing in Chicago or New York City, but who instead married a man her mother picked for her before she graduated high school. She stayed with him until the end of her life because of a fierce sense of duty.
To me, though, she was Granny Della. A fierce storyteller who had the most enormous zest for life and love, with the heart to match. Her laugh seemed to always echo off the walls and reverberate off the hills that held the holler. Music was her one true love, second only to the fierce, expansive love she had for her family. Made-up songs about everyday life rolled over her lips as easily as the fog rolls into the valleys. She would often catch a word someone spoke to her, and trail off into a song containing the word.
“The sun sure is shining bright today,” someone would say. She’d answer in melody: “In the pines / in the pines / where the sun never shines...”
She always wore pink lipstick and white powder, and clip-on earrings. She had arthritis in her toes from a youth spent in high heels with matching dresses. She was a beautiful woman. Once, she took her two firstborn to have their portraits made in Hazard, and the photographer was so struck by her beauty, he insisted on taking her portrait too. She’s wearing pearls in the photo. She was always put-together like that. She maintained a standing hair appointment every Friday at Dascum’s Beauty Shop in Vicco. She always had short hair, which she preferred, even for her only daughter, my Mom, who preferred the opposite of almost everything her parents wanted.
Granny Della got her driver’s license and earned her GED when she was in her 40s. She kept a newspaper clipping in a drawer that was a picture of her and her fellow GED recipients that year. She lived a life of confinement in some ways, always meeting others’ expectations, and sidelining her own dreams in the process. Her middle age was about reclaiming her independence — creating a life outside her husband and her children. She was, and remains, one of the fiercest, strongest women I’ve ever known.
I grew up her neighbor. We lived just up the hill from her, and I knew her door was always open to me. I could run down the hill, and into her house without warning any day, and she would welcome me in, offering me food and conversation. I was often in her kitchen as she put up peaches in Ziploc bags for winter, or watered her beloved hanging ferns that encased her porch. She played piano every Sunday at Lone Pine Baptist Church — the family church founded by my great-grandfather, less than a mile from my home. When she told me I had “piano fingers,” I felt so special, like she had chosen me to carry on her music. Sometimes, Mom and I would visit in the evenings, and watch “Wheel of Fortune” with her. In the summer, her porch would be full of family who lived within a mile radius. Great aunts and uncles, cousins, neighbors. Life updates and family stories would be swapped late into the gloaming hours of the evening.
Granny Della was gregarious and outspoken, once telling a man to “get a life and get a job,” and another time telling Lone Pine’s preacher he was wrong about God not giving people talent they didn’t have to learn. Everyone knew where they stood with her, and where she stood on certain issues. Mostly, everyone knew you didn’t cross her, or disrespect her. They revered her, and praised her, and followed her lead. She was one fierce mountain woman, and it showed.
* * *
But, I would never, ever — in my wildest dreams or imaginings — disrespect her in any format because of her fierceness by calling her a lunatic, as J.D. Vance so often refers to his Mamaw in his memoir, Hillbilly Elegy.
The way he describes this woman, whom he claims to revere and credits as the reason he made it out of his low-income life in suburban Ohio and into Yale Law School, is shameful. It displays a willingness to sell out his family members by tapping into a long history of distorted, false, and intentionally made stereotypical images of central Appalachia that have been imposed on the region by outside media makers for nearly three hundred years, ever since the first white land prospectors were sent into the region by George Washington himself.
Vance’s willingness to tap into that long history of misleading images of the place and the people who live there proves his end game: monetary gain and national notoriety to bolster a potential political run for office — supported, of course, by his carefully created and curated self-image as the so-called “expert” on the white working class of Appalachia, a place where he has never lived. His only connection to its realities were visits with grandparents who traveled home for short periods for a few summers when Vance was a child.
However, what’s more insidious about his rise to fame on a book largely made up of descriptions of Appalachian stereotypes he attempts to pass off as universal truths is the fact that people will read his book, and assume all Appalachian people, if they are smart, are trying to actively run away from their culture; they will understand it to be less-than and the people they came from to be crazy lunatics. This, to me, is one of the more personal attacks that Vance hurls at Appalachian people in his 261-page simultaneous fetishization and admonishment of my culture.
Elegy has no class, no heart, and no warmth. It’s a poorly written appropriation of Appalachian stereotypes about violent, ignorant, and slovenly hillbillies who refuse to help themselves despite having every opportunity to do so.
Vance makes broad generalizations about class and wealth, insinuating that everyone living in the region lives in poverty, or among some mythical ruins of working-class life. He clings to that fictionalized past of working-class nostalgia, and assumes that all our problems come from white men being out of work. He paints the region white, completely erasing the economic and cultural contributions and existence of Appalachian people of color. And perhaps most glaring of all, he blames the people of Appalachia for the economic and social problems they now face, which, in actuality, they had very little hand in creating.
The systemic challenges Appalachia faces, such as poverty, drug addiction, economic collapse, and poor public health, have been caused almost entirely by the capitalist greed of extraction companies. From salt to timber to coal to gas, absentee companies have stripped Appalachia of every resource from which they could make a buck, and left very little wealth behind. Just like my Granny Della having to Clorox the coal-dust grime from her porch furniture, Appalachian people have been left to clean up the various economic, social, public health, and environmental messes extraction companies have dumped upon us, leaving very few internal or external resources from which to build.
Big media have highlighted and exploited these systemic challenges and problems in recent years, and used them to identify Appalachia as the scapegoat for all of America’s social and economic ills. If we can just solve the problem of Appalachia, they posit, we can save America. Naturally, since big media seemingly always choose the path of least resistance, J.D. Vance has become their “Appalachian Darling,” appearing on news shows and on panels of so-called middle America experts. Hillbilly Elegy also benefited from a great deal of coincidence in the American social-change calendar, published at precisely the right moment to become a part of the national zeitgeist about the largely exaggerated and much misunderstood role of the “white working class” in the election of Trump.
As a result, thousands and hundreds of years of lived Appalachian experience, and almost 50 years of dedicated Appalachian scholarship, have been stepped over by the national media in favor of the misleading, oversimplified, and stereotypical narrative about Appalachia that fits their preconceived notions of the region: a self-named death poem about a place that most people have long since already buried in their hearts and minds.
* * *
Much has been missed in the hype about Hillbilly Elegy; most importantly that it presents Appalachians as a forgotten people who aren’t worthy of anything but derision and pity, and who cannot be helped because we refuse to help ourselves. Vance writes — and many who’ve read his book believe — that our very DNA betrays and condemns us to a life of strife, regardless of what monumental efforts at change we might make.
The book also assumes there is some special sect of the working class that is especially dedicated to straight, white men. This narrative line of thinking and acting is now largely understood as a dog whistle for white supremacist ideology. In fact, when white supremacist neo-Nazi groups descended on Pikeville, Kentucky, in April 2017, the flyers and messaging they disseminated on social media co-opted the very bootstraps language Vance uses repeatedly in Elegy. It also can’t be ignored that Vance was outed in 2017 as having met with Steve Bannon, former aide to Donald Trump, executive chairman of Breitbart News, and well-known race baiter.
His narrative of the region also badly distorts its true demographic diversity. It ignores any person who is brown, black, queer, or progressive and, by default, assumes these groups of people simply do not exist in the region, and even if they do, aren’t worth talking about or investing in. Rife with fragile masculinity, Elegy forgets that most men in the region are no longer coal miners, or factory workers, and that they haven’t been for some time, and that their understanding of masculinity is no longer tied to old ideas about what it means to be a man.
Vance also actively diminishes, glosses over, and ignores the reality of the critical role that Appalachian women play, and have played, in the economy and in shaping the region’s culture and understanding of itself. Appalachia, in fact, is a very matriarchal culture. We revere our grandmothers and mothers. We follow their lead as they enter the workforce because their husbands have been laid off. For generations, they have grown and harvested our food and fed our bellies three times a day with snacks in between. They have stood on picket lines when men were banned from doing so. They have chained themselves to bulldozers and refused to leave their homes. They prop up our economy in a way that is largely ignored and made invisible and unimportant in false narratives like Vance’s. In reality, the work and contributions of women, people of color, and queer folks across the region are vital to its past, present, and future survival.
In short, Hillbilly Elegy presents an Appalachia in which my experiences and those of my family, and those of many of the people I know and love in the region, do not exist. It erases my story: a young, queer Appalachian with roots 10 generations deep in eastern Kentucky, whose ancestors settled the head of the Left Fork of Maces Creek five generations ago, in the 1830s. I hold within me the fierce loyalty and determination of my Granny Della, the unconditional compassion of my Granny Hazel, the individuality of my parents, and the mountain heart and soul — the pride and dignity — of all my ancestors combined.
* * *
I come from a culture and a family of dignity and grace and laughter and joy — none of which exists in J.D. Vance’s fictitious Appalachia. I spent my childhood running in the hills with my cousins and older brother. Family gatherings for birthdays and holidays and Sundays were our reality.
We were surrounded by our ancestors from whom we heard stories of their youth and what it was like to grow up as the children of subsistence farmers. We learned about the intense difficulty of that life — farming all day, until dark, waking up the next day, and doing it all over again. But, we also learned of the intense dignity of that life. What it meant to till the earth on which my family still lives at the head of the Left Fork of Maces Creek, and how it felt to have everything they ever needed to live and thrive at their fingertips, grown or raised or made with their own hands. How they took care of each other, no matter their socioeconomic status or their political leanings or the hardships one family might have faced more severely than another. We learned lessons of self-reliance and community building from them.
My parents co-owned a gas station in Jeff throughout my childhood, and I spent many evenings and weekends making the store my playground. I built forts out of cases of pop, and played Legos in the office just behind the counter. Students from neighboring Dilce Combs Memorial High School snuck away to Jeff Mart between classes and on their lunch breaks for hots dogs and pop. Some of them even worked for my parents. There were regulars who came into Jeff Mart every day just to be somewhere in between work and home. They were coal miners, construction workers, county officials, teachers. All walks of Appalachian life.
I grew up at Viper Elementary with my classmates, whose parents also worked in a broad mix of jobs. I’m sure some of their dads were coal miners, though I only remember kids of nurses and teacher’s aides, and mechanics. We played basketball together, and were on the academic team together. We tried to learn instruments together so we could be in the band. That didn’t work out so well for me, but I did enjoy playing Pokémon with the other Gameboy nerds in my class. Just like I enjoyed playing “Donkey Kong” and “Zelda” on Super Nintendo with my brother and cousin after school every day. We played until we made it to the end and beat the whole game. Video games were a favorite pastime when I wasn’t reading The Diary of Anne Frank or writing my own stories for fun.
In high school, I played soccer. I went to prom. I hung out with my friends on the weekends. We went to the movies and watched the latest releases. We went to the high school hangout spots: Perry County Park and the local Applebee’s. We made our grades, we passed our classes, we graduated, and many of us went on to college or some other form of postsecondary education. Most of the people I knew in high school are now happily employed as nurses and lab techs, or teachers, or pharmacists, or lawyers. Most of them are married with young children. Many of them still live in their home region of Appalachia, because contrary to what Vance would have his readers believe, most of us are not actively trying to leave our home because of cultural deficiencies we can overcome or escape only by getting as far away as possible. Instead, most of us are trying to stay and raise our families in the place we know and love.
I certainly do not discount the difficult childhood that Vance lived through and his own lived experience that he describes in detail in his book. However, I do take great issue with the ways in which his narrative of the region erases and erodes any Appalachian experience outside his own non-Appalachian experience by reinforcing repeatedly that Appalachian “hillbilly” culture is somehow deficient and morally decrepit, and that it is something to be overcome and escaped from without looking back.
Misrepresentation of Appalachia matters for several reasons. It obscures and intentionally eclipses the pride and dignity of being Appalachian — pride and dignity I personally and many other Appalachian people feel deep within ourselves. Pride and dignity that I was told stories about by my elders, that my high school friends expound upon on Facebook, that my aunt Delilah Sue once told me to never forget and never lose. Hillbilly Elegy instead tells us — like so many false narratives before it have — that we should be ashamed of who we are, where we come from, and the people in our blood. It says to us that we aren’t worthy or deserving of anything more than being the butt of a joke. Such messages hit us hard in our guts, because the truth is way more complicated and way more real, and nobody likes tales to be carried about them.
Hillbilly Elegy not only demeans Appalachians, it presents a hackneyed, stereotypical view of the region to everyone who doesn’t live there and who has no connections to it. It plays right into the ways in which people outside of the region have already been conditioned to see us. It gives them permission to not care about investing in our future because, according to Vance’s book, Appalachian people don’t deserve saving, and they wouldn’t appreciate it anyway, and the best hope for the region and its people is to write them all off as an inevitable and unavoidable loss — a lost people consumed by the fault of their DNA that the rest of America just couldn’t save, despite their best efforts.
Appalachians have been fighting back against that narrative for decades. Although he likely thinks his views and opinions about the region are revolutionary, J.D. Vance adds nothing new to the conversation about Appalachia. In fact, he only recycles and updates old narratives we Appalachians have heard a million times before: We are a deficient people not worthy of anything more than what we’ve already been given, not sophisticated enough to bring into the mainstream, and not important enough to be used as anything more than pawns by coal company owners, mass media makers, and would-be Ohio politicians.
Perhaps the thing that bothers me most about Vance’s narrative is his unabashed misrepresentation of my home region without so much as a backward glance to make sure he didn’t run over anyone on his road toward national prominence.
* * *
Hillbilly Elegy actively and intentionally ignores and excludes the real-life, lived experiences of all but a minority of Appalachian people. It ignores my fierce Granny Della and my Granny Hazel, who smelled of starch and taught me how to feed the chickens and always had breakfast waiting for me when I had to stay with her on a sick day. It certainly doesn’t tell the stories of my Grandpa Earl, who liberated concentration camps, who referred to me exclusively by my middle name, Jude, and who always had a Werther’s candy ready for me. My Poppy Harold’s story is left out. He was too young to enlist during World War II, so he signed up as a Victory Farm Volunteer, and worked for a time on a dairy farm in northern Maine during the war. Both he and my Pa Earl were water boys for the WPA, carrying water to workers building roads near their homeplaces for 25 cents a day. Poppy Harold was a construction worker with an eighth-grade education who’s built dozens of homes and buildings in Perry County. To this day, he lists FDR as his favorite president.
The multifaceted lives of my Mom and Dad are also left out. They hung Modigliani and Van Gogh and Paolo Solari prints on the walls of our home. They played NPR every Sunday morning while Dad fried bacon and made scrambled eggs for us before we went to Sunday school at Lone Pine. They fought the dam at Red River Gorge, the racists in Hazard, the strip-mining companies for which Dad used to work. Mom worked on an Appalachian Oral History project in the early 1970s through Alice Lloyd College. She was editor of the long-since-defunct Mountain Review Magazine, which was a publication of Appalshop, the media, arts, and cultural center in Whitesburg that blossomed out of a War on Poverty program. Until he started working at Trus Joist, a wood-product manufacturing factory just outside of Hazard, Dad was home to cook supper for us every day. To this day, the sound of a range hood going and water boiling on the stove brings me incredible comfort.
Late in life, they both went back to school and got their degrees. Mom got her teaching degree and recently retired after a decades-long career. Dad became a respiratory therapist after Trus Joist left town when their tax breaks dried up. He’s still working at the local hospital.
These men and women lived, and still do live, complex lives in the mountains, and harbor complex thoughts. They raised families and helped build communities in the mountains. They carried, and still do carry, deep knowledge of land and place in their heads. But you won’t hear their stories in narratives such as Hillbilly Elegy. Instead, Vance relies on easier, lazier stories based heavily on stereotypes rather than taking a more nuanced approach to complicate and expand the narrative of a diverse place full of diverse people.
* * *
Hillbilly Elegy’s danger is that it continues the long tradition of presenting Appalachia as a monolithic region and a group of people characterized only by laziness and violence and dislike of anyone or anything different. For those of us who are trying to shift the narrative of our place toward one that is more honest and complex as a means of rebuilding our communities and our economy, Vance’s book is akin to mining coal in the modern era with a pickax. It is increasingly difficult to reclaim and reshape the story of Appalachia when we constantly have to fight back against misleading and harmful portrayals of the region that are rabidly consumed and mass marketed to people not from this place who are unwilling to seek a deeper understanding of people and place.
This is the cycle of media exploitation of Appalachia, and J.D. Vance knows it well. He has used it to produce a New York Times best seller and a career commenting on Appalachia’s challenges that never delves deeper than the surface level. He sees what he wants to see, and what he must see in order to fulfill the decades-long narrative of the lazy, ignorant hillbilly. Perpetuating this narrow view is increasingly detrimental to Appalachia’s economic revival that has picked up considerable steam in the past 10 years.
There is no way we can rebuild a brighter future in the region — one that is non-extractive and regenerative, and that considers the lives, opinions, and wealth generation of all our neighbors as valuable — if we don’t complicate our narrative by making it more diverse and more real. And if we must consistently pause our work to fight back against lazy and ignorant stories disseminated like propaganda about our universal laziness and ignorance, we will have very little time left to tell more honest stories about the region.
* * *
And the truth is, we are an incredibly diverse people in ethnicity, race, class, beliefs, and thoughts, just like any other place in America. We are the descendants of native peoples, slaves, subsistence farmers, coal miners, homemakers, school teachers, sharecroppers, business owners, Eastern Europeans, and Africans. A rapidly increasing number of us came from Mexico or South America. We are gay, straight, and everything in between. We are Democrats and Republicans, and more than anything, most of us don’t vote at all because of apathy and disenfranchisement. Some of us are coal miners, but more of us work in health care. Some of us live in abject poverty, a few of us live in extreme wealth, and most of us live in the middle, trying desperately month to month to make it all work. In these ways, we are very similar to any other rural place in America right now, just trying to figure out our place in a 21st century world that has, for the most part, left us to fend for ourselves.
Whether J.D. Vance or anybody else in big media’s orbit wants to admit it, those of us who are from or who currently live in the region are all Appalachians, and we all have a story to tell about the place we love — the place where our bones are from, the place Vance could only dream of ever truly knowing.
My Granny Della had had enough that day she stopped the coal trucks with her .38 pistol. Although she didn’t end up in jail, and never faced any punitive action for taking her stand, she took matters into her own hands because, as the descendent of generations of people who had to do for themselves just to survive, she inherently knew that’s the way of Appalachian people. Perhaps, rather than the false narratives about our DNA being encoded with laziness and poverty, the true makeup of our genes is intense self-reliance. We’ve always had everything taken from us, and we’ve always had other people telling us — and everyone else — who we are. So, we’ve had to make do with what we already had for decades.
As a result, we’ve become experts at cleaning up other people’s messes. We’ve cleaned up the messes and environmental disasters left by extraction companies, and the artificial messes corporations tried to make between and among races. And we’ve worked to clean up the mess big media have made us into. And long after we clean up what J.D. Vance has done, we’ll go on living in this place, making stories here and telling them to anyone who will listen. Maybe someday our complex stories will overpower the simpler, false narratives about our place. Until then, we’ll be waiting to clean up any new messes, while simultaneously building our brighter future despite the narratives telling us we can’t do it, and that we aren’t worth it. We simply know better, and more than anything, we’ve had enough of those lies.
Ivy Brashear is a 10th-generation Appalachian whose family has lived on the Left Fork of Maces Creek in Perry County since before the Civil War. She is the Appalachian Transition Director at the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development in Berea, Kentucky, and her writing has appeared in the Huffington Post, Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity, Yes! Magazine, and Next City.