October 7, 2021231 views
The hillbilly stereotype is rife in American pop culture. From the silent film of 1904 “The Moonshiner”, stereotypes have been a crutch for lazy writing. The 1972 movie “Deliverance” and more recently the 2016 book and 2020 movie “Hillbilly Elegy” encouraged and perpetuated harmful misconceptions about the people of the Appalachians.
Stereotyped as poor, uneducated, unclean and white, the Appalachians have faced years of economic, environmental and social prejudice. Endemic poverty, unemployment and addiction in rural Appalachia is not a punchline or a point of intrigue for Hollywood. It is a crude product underdevelopment due to government negligence and corporate negligence. Rosann Kent, professor of Appalachian studies at the University of North Georgia, demand, “Why are we the last acceptable stereotype?” Kent raises an important question. Why is Appalachian culture, people, and dialect a source of mockery rather than a unique and respected facet of American culture?
Appalachian culture is a melting pot of traditions culminating in a typically American expression of identity. Appalachian music, dance, and food are a combination of cultures primarily from West Africa, the British Isles, the Cherokee, and other Appalachian tribes. One of the most stereotypical aspects of Appalachian identity is the Appalachian dialect. Speakers of the dialect often face preconceived ideas about their intelligence, skills or potential, especially in professional and academic settings. Speakers of the Appalachians are perceived as less educated, less intelligent and poorer than speakers without an accent. Stereotypes lead to prejudices in the real world. Linguistic and cultural diversity must be celebrated, not suppressed.
Not only are stereotypes about the Appalachians damaging, but they denature the region. The assumption that all Appalachians are white erases the many minority groups residing in the mountains. The Cherokee and the Shawnee called the Appalachians long before the white settlers. Melungeons, a the mestizos of African, Native American and European descent, historically reside in the Appalachians. Junaluska is a black community right here in Boone. In fact, Junaluska is the only such community remaining in Watauga County.
The misconception of the poor and helpless mountain dwellers was also emboldened by political symbolism. Presidents including Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, as well as religious leaders like Billy Graham and Jesse Jackson, have made “poverty tours” that called the Appalachians “poor, backward and white.” The Appalachians have long been used as a political bargaining chip for politicians and public figures who have left the region a graveyard of broken political promises. No wonder the Appalachians are known for their fierce independence and mistrust of government.
Contempt for the culture and struggles of the Appalachian people is perfectly represented in Frank Rich’s 2017 essay “No sympathy for the Hillbilly.” Rich expresses that the working class “hillbillies” who voted for Trump are a lost cause and do not know what is good for them. He takes a rather pretentious stance with regard to Appalachian politics, saying: “let them reap the consequences of voting against their own interests.” Rich seems to know a lot about the Appalachian interests of a wealthy Manhattanite. Appalachian workers are time and time again scapegoats and others due to inaccurate and outdated stereotypes. The hillbilly character isn’t just a harmless caricature. These misconceptions have real consequences for the Appalachians.
Stereotypes of the Appalachians unfortunately get nowhere, but awareness is the first step in tackling harmful misconceptions. App State did a great job creating Appalachian Studies accessible and engaging for students. Appalachian Politics, Appalachian Cinema, Appalachian Culture and Diversity in the Appalachians are just a few courses offered by the university. Stereotypes are rooted in ignorance. Knowing more about the area where we go to school is only common sense. If the classroom isn’t your forte, strike up a conversation with someone from the Appalachians – we’re very nice, I promise. Communication and education challenge prejudice. Stereotypes are lazy and outdated, and we can all do better not to feed them.