Looky here! I'm a hillbilly. The real deal. Bonafide. Born and raised. Generational. Go ahead. Ask me if I grew up wearing shoes, with electricity, and indoor plumbing. I've answered these questions a million times in my life. Yes, I do have all of my own teeth. Yes, it's true, some of us don't. Just like some of you don't. Ask me to pronounce "ice", "Nike", or the name of my hometown "Whitesburg". I'll say it over again a few times before I get pissed off.
Here, I'll go ahead and answer the other questions. I have lived most of my life in a trailer. I've lived in three different trailer parks. Perhaps that makes me trailer trash too. I also am a holler rat. I grew up drinking mostly pop. We couldn't drink the tap water. I know the putrid smell of sulfur water well. Pop was what was available for me. The milk was for the baby. Hmmm... what else? Oh, I have used a chamber pot for an extensive period of time, though it was used indoors. I have used an outhouse with a composting bucket in the Pisgah National Forest in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina. That counts as an outhouse. Toilet paper was provided. I pick weeds out of my yard and eat them. I've pulled the innards of a hawk killed hen out with my bare hands. I went to two schools that were taken over by the state department of education because of poor performance. I roamed the hills as I pleased. I'm not afraid of wild animals, but I do know how to respect them. I can find my way around outside in the dark. I have accepted handouts and government assistance as needed. I've lived above and below the poverty line. Let's just say regularly hovering all around it. I haven't seen a dentist in about 10 years. No, I'm not addicted to prescription pain pills, but I do need quite a bit of caffeine to function. What else might you want to know about a real hillbilly?
My husband and I have been interviewed countless times in the recent years by students and journalists from outside of these hills. Mostly, the questions are the same. Why did you choose to stay in the mountains? Is the economy really as bad as they say it is? Are your towns dying? Are people really as poor as we've heard? Is the education system really awful? Will the death of coal be the death of your communities? And, on occasion someone will be interested in my hometown of Whitesburg. Somehow the idea that it is culturally advanced and doing things that no other town in the region is trying to do has gotten around. Some good things are happening there, but honestly, I have no idea what will come of any of it. Some days I'm hopeful, other days, not so much.
I just wonder what the wonder is all about. My people are portrayed in the media as impoverished, backwards idiots more times than not. I'll link to the positive press at the bottom of this post. Stereotypes are exploited and exaggerated. At best, they are misunderstood. It is perfectly acceptable to most people to publicly make fun of me or any other hillbilly and it happens way more than I can stand. People do it unconscious of how their words and actions are placing me below them and how I very consciously catch that sense of superiority. I want to know what these fascinated people want from us. What is their research or reporting going to do to change anything here? Is it just glorified gawking? Honestly, I think so. Unbeknownst to the well meaning enlightened.
"Oh, how great!" "You are so cool." "I can't believe you live that way." "You are my hero." Really? Being a hillbilly is a new fad - hillbilly chic. That our every day makes us cool, or a hero is frustrating. If you can navigate New York City or fight rush hour traffic in Spaghetti Junction without killing anyone, you're just as deserving of accolades. It isn't our choice to live here, or the happenstance that we were born here that makes us interesting. I wish people wanted to get to know us. We are a people as complex and deep as any other culture you could choose to study. We are so much more than coal, prescription abuse, poverty, job loss, diabetes/obesity, Mountain Dew mouth, and low educational attainment. Sure, they are some big problems, but they stem from something much bigger, and it is partly the fault of you outsiders.
Other than any privilege that being white brings me, I am not unlike the inner city African American mother who when questioned by the outside has to answer the same thing again and again. Why the violence? Police brutality? Gangs? Welfare? Or the Hispanic person looking for work who gets asked about immigration, deportation, and working for low wages. Or the Middle Eastern person who constantly answers questions about Islam, terrorism, and what it is like being a Muslim American.
As a hillbilly, I'm part of the "other" in this country. With that comes responsibility. It means sometimes being the voice of my people. As much as I want to talk about telling ghost stories with my Mamaw, eating soup beans and cornbread, how inventive my ancestors were, how mesmerizing our traditional music can be, and how dang smart we are, I will answer any and all manner of questions whether it makes my heart sing or not. I won't yell at you for repeating my words back to me in exaggerated, butchered accent while smiling from ear to ear. I won't even be upset at the shock that I am very literate and well read. I'll cater to you in a hope that somehow, I can help you see more of us. I want to change the story being told out there. I want all the truth. No exaggerations. No hope where there isn't any. All the wonderful eccentric bits left in. I want our stories told straight from the horse's mouth. It is time to change the narrative if we want to be seen for who we are and we want to find real solutions for the future that is upon us.
The more positive press:
Imagining a Post-Coal Appalachia (The Atlantic Monthly)
ZipUSA: 41858 (National Geographic)
5 Days in Kentucky: Small Town Conceives of New Life After Mining (Al Jazeera America)
Kelli Hansel Haywood is the mother of three daughters living in the mountains of southeastern Kentucky. She is a writer, weightlifter, yoga and movement instructor, chakra reader, and Reiki practitioner.