Bill O’Reilly’s recent denunciation of Appalachian-Americans on FOX News is only the latest example of the widespread, multigenerational problem of Appalachian hillbilly stereotypes. Quite simply, O’Reilly once again reminded the world that Appalachian mountain natives are the only group in America that many people still have the audacity to publicly ridicule as being ignorant—and worse.
O’Reilly even expanded the historical litany of hillbilly stereotypes to include our being drug-addicted, hopelessly beyond social and moral redemption, and unworthy to live in our own mountain homeland. Appalachian children, he says, should move to Miami to save themselves.
Can you imagine O’Reilly directing such despicable rhetoric toward _____ or _____ or _____? (Insert whatever racial, ethnic or cultural groups you choose.) While other groups are stereotyped and subjected to varying degrees of “acceptable” bigotry, Appalachian-Americans seem to be the only minority expressly deemed stupid.
How can we overcome the pervasive hillbilly stereotypes that have demoralized us for more than a century and that continue to impact both our economic well-being and our children’s future? Why are we so reluctant to pick up pine knots and go to war against such blatant, insidious misrepresentation of our culture? Why do we continue to pull in our heads like turtles and pretend that we don’t care, that we’ll survive regardless of what the outside world thinks?
Well, I do care—for myself, my family and friends, and my culture—and I don’t believe we’re surviving very well now or will survive with a shred of honor and dignity in the future unless we rise up, en masse, and protest this kind of abuse at every opportunity.
We’re portrayed as lolling about in our insular Snuffy Smith/Mammy Yokum/corncob-pipe mode as if the opinion of the rest of the world didn’t matter—even as we’re being brutalized every time someone mimics our dialect, rejects us for gainful employment, or dismisses our opinion out of hand (How could an ignorant hillbilly possibly have something to say?).
A professor at the University of Colorado once said to our own Charles Frazier (of Cold Mountain fame), “Imagine that—a hillbilly with a Ph.D.!” Even worse than the professor’s harboring such a misbegotten thought is the fact that she felt free to say it to his face at a faculty dinner party. Can you imagine her making such a statement to a person of any other racial, ethnic or cultural group?
Debilitating hillbilly stereotypes resound internationally and hurt us on so many levels, both personally and economically.
For the past 125 years, especially during periods of economic depression, zealous missionaries, opportunistic writers and rapacious industrialists have flocked to our mountains. Deeming us easy targets, they misrepresent our culture; scalp our mountaintops; redesign our communities; pollute our rivers; rape our land with roads, airports and cookie-cutter shopping centers; and mine our geological resources. And all the while, they’re defining us the way they want to see us—as ignorant and needy—which, of course, justifies their exploitation.
Remember Deliverance? Remember Tobacco Road? But some recent movies have portrayed us as even more violent and subhuman than those older, culture-defining films. Creature from the Hillbilly Lagoon and Wrong Turn, for example, feature inbred, mutant hillbillies who cannibalize tourists (Not altogether a bad idea, some locals say).
And while many people recently tried to get a cartoonist fired for depicting the shooting of a “stimulus-plan gorilla,” O’Reilly was shooting down an entire culture on international television—and surprisingly few people were outraged or even seemed to care. Well, we ought to care, and care deeply, because the issue is infinitely larger and farther-reaching than mere irritation with O’Reilly.
True, he’s a catalyst and flash point for bigotry and intolerance, but O’Reilly’s not the source of our problem: We are.
We’re to blame for not doing our best to root out such bigotry, expose it for what it is, and replace it with a truer reflection of who we are. Why aren’t we honoring our centuries-old heritage of persistence, perseverance, courage, loyalty, language and love of freedom, nourished by generations of our Scottish, English, Irish, German, Welsh and Cherokee ancestors?
We should demand that the word “hillbilly” be excised from our language, just as other demoralizing racial, cultural and ethnic slurs are no longer spoken aloud in polite company.
Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia, the first high-profile person to publicly denounce these crippling multigenerational stereotypes, found enough support several years ago to prevent CBS from creating a Beverly Hillbillies reality show that would have placed an Appalachian family in a Beverly Hills mansion to be ridiculed for a year. The producers had even advertised in our local newspapers for an ignorant mountain family—all expenses paid!
More recently, West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin authorized a multimillion-dollar marketing campaign aimed at countering his state’s hillbilly stereotypes, but few other politicians have come on board.
It’s getting harder to find native mountaineers who still carry the old values and spirit of independence exemplified by Miller and Manchin, and within a few more generations, our real culture may fade into oblivion—even as the stereotypes linger. Our centuries-old heritage will be gone, and children will ask: “Who, exactly, were the hillbillies? Where did they live? Where did they go?”
And their mothers will respond: “They were lazy, toothless, ignorant people in old movies who ate possums and tourists, dear, but you mustn’t say the H-word aloud. It’s politically incorrect.”
We do have a choice. We can hasten our own cultural demise by doing nothing, by drawing a circle around ourselves and trying to shut out the rest of the world. Or, like Miller and Manchin, we can pick up our pine knots and go to war—to save ourselves.
[Betty Cloer Wallace is a descendant of Roderick Shelton, the first English settler in Madison County. She teaches writing and literature at Southwestern Community College.]