Sunday, March 23, 2008

Hillbilly: 'The last acceptable slur in the country'

Five years ago, when CBS started looking in Appalachia to cast for a reality-show version of "The Beverly Hillbillies," it ran into a storm of protest from many quarters, spurred first by Rudy Abramson, the recently deceased co-founder of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, and mainly by our friends at the Center for Rural Strategies. Last month, a movie casting company "looked to West Virginia hollows for extras to play inbred degenerates" in the horror film "Shelter," but lost its contract "after West Virginia political and labor leaders protested the casting call," write Tom Breen and Shaya Tayefe Mohajer of The Associated Press, in an examination of the term "hillbilly" that will be read by millions of Americans.

Writing from Charleston, W.Va., capital of a state where they say the hillbilly image may be "most potent," the reporters say the word "has been a persistent national slander, one which has seen its targets gradually adopt the slur as a badge of pride." They don't mention a good example of that: Hillbilly Days in Pikeville, Ky., which is close to West Virginia, and has photos on its Web site like the one here, from 2004.

The story's seminal sources are Anthony Harkins, a history professor at Western Kentucky University and author of Hillbilly: A Cultural History of an American Icon, and Jeff Biggers, author of The United States of Appalachia, a book that points out many major achievers from the region. "Where outsiders might conjure [from the word] images of inbreeding and backwardness, Harkins said Appalachian natives stress positives like close-knit families and a sense of community," Breen and Mohajer report.

"Biggers believes the negative stereotypes that date back to the 19th century get continually recycled in a self-referential loop, so that one generation's 'Deliverance' becomes another's 'Wrong Turn.' The popular image of poor rural whites seems to fluctuate between the monsters of those films and the clueless yokels of comedy bits like the 'Appalachian Emergency Room"' skits on the television show 'Saturday Night Live.' The problem, Biggers said, is that these depictions have very little to do with daily life in Appalachia."

The first time we saw "Appalachian Emergency Room," we were offended. But then we realized that "Saturday Night Live" makes fun of many stereotypes. Beyond satire and comedy, though, Biggers is right when he says, "The hillbilly is the last acceptable slur in the country." (Read more)

The prejudice behind the slur goes beyond the hills of Appalachia. As political commentator Mark Shields, left, said at Abramson's memorial service last month, "Rudy understood that the one demographic group that could be caricatured could be ridiculed and could be condescended to with total impunity, are the white working-class Americans that did not go to college, and who often live in the rural United States." (Read more) For a recording of Shields' remarks, click here.


Anonymous said...

"Hillbilly" should not be an acceptable slur. We in Appalachia should be called "Appalachian Americans". Just as there are "Asian Americans", "Native Americans", "African Americans", there should be "Appalachian Americans".

Anonymous said...

It may be of interest to Appalachian Americans that a recent radio advertizement from Planters, a division of Kraft Foods, promoting their Kettle Roasted Peanuts depicts an "ignorant hillbilly" whooping and raving about throwing 'possum into the kettle. I encourage all Appalachians to protect their dignity with their dollars and BOYCOTT PLANTERS PRODUCTS.