Review: Another Take on ‘Hillbilly Elegy’

J.D. Vance’s Elegy pigeon holes poor whites into neat categories of dysfunction and disaffection. It's a treatment that ought to sound familiar to African Americans. Let's hope the result is different.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: We’ve already run one review of J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. Here’s another view from a native of Appalachia on the evocative book, which has ignited discussion about whether Democrats and Republicans are addressing the issues of the post-industrial poor.


Black Skins, White Masks is a 1952-published book by Frantz Fanon, a Martinique-born Afro-Caribbean psychiatrist.  This work concentrated on colonized people in the West Indies and Africa by exploring the despair and misery born of colonization and the social consequences of racism and how political and economic domination mentally damages people and leads to emotional disorders.

Thirty years later, John Gaventa analyzed the same phenomena in his groundbreaking book, Power and Powerlessness: Quiescence and Rebellion in an Appalachian Valley.  It’s easy to figure out the options oppressed and demoralized people have by just looking at Gaventa’s subtitle.  Now, another three decades later, J. D. Vance – who spent a great part of his life shifting between the white working class condition and ethos of Middletown, Ohio and Jackson, Kentucky – claims the white-hot book during this very hot summer of presidential politics, a memoir titled Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis.

Vance, 34, an ex-Marine who holds a Yale law degree, paints with a very broad brush disaffected Americans whom he calls – with familiarity and a rather twisted sense of loyalty — “mountaineers,” “briar hoppers,” “trailer trash,” and “rednecks.”  This is, he asserts, the white underclass to whom and for whom Donald Trump speaks, much like Malcolm X did in his appeal to “the black grassroots,” back when Fanon was observing the same social spectacle.  In the Appalachian heartland, indeed among millions of whites throughout America, there is, according to Vance, a tangible powerlessness.  Through his recap of his family’s journey, he profiles their loss of advantages, however uncertain in relative terms of white privilege.

With their world of work shattered and their traditionalist world views called into question, the values, norms, and behaviors – such as hard work and good conduct that once made the white working class the embodiment of the American Dream – have become acidic and barbed, characterized by a new set of oppositional cultural bearings and a downwardly spiraling menu of self-destructive conduct.  Sounds like Vance is writing about pigeon-holed poor black people in Central Harlem, not stereotyped poor white people in Harlan County, Kentucky or Central Appalachia. It reads like pages torn from Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965-dated report, “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.”

Moynihan argued more than half century ago that “the deterioration of the Negro family is the fundamental source of the weakness of the Negro community.”  Substitute the key words with “deindustrialization” and “globalization” and you have the tangle of pathology that affects the white working class.  In the Rust Belt swaths of America described by Vance, life for many working class whites is crumbling and disintegrating.  “Where’s my white privilege?”  “My white life matters, too!”

Bill Turner
Author Bill Turner.

Vance does not ask what America is doing to upgrade the white working class, but rather he points out what they are doing to themselves. He describes the negative cultural atmosphere emerging from white people who are powerless to push back the forces that scattered from Appalachia with the advent of the mechanization of coal mining starting just after World War II.  Like most books on the region, Mr. Vance never met any black hillbillies.  Hillbilly Elegy blames and buries a lot of the victims of a changed America.  Vance does not spend much time on the effect of the disappearance of blue-collar jobs and what it means to be isolated from the educated, elite, and effete American mainstream. That’s something poor black people have known a lot about for a very long time.

The last book about working class and impoverished white people to charge up the air to such an esoteric level was Harry Caudill’s 1963-published Night Comes to the Cumberlands. Will the government’s reaction to Hillbilly Elegy be the same – a new War on Poverty?  I certainly hope not, because the War on Poverty in Appalachia came up with some mirror-image skirmishes for urban blacks’ way out of their despair and want – the so-called Model Cities and Urban Renewal programs.  Those agendas, plans, policies, and programs only masked the troubles of poor blacks, the way Vance’s memoir disguises that of my white mountain brethren.  We shouldn’t put any more skin – of any color – in those same old poverty programs, and we should quickly bury such Appalachian funeral songs like Vance’s elegy.

Bill Turner grew up in the coal camp of Lynch, in Harlan County, Kentucky. The men in his extended family were coal miners. His doctoral degree is from Notre Dame. He co-authored Blacks in Appalachia (1984).  Turner served as Distinguished Professor of Appalachian Studies at Berea College and is now Research Professor focusing on limited resource Texans from Prairie View A&M University.


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