‘White Lightning’ – Let’s Make a Feud

[imgbelt img=hmwl_abouttheseries-E.jpeg]It’s a story as old as the hills. No, not the Hatfield-McCoy feud – the tradition of using rural stereotypes to make profits for the entertainment industry.


Jimmy Emerson

A historical marker on KY Hwy 1056 in Buskirk, Kentucky, tells the story of the pawpaw tree incident in the Hatfield-McCoy fued.

I’m embarrassed to say that I sat through an entire 21-minute episode. The unnatural twang and ain’ts in the narrator’s accent was the first sign that something was deeply wrong.  The appearance in a single episode of a turkey hunt, cursing matriarchs, donkeys and pigs in a house, moonshine recipes in the back of the family Bible, alcoholic cousins, a jug band and a hoedown made me wonder if the producers even spent any time in an Appalachia that was located outside a comic strip. Aside from the sassy matriarchs, hunting and a bonfire, little in the show rang true of any Appalachian experience I’ve ever been privy to. I’m sure all of the things depicted have happened at some point or another throughout West Virginia or Kentucky, but you’re more likely to see the Mothman in Sunday school than all of these stereotypes in the same place.

It doesn’t matter that the show is one of the most obviously scripted reality shows I’ve ever seen. What matters is that this show is taking a piece of West Virginia’s history out of context. Romanticizing the violence that occurred during the Hatfield and McCoy feud demonstrates the same shaky understanding of history that leads people to fly rebel flags for the sake of “Southern Heritage” and wear tee-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “Coal Mining: Our Future.”

The Hatfield-McCoy distillery scheme follows the same pattern of much of the other economic activity in our state that we attribute cultural significance to: Appalachia has a resource that someone outside of the region realizes can make a profit. Person from outside region uses the labor and natural resources of Appalachia, acts as if it will bring lots of money to the region, resource gets consumed, outside interest leaves area, communities are left struggling in its wake. While the show focuses on moonshine, it’s clear that the resource utilized here is a violent history. The only “history” the History Channel depicts with White Lightning, is the history of exploitation of Appalachian people for entertainment purposes.

As with “Buckwild,” it’s easy as an Appalachian to be angry with the people who are on this show. Have you no pride in your state? In your family? In yourself? But saying that the cast of “White Lightning” is being used by the History Channel makes a negative assumption about people from Appalachia that I find almost as offensive as having my state represented by a TV show about feuding and moonshining. The “stars” of reality shows are not at fault. As consumers of media, we are.