Hillbilly Elegy and the Danger of a Single Story

Hillbilly Elegy,” Reviewed: The Silent Political Messaging in Ron Howard's  Adaptation | The New Yorker

That best-selling Appalachian memoir Hillbilly Elegy is popping up again, now in Netflix form. I watched it. I enjoyed it. I have some issues with it. But mostly, it’s giving me flashbacks…

What’s the Story?

I woke up on November 9, 2016, and gazed out the window at what looked like another cool and crisp autumn day in central Ohio. But it wasn’t just another day. It was the day after election day in a presidential election year. I had been following the campaigns closely and watched the results as they came in the night before, but I fell asleep at about 2:00 in the morning. The small television in my room stayed on after I fell asleep so it was still on when I awoke and I didn’t have to wait long before I found out the final results of the electoral map…

Donald Trump was going to be our next president. 

I stood shocked, holding the remote loosely in my hand, and watching the news a little longer to make sure I didn’t hear incorrectly. All the models and predictions agreed that Hillary Rodham Clinton was going to win, possibly with a historic margin. How did this happen? How did we not see this coming? Where did this surge of support come from and what did it mean? 

Of course, I wasn’t the only one taken by surprise at Trump’s victory. My friends processed their shock on social media; scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed I witnessed posts ranging from elation to devastation. Whether they were protesting or partying, almost all agreed that they didn’t see it coming. 

The following weeks inspired commentary from a host of political pundits doing their best to make sense of this anomaly. Before long, a consensus emerged. We were told that the surprising success of Donald Trump’s campaign can be attributed to a particular demographic of Americans who have long felt left out and left behind in America’s social and economic transformation. This disaffected population is known as the “white working class.”

The white working class label was broadly applied but generally referred to white folks without a college degree who worked in blue collar jobs. They can be found across the rust belt of the Midwest, the small towns of Appalachia, and rural regions across the country. They are typically resistant to social change and have been victimized by automation and bad trade deals. 

The Great 'Normalization' Debate of 2016

This cacophony of commentary converged into a national narrative. According to this common story, the white working class, largely made up of rural voters, were the antagonists. Economically disenfranchised and resentful of social change, they made their voices heard through the “strong man leader” named Donald Trump. He would stand up for them and set things right. He would toss aside elitism and PC culture and make America great again. 

Eager to capitalize on the media attention, some advocates for rural revitalization confirmed the story, emphasizing the cultural breakdown and spiritual poverty of rural communities. At the time, the story made sense to me and I adopted it as my interpretive lens for understanding what was going on with my rural neighbors and fellow citizens. I even wrote a post wrestling with these questions.

I had only recently moved back to my hometown in rural Ohio and I was trying to reacquaint myself with the people and places that so shaped the first two decades of my life. I was completing my seminary program and was eager to integrate all the things I had studied about social justice and spiritual formation with what I was experiencing in my rural context. It seemed like all the resources about social justice were directed to people in urban settings. And it seemed like the spiritual formation resources were directed to people living a suburban lifestyle. 

After the election I was listening intently to proponents of this national narrative and I was reading relentlessly about rural issues. I learned about the economic, cultural, and moral breakdown experienced by many rural communities and small towns. I saw the patterns of decline and devastation that brought suffering to rural Americans and seemed to

Author: Trump fans not concerned by Cabinet - CNN Video

foster a spirit of resentment and despair. I read books like Hillbilly Elegy in which J.D. Vance offered a critique of working class folks from his Kentucky childhood and ultimately concluded: “There is a cultural movement in the white working class to blame problems on society or the government, and that movement gains adherents by the day.” And I read articles like one in the Wall Street Journal that outlined troubling trends in rural communities across America, declaring rural the “new inner city.” I didn’t believe President Trump would be their savior but I had empathy for rural and rust belt folks who voted “against their interests” because they were in pain. 

The Rest of the Story

However, as I dug deeper into the stories of my neighbors and learned more about individuals and groups working on projects of rural renewal, I began to uncover a new story. Or, at least, as Paul Harvey would say, “the rest of the story.” Yes, there were indeed folks who were looking for a strong man with a big mouth to be their angry advocate; there is real prejudice and ignorance in rural communities. And there is very real pain and oppression. But there are also folks who aren’t waiting for an intervention from big government or big business. Instead of waiting, they are working. Working to build inclusive, thriving, local economies. Working to weave a welcoming social fabric in their region. Working to start new businesses, revive old buildings, and co-create a positive future for their small town. 

Before I learned these stories, I had no idea about all the people and projects going on across the country. When I discovered this new story, I realized how the old story, though perhaps meant to inspire empathy and aid, was actually disempowering. It perpetuates the idea that rural folks are backwoods and backwards and can only be helped by powerful leaders from our nation’s urban centers, whether those leaders be liberal technocrats or conservative swamp-drainers. But I know that rural folks are competent and creative, resourceful and resilient. Good public policy can go a long way but only in partnership with the folks who are already doing the work of leading their communities and loving their neighbors in often hidden but important ways. 

An Alternative Story

I realized that this new narrative was the one I needed to learn more about and lift up as an example. After all, stories are powerful. They don’t just tell us about what happened in the past. They interpret the present and impact the future. They influence how we direct energies and resources. 

The philosopher Ivan Ilach argued that neither revolution nor reformation could truly transform society without a new, persuasive, inclusive story. “If you want to change a society,” he insisted, “then you have to tell an alternative story.” 

Likewise, the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber tells the tale about his grandfather who was crippled. One day his grandfather was telling the story about his favorite teacher who would jump and dance when he prayed. Buber’s grandfather got so swept away in imitating his teacher that he was cured of his disability and began jumping and dancing. That’s how you tell a story, Buber said. 

Indeed, stories have healing and transformative power. In her Ted Talk about “the dangers of a single story,” Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie insists on the importance of telling multiple stories about places and people. “The single story creates stereotypes,” she said, “and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” This has often been true for small towns and rural communities. Sometimes those stories

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: The danger of a single story | TED Talk

were used to dismiss and dispossess rural folks and sometimes those stories were used to attract pity and public awareness. But the old story, when told as the dominant narrative, is a single story that leaves out some really important and inspiring stories. Thankfully, the storytelling continues and it’s in our power to steward it. “Stories can break the dignity of a people,” said Adichie, “but stories can also repair that broken dignity.”  

I want to tell an alternative story about small towns and rural regions, one that helps “repair that broken dignity.” Not a story about decline and desperation for outside intervention but a story about the agency and creativity of what I call “ordinary leaders” from within those communities. Not a story about scarcity and depravity but of abundance and generosity. This alternative story not only fills out the narrow narrative that is pervasive in our time, it also shapes our intention and direction as we work to repair and renew our communities. Because we don’t just tell stories, we live them. And the stories we tell become the stories we live.    

A Hopeful Story

I enjoyed reading Hillbilly Elegy and I enjoyed watching the film adaption. It’s important to note, though, that I read it as one story among many. The book was released right after the startling victory of Donald Trump, so Vance became the spokesperson for Appalachian America and the “white working class.” In some ways, he embraced that role and it has had mixed consequences for our national narrative. The issue is not appreciating and learning from Vance’s memoir, it is when we take it as the story about Appalachia.

Journalist John Miller said it well in his article for The Daily Yonder: “What Hillbilly Elegy misses is those normal, healthy ways in which Appalachia and the Rust Belt are rebuilding after de-industrialization. Tech startups coming out of the region’s many colleges and universities. A boom in the creation of small businesses like coffee shops, breweries, and yoga studios. To be sure, many of these enterprises fail, but, as it becomes clearer that manufacturing really isn’t coming back, they represent a healthy adjustment and pivot to a more realistic assessment of what the rural economy might look like. A resurgent book publishing industry. Those stories are just as true as the anger, opioid addiction, and Trumpism.”

“Keep people complex,” someone once told me. I’ve tried to remember and practice that advice. Folks around me are constantly confounding me with their complexity. I put them in a category and they say or do something that doesn’t fit. It’s kind of frustrating when you want to manage your world by categorizing and controlling it. But it also gives me hope. We can find hope in the complexity of people and the many-storied nature of our neighbors. It means that we all have the capacity to break old patterns, defy expectations, and tell a new story.

Exploring New Stories

By the way, if you’re looking to listen to more stories and explore that bigger picture of Appalachia, I recommend these 4 resources (in addition to one-on-one conversations):

Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to Hillbilly Elegy, edited by Anthony Harkins and Meredith McCarroll.

What You Are Getting Wrong about Appalachia by Elizabeth Catte.

Hill Women: Finding Family and a Way Forward in the Appalachian Mountains by Cassie Chambers.

The documentary hillbilly directed by Sally Rubin and Ashly York.

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