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"Embracing the Diversity of Appalachia" by Dr. Kirk Hazen

Kirk Hazen and Sally Rubin at hillbilly talkback

Professor Kirk Hazen took the opportunity to reflect upon our screening of hilbilly that took place  on February 22, 2019: Part of the WVU Humanities Center's  Quality of Life Speakers Series.

On February 22, 2019, Sally Rubin presented the film hillbilly to a crowd that ranged in age from 18 to 80. Rubin is the co-director, with Ashley York, of hillbilly, and she came to WVU as part of the WVU Humanities Center Quality of Life series.  The Center’s events in that week also featured a much anticipated but unrealized reading from Silas House’s Southernmost and a book-launch panel from the editors and authors of Appalachian Reckoning (Anthony Harkins and Meredith McCarroll, editors). The hope that stretched across these events was that people would better understand the complexity of the region’s history, the effects of entrenched stereotypes, and the diversity of Appalachians.

The directors have woven several major threads through hillbilly’s chapters. One prominent theme is the long history of representation in literature and media about Appalachia, from color writers spinning apocryphal tales to Snuffy Smith aping rural poverty to the entire globe, to Orange is the New Black. The other two main themes were intertwined with each other. On the national front, the directors frame the film with a refreshingly humane family discussion of the political choices in the 2016 presidential election and the attention the nation paid to Appalachia. On the personal front, the film focused on Ashley York’s personal journey away from eastern Kentucky, an exodus that so many Appalachians have made over the last century. As Elizabeth Catte (who spoke at WVU in February 2018) writes: “You might think our biggest export is coal, but it’s actually people” (2018:11).

In every section of the film, the word accent showed up in every chapter and was closely tied to perceptions of Appalachia. Complaints about accents have been present for a long time , and Appalachians who travel outside the region frequently encounter questions about where they are from and stereotypical jokes. Stereotypes about Appalachian speech are nothing new, but hearing how they affect real people on the receiving end of those stereotypical comments helps to show how the steaming piles of negative assumptions corrupt confidence and erode people’s self-worth.

Yet most people outside the region see Appalachia as a single entity and have only simplistic complaints about it. Elizabeth Catte writes about why liberals outside the region ridicule it and what they could gain from a good history lesson. Rubin and York’s film hillbilly provides exactly the right retort with a visual account of the complex issues in the Appalachian region. Catte’s own book, What You are Getting Wrong About Appalachia (Belt Publishing) has been a major influence on how people think about the region since its release in Spring 2018. Appalachia has been used as a whipping-post for a long time, and in the 2016 elections, the region was used as an excuse to make those downtrodden by the results feel better about finding someone to blame. The film hillbilly directly addresses this scapegoating of Appalachia through discussions with York’s family.

Even the term “Appalachian” is complicated. Most people who are native to Appalachia do not grow up with the term Appalachian as a palpable social label. They identify neither positively nor negatively with the Appalachian region as a single, social entity—more local, regional identification is the norm. For this reason, it must be remembered that Appalachian is primarily a term used in colleges or craft fairs. As a geographic region, Appalachia constitutes 420 counties covering 13 states with a current population of about 22 million, according to the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), but few people see that space as a unified identity.

Language scholars who have worked on English varieties in Appalachia are drawing together their knowledge in a forthcoming book entitled Appalachian Englishes. Why the plural? Dialect variation in Appalachia ranges widely between Southern and Northern realms. In each you can find local variation that people hold as homey, warm, and comforting, but this variation differs from place to place. The language diversity in Appalachia is too great to be contained within one single variety.

The hillbilly film adds to the analysis of the history of hillbilly images. A history of a different hillbilly stereotypes will be unveiled in Professor Rosemary Hathaway’s book on character of the Mountaineer . As a character adopted by institutions such as universities, the Mountaineer has an official history dating back to the early 20th century. Hathaway explores how the character has developed since then with the competing pressures of students pushing the Mountaineer’s wilder traits and institutions attempting to mold the character into a respectable brand. Hathaway also illustrates the humanity that infuses the Mountaineer character with stories of how veterans returning from World War II embraced the Mountaineer image as an independent hero for immigrants and West Virginia natives alike.

Like Hathaway’s exposition, the film hillbilly brings the humanity needed to combat stereotypes to visual stories of Appalachia. The film hillbilly provides an exposition of the different voices to be found across the region.