Hillbilly Roots

Sometimes people are surprised to learn that I fit the description of a hillbilly, a person from a backwoods area (Mirriam-Webster Dictionary) because I'm not what people 
often expect a hillbilly to be. But I am.

I grew up on a farm in a "holler" in a small town in Eastern Kentucky. Both my parents grew up in the same general area where I grew up. They also both grew up on farms. My mom's parents lived on "the ridge" above our house on the other side of the woods. My dad's mom lived "over town" but back yet another holler, strictly speaking. You don't get much more hillbilly than that.

Hillbillies are individuals just like people within every group that exists. Hillbilly families are not all alike. 

Hillbillies who move away take parts of the culture with them, but we also tend to adapt to new environments and create a whole new culture - a mishmash of our hillbilly upbringing, our other life experiences, and where we're living at the time.

Hillbillies are not what is often seen depicted in literature, movies, and the media. Stereotypes are harmful because they stop us from seeing people as individuals with varying points of view and life experiences. The hillbillies I know range from very progressive to very conservative. I know racist hillbillies and anti-racist hillbillies. There are hillbillies who are rich and hillbillies who are poor. There are hillbillies on government assistance and hillbillies who aren't. I know hillbillies with the strongest work ethic I've ever seen, such as my Daddy, and I know hillbillies who are as lazy as they come (I won't name names on that one.) I know incredibly intelligent hillbillies and incredibly unintelligent hillbillies.

From meeting people from around the world, I've learned that there are people from all those categories in every group of people I've ever met, not just hillbillies.

Our small town school didn't always have the best funding or books or even well functioning heat, but our principals, guidance counselors and teachers taught us well and prepared us to the best of their abilities even when our school lacked resources. They helped us prepare for college and to fill out all the necessary forms.

I was taught good table manners including using a butter knife from the time I was a small child. Yes, hillbillies know what butter knives are and use them. At least the hillbillies I knew did...

I was taught good manners in general. I knew how and when to say "please" and "thank you" and "you're welcome" and "excuse me" and "yes ma'am" and "no sir" from a very early age. I knew to chew with my mouth closed. I learned how to sit at the table during meals.

We didn't necessarily have fancy clothes, but we always had clothes and usually fairly nice clothes. I did have to get creative from time to time to make hand-me-downs and/or yard sale clothes work for me.

We worked on the farm in our blue jean cutoffs, tank tops, and sometimes bikini tops (though Daddy frowned on that last one, so...) Plus, honestly, no matter how much you want a tan or to look "cool", farm work in a bikini top is friggin' uncomfortable. There I said it. We worked long hours and were proud the work we did. My Daddy was a logger, farmer, and mechanic for most of my life. 


Oh, yeah, and for those wondering. We also had indoor plumbing as did the vast majority of people we knew. Okay, to be fair, some of the churches I attended in my childhood didn't.


My parents, from the time I could talk, impelled upon me the importance of getting a good education and doing well in school. Failure was not an option. Goofing off and not taking my studies seriously was not an option. My parents wanted me prepared for kindergarten well before I ever stepped foot in a classroom. And that push for me to do well academically was supported by my grandparents - all three of the ones still living when I was growing up. My Grandma Cooper, who was an avid reader, always felt very proud when she saw her grandchildren's name on the honor roll in the newspaper. She looked for it every time they were printed, and let me know she'd seen mine or hadn't as the case may be. And if she hadn't, she expected a damn good reason for why not.

When the work was done, we played hard, too. We played cards and games and sports. We watched television and listened to music. We danced in the living room and played in the woods. We had swing sets. We went to the pool in the summer. We also played in the creek. Many members of the family often gathered at my grandparents' house on Sunday afternoons for lunch, cards, and conversation.

My Grandpa Stamm always had a stash of moonshine somewhere in the house, and my Daddy can find a source in three phone calls or less if asked to. I found this out when I casually mentioned that one of my friends wanted to try some genuine moonshine a few years ago. He found it. He and I went to get it. I gave it to her. She wasn't particularly impressed! I wasn't surprised because neither was I. That said, I also know many hillbillies who wouldn't have a clue how to find moonshine. It's not an "every" hillbilly thing.

I knew people who used illegal drugs, but, surprise surprise, illegal drug use is no more rampant in hillbilly country than anywhere else as I quickly learned after I left the small town where I grew up. This is another one of those things where drug use in poor communities or communities of color is treated like it's a "lack of character/morals" and for middle class or rich communities it's treated like "a cry for help."

Was there domestic violence? Child abuse? Misogyny? Racism? Classism? Hypocrisy when it came to those on government assistance? Religious intolerance? Homophobia? Oh, hell yes. All of these were rampant, but again, as I got out into the wider world, I saw that these things exist in all parts of the country, the world really, in very nearly the same numbers even if not always quite as visible. It's not just hillbillies.

I was taught to be proud of who I am and to stand up for my family, friends, and anyone in need. I was taught that the world might think I sound unintelligent, or at least ignorant, when I speak, but I can prove them wrong through my actions. I was taught the importance of love and compassion and understanding as well as discipline and ambition and resilience. I was taught by my grandparents and my parents and my teachers that I had the power to dispel stereotypes if I so choose just by being me and standing tall in my history and my present.

Family is everything to the hillbilly, but I've learned that people in every community I've ever been a part of across the country, across the world value their family relationships just as much as hillbillies.

Oh, and that brings me to one more point. Not all hillbillies are inbred. That's another stereotype that needs to go up in flames right quick. 

I've only touched on the surface of the things I could say about growing up as a hillbilly, both positive and negative, but, to address it all would require an entire book or maybe two... 

My experience as a hillbilly leads me to the conclusion that hillbillies are as diverse as any other group we try to other-ize, so let's just stop it now. Let's stop the dehumanization of our fellow human beings just because their life experiences don't match ours 100%. We might just find we have more in common than not if we stop with the dehumanization, with the other-izing

Hillbilly is a culture not a predetermination and most definitely not a monolith. Culture can and should adapt with the times. I have the choice about what I take with me from the culture I grew up in and what I leave behind.

Yes, I understand that the word hillbilly is intended to be derogatory, and I've long worked to distance myself from the stereotypes associated with it that make it derogatory. The more we allow the stereotypes that dehumanize to dominate, the more we allow ourselves to be divided. 

With a little effort, we might just find we have more in common than not. Or, as Maya Angelou put it in her poem, Human Family "We are more alike than unlike."

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