A while back, a Facebook friend referred to someone he disliked as a hillbilly. The person was from the mountains and was being a bigot. Hillbilly was the only word for her he used, as if it summed up the entirety of his disdain.
I didn’t like the person either. But nor did I like the insult.
Hillbilly has long been a derogatory word for mountain people. Used as a put-down, it seems to say that all the negative things associated with the word are because of the hills, entwined with the region, something that almost comes attached to the land. After all, “hill” is right there in the word. When a person not from the mountains calls someone a hillbilly as an insult, it tells me they still believe all those old stereotypes of Appalachians as backwards, ignorant, toothless.
That friend would never have called me a hillbilly. But it felt like he had.
I’m always surprised when I see someone from outside Appalachia use the word hillbilly, as if it’s okay. Slate used it recently, tossed it out casually in a movie review. There are string bands made up entirely of people not from the mountains who say they play “hillbilly” music, and even though I know that’s an historical term, it startles me.
The history of language in the U.S. is full of words used as derogatory insults toward a specific group of people, often because of their race or country of origin, but most of those have been rejected in mainstream language today, recognized as too insulting for any polite person to use.
“Hillbilly” is not nearly as bad as some of those words, but it also hasn’t gone away. As my friend made clear, it’s still used as a pejorative word.
There’s no surprise, of course, in being offended by a word intended to offend.
But what about when hillbilly isn’t offensive? I cringe when outsiders use it, but what about mountain people themselves?
Hillbilly doesn’t offend everyone. Some Appalachian people embrace the word, taking it to mean pride in being from a rural, beautiful, self-sufficient area, pride in Appalachia’s rich heritage.
I grew up believing hillbilly was an insult. It’s not easy to give it another meaning, and apply it to myself.
Why would I try? It would be easy to just let an insult be an insult.
But lately, hillbilly has been poking itself into my consciousness.
There’s a Facebook page called Humans of Central Appalachia, which interviews Appalachian people. The interviewers often ask if the person being interviewed considers themselves to be a hillbilly. Frequently the interviewee says yes.
The first few times I saw this, I didn’t think that I would say yes. But then I realized the alternative is to say no, and that didn’t feel right either. That feels like a repudiation of Appalachia. I’m not not a hillbilly, if that makes sense.
I also started seeing this quote from Kentucky writer James Still surfacing here and there on the Internet:
“You talk smart but you’ve got hillbilly wrote all over you.”
It’s from Still’s “The Wolfpen Notebooks.” He writes:
I’ve never bothered about being called a “hillbilly” or a “briar.” They’re synonymous — the “samelike,” as we say. I count it an honor except when used as a slur. I was pleased when talking to a “gear-grinder” in a restaurant in Jackson who thought I drove a coal truck. After he had learned otherwise, and we had conversed a spell, he said, “You talk smart but you’ve got hillbilly wrote all over you.”
I love that. I would like to think the mountains are written all over me, that anyone meeting me would know, immediately or soon after I opened my mouth, where I’m from.
But am I ready to make “hillbilly” my shorthand for that?
When I was growing up, “hillbilly” was considered a general pejorative. If someone was acting particularly ignorant or backwards, they might be called a hillbilly. Otherwise I don’t remember hearing it much. Hillbilly wasn’t quite fighting words, but it wasn’t flattering.
But times have changed, and I’m not the only one who’s gotten more thin-skinned about stereotypes. “The Beverly Hillbillies” originally aired before my time, and I guess without much protest from mountain people, but by the time CBS proposed a reality-show remake in 2003, Appalachians were up in arms over the revival of a stereotype for entertainment, and labeled it a “hick hunt.”
It’s hard to fully get over a stereotype that won’t die — that has, in fact, spread in some ways. When people call Sarah Palin a “snowbilly,” they aren’t paying her a compliment.
Of course, being offended by the word isn’t the same as being offended by the stereotype. I don’t like the “ignorant rube/hick” stereotype of Appalachia, no matter what word you hang on it. I do get squeamish when I see the country hick aspect of the stereotype embraced — the kitschy, hokey, TV hillbilly claptrap that gets trotted out for the tourists in some places like Pigeon Forge. Are we redefining anything when we’re selling corncob pipes and legal moonshine and playing up the hillbilly stereotype?
But I’m not the “hillbilly” police. Everyone is entitled to define their own identity as they please.
Besides, you could argue that making the stereotype into a joke is a good way to defang it. That putting on some over-the-top hillbilly act puts the stereotype where it belongs by mocking it. Again, I think it depends on who’s making the joke. A hillbilly dress-up contest in Kentucky would play a lot differently than one held in Richmond, Virginia.
My issue is much more with how such a loaded term is used by people outside the mountains, what an outsider’s use of the word says about how they view our identities. There’s a real difference in how I take that word depending on who says it. “Hillbilly” is so loaded, so full of complication, that I feel like it’s not a term polite people in the flatlands are entitled to use, to pretend it doesn’t still carry negative baggage, if they’re not from the mountains and have never felt it was a slur against them. Essentially, my feeling is that if you’re from the mountains, use “hillbilly” as you see fit. If you’re not, you might ought to steer clear.
Patterson Hood of the band Drive-By Truckers talks about the “duality of the Southern thing,” the conflict that lies in being from and of and loving the South and yet being ashamed of its racist heritage.
I feel there’s a duality of the hillbilly thing as well. (Although it’s not exactly the same; Hood writes of the conflict over loving his home region but not the bad things done there, and I’m talking more about loving my home region but not the negative outside perception of it. A truer analogy would be the duality of loving Appalachia and all the good things there, yet being saddened by some of the poverty, poor economic conditions, drug addiction and environmental disregard that are also true and do exist in places and are sadly what a lot of America thinks of when it thinks of Appalachia. But that duality is much larger topic than I’m pondering here.)
A kind of duality still applies, anyway. I love being from Appalachia and I’m not ashamed of it, but I don’t love the darker side of the stereotypes — the belief that we’re barefoot, ignorant, inbred, toothless, etc. It irritates me that outsiders assume we’re stupid and backwards, and that’s what I hear when an outsider says “hillbilly” snidely.
I live outside Appalachia now, and I often feel that I’m defending myself against this stereotype. It’s like a ghost in the background whenever someone here teases me about the way I say a particular word, or makes a joke about toothlessness or shoelessness or inbreeding or lack of education.
According to one online dictionary, hillbilly means “an unsophisticated country person, associated originally with the remote regions of the Appalachians.” Merriam-Webster defines it as “a person who lives in the country far away from cities and who is often regarded as someone who lacks education, who is stupid, etc.” Dictionary.com agrees, and notes it is “Often Disparaging and Offensive.”
Wikipedia has quite an interesting entry on the word.
Hillbilly is a term (often derogatory) for people who dwell in rural, mountainous areas in the United States, primarily in Appalachia and the Ozarks. Due to its strongly stereotypical connotations, the term can be offensive to those Americans of Appalachian or Ozark heritage. “Hillbilly” first appeared in print in a 1900 New York Journal article, with the definition: “a Hill-Billie is a free and untrammeled white citizen of Alabama, who lives in the hills, has no means to speak of, dresses as he can, talks as he pleases, drinks whiskey when he gets it, and fires off his revolver as the fancy takes him.” The stereotype is two-fold in that it incorporates both positive and negative traits: “Hillbillies” are often considered independent and self-reliant individuals that resist the modernization of society, but at the same time they are also defined as backward, violent, and uncivilized. Scholars argue this duality is reflective of the split ethnic identities in “white America.”  … Hillbilly has now become part of Appalachian identity and some Appalachians feel they are constantly defending themselves against this image.”
I bolded that sentence above. That is the conflict I wrestle with: “The stereotype is two-fold in that it incorporates both positive and negative traits: ‘Hillbillies’ are often considered independent and self-reliant individuals that resist the modernization of society, but at the same time they are also defined as backward, violent, and uncivilized.”
Maybe it’s just that, now that I live outside Appalachia, I want to cling so tightly to the connection that I’m more willing to accept a label with a dubious reputation. But hillbilly just sounds different when I see it used by people who love it. I have a musician friend, a courtly sort of gentleman, who speaks of letting audiences know there’s a hillbilly in the house. From him, it sounds like you’re about to hear a warm, down-home musician. He makes a hillbilly in the house sound like a delightful thing.
If another word existed that could fill the gap, serve as shorthand for being from Appalachia, perhaps I would adopt it. But I can’t think of any. Mountaineer seems archaic, Appalachian works but sounds formal. Hillbilly is more colloquial and relaxed and colorful. And I will give hillbilly this: it has some sass. It seems to speak of a slight air of danger, a little roughness and darkness. It seems a little closer to the struggle that Appalachia can be than some of the other words.
This may sound simplistic, but I think the fact that “hillbilly” contains the word “hill,” linking it directly to the very land, is what makes it such a potent word. A potent insult. But possibly also a potent expression of identity. It’s like an almost physical tie to the mountains. Claiming the word feels like claiming that connection with the hills. Its negative history makes claiming it feel rebellious. It sounds defiant.
So am I ready to embrace “hillbilly”? Not entirely. It’s still complicated. It’s been an insult for a long time. But I want to make peace with it. The best I can say for now is this: if you ask me if I’m a hillbilly, I might say yes. If you call me one, I’ll be mad. If you tell me the mountains are wrote all over me, though, I’ll count it an honor.