J.D. Vance grew up in Middletown, Ohio. His Mamaw and Papaw, the two people who raised him, were hillbillies from Kentucky. He grew up unarguably white trash. He’s not a fraud, but he’s sure as hell not a hillbilly himself.
“Red” is a term I’m fixing to make you understand. I think “redneck” is too specific, and here’s my definition: rednecks are country, not necessarily poor but definitely rural, with big trucks, accents, Bocephus and all. “White trash” is systemic and old as America (see Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400 Year Untold History of Class in America). Typically, white trash people are those desperately impoverished, trailer living, food stamp surviving folk that are at front and center of the Southern drug crisis. Difference? We can all be “white trash.” Redneck is damn near an ethnicity, while “white trash” is a set of socio-economic strictures that reinforce behaviors like Wal-Mart, amphetamines, and snake handling. To oversimplify because this next part is not my expertise, “hillbilly” refers to the mountain people of Appalachia, often in Northeast Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina and I think West Virginia. I don’t know much about hillbillies, but that they’re reclusive, historically clannish, familial, and make some mean moonshine. “Red” is simply a conglomeration of the three. It’s nature and nurture, habits, status, and ethnicity all into one.
All of this being said, J.D. Vance doesn’t fit any of these categories. But neither do I. If I had to pick one I’d say I can be really, really trashy sometimes, and that’s not self-deprecating—it’s one of the few things I genuinely like about myself. As you all know, I grew up in a tiny town in Alabama, one that I found out was recently voted the number one white trash city in Alabama based on per capita meth users, sitting at about nine hundred users to a city of around six to seven thousand. My family was cash poor, but, socioeconomically, we were considered upper-middle class. That doesn’t mean I do not fondly remember rolling a Cadillac into the Dollar General parking lot, on fumes, to buy a 76 cent can of tamales and some honey roasted peanuts with quarters. I certainly do. I also remember hearing possums roam the attic of the house we lived in after ours burnt down.
But more than anything, I remember knowing without a shadow of a doubt that I’d go to college. I remember watching plays and taking trips to Atlanta’s museum of art to see the Netherland’s exhibit, which displayed a large collection of Van Gogh’s paintings. I remember my dad leaving me at the Florence library for hours and helping me load the maximum limit of books that I could check out into the backseat of the truck. As cash poor as we were, we were socioeconomically privileged beyond belief solely based on education and cultural literacy. Beyond that, I left. And my transition was no different than J.D. Vance’s transition into Yale. From rural public school in Alabama to prestigious private school in Nashville—hell, I’ve gone to one private high school and two private universities, and I’ve still never figured out how to act around rich people.
Considering all that, about myself and where I’m coming from, I believe that J.D. Vance grew up white trash with some serious red factors, but I was unconvinced that he himself was a hillbilly. Regardless, his white trash experiences, specifically with drug addiction in his family and violence typical of the classification, all worked together to make the book and his memories highly readable and so worthwhile in the climate we’re all sweating in. His Mamaw and Papaw were familiar and, I think, very justifiably done. His memories of living with an addict weren’t exploitative, and seeing the extended network of a family, as it typically functions in a trash household, was refreshing because it was done so well. Moreover, there are very few moments where the Ohio native says “I’m a hillbilly,” and not, “I grew up with hillbillies,” and I think that can’t be understated—even though, as I said, I won’t judge or argue somebody’s “red cred.” The boy was, I think, white trash. And he painfully, sometimes sadly, got out.
Vance’s analysis of Rust Belt economics is so very necessary in this climate. First and foremost, the migration of Southerners to manufacturing cities is almost never taught. I’m a direct descendant of migrants—my mama’s parents moved to Waukegan, Illinois from Alabama for plant work in the late 1950s, and she was born there on the cusp of Chicago and Wisconsin, though they moved back to Alabama when she was still a kid. So close to Michigan, it makes me wonder how much this migration influenced Detroit’s country music scene, which is unfortunately very large—I’m looking at you, Kid Rock, but Ty Stone can keep it up.
I think we need to read Vance for what he says about boys that grew up in this cesspool of poverty, drug addiction, closing manufacturing hubs, and, in effect, unemployment. Surrounded by poverty and the boiling over of big-business outsourcing overseas (do not, for the love of God, say a goddamn word about Clinton’s dealing with NAFTA or so help me, my liberal self will fight you), Vance still comes to the pull-yourself-up by your bootstraps conclusion. He pulls the ever-dated and false image of a family on food stamps checking out at the grocery store with nice cell phones as a justification to end food stamps. He claims that quick cash payday loan business, which I consider to be the biggest blemish and, ‘scuse the French here, scum of the fucking planet poverty abuser, to be somehow a good thing. His economics seemingly have a foundation in the age-old proverb that because one boy got out, others should be able to do the same. But he repeatedly shows how difficult it was, and how desperately his family supported his education.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it until the day I die—if I had lived in Alabama for high school, I probably would’ve ended up being hooked on amphetamines with a baby at nineteen, and even though I got out, I’ve spent all of my swanky and uppity education feeling like a catfish on a bank. Yes, that’s all me and would’ve been me falling into fatalistic resignation, but don’t for a second tell me that it has no systemic, cyclical roots. Vance uncomfortably vacillates between believing those problems are all poor decision making by Southern or Rust Belt natives or, alternately, believing there are policy issues at play. He doesn’t connect that those two components are, at their core, inseparable. We only have access to changing one, and it sure as hell isn’t the decision making of each individual.
I have other issues with the book, specifically his multiple assertions that poor black communities face the same obstacles that poor white trash face. They don’t, and they never have. But if we look beyond the blaring issues of the book and forget about labeling him because he’s not a hillbilly, we come to the extremely useful conclusion that this is how rural or white trash conservatives happen. This is how people believe that they “don’t deserve handouts” and that they are able to pull themselves up without policy intervention. Nonetheless, I think the book is worth reading. Reading Hillbilly Elegy gave me a very necessary insight into the inner workings of a typical white male Rust Belt conservative, and, although it’s terrifying, how things might never change.
I’m curious to hear how y’all felt about this book. Leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. On a similar subject, I’ll probably post about S-Town Podcast next week, which will kind of tie up the current thread of Southern people being at the “center” of the fawning, liberal, This American Life and New York Times reading gaze. Let me know if there’s something else you want to see. More stories? More politics? Less everything? Just shut up? That’s fine. Love you bye.