Yesterday morning a dear friend, of Scotch-Irish descent born and raised in Appalachia who has long since forged a new life and path with her (non-Appalachian) husband and children, handed me a book.
Hillbilly Elegy, which I’d never heard of despite its being a best seller, has fascinated me since I picked it up last evening. In the years since I’ve known my friend, she has been trying to get me to *get* the universality of certain experiences in a way that I didn’t until I started reading this book.
There were numerous accounts and recollections offered from J.D. Vance’s upbringing that I related to quite strongly. He offered examples and experiences that I could have written almost verbatim, but for the cast of characters and regional backdrop. This, even though I am as far removed from Appalachian culture as anyone I know.
Many of his conflicting feelings and emotions (feelings which my friend has also expressed over the years) resonated with me. How, did I connect with this white hillbilly -his description of himself- from the Appalachian hills in a way that would seem pretty unthinkable to me, a black woman raised in the black, working class south?
It really came down to the same thing that built the connection between my friend and I. I used to think it was that we both loved Jesus, but nope. There are plenty of people who genuinely love Jesus but with whom I’d just as soon not be bothered. Rather, it is tension of being similarly situated on numerous fronts:
- Raised in a culture among people who we loved and who loved us,
- a culture with deep roots and strong virtue,
- but a culture also in the grips of strong vice and pathology, which
- limits the ability to achieve, grow, and thrive without leaving those behind, while
- still feeling a deep gratitude for what it imparted to you even as
- your sanity and the future of your children demands that you move on from it.
As I talked with my daughter about it this morning, she was less incredulous. Across the board, she noted, people are increasingly classless and it is quite common now to find people of various backgrounds and ethnicities involved in various displays of dysfunction. The stereotypes are becoming increasingly obsolete and the dysfunction generally associated with the poor or ghetto classes are seen every where except among the upper crust.
Of course, while she certainly witnesses the tension of which I write, she does so from a more comfortable vantage point. Which is the very thing we wanted for our children; the ability to see, analyze, and understand without emotional or psychological weights. In effect, any double consciousness they experience is spiritual in nature (in the world not of it and all that), rather than ethnic or cultural, as described by W.E.B. DuBois.
Somehow, my man seems less hamstrung by the weights than I. As usual, he is the anchor to my rocking boat, the lighthouse our kids use to navigate the storm that typifies today’s stormy cultural waters. But then, he generally ignores commentary: from the left, right, and others, choosing to think for himself. “True intelligence [about an issue]”, he said recently, “Comes from taking the time to really think about a thing, not simply regurgitating what someone else said about it, and that includes randomly spouting off cherry-picked Scriptures.”
 Thomas Sowell penned the research that connected a lot of these dots several years ago, but because he is that damnable combination of black and conservative, this research is rarely spoken of when dysfunctional cultural narratives are discussed.