East Tennessee History: Hillbillies Part 1
I have lived in the Appalachian Mountains all of my life. There were times when I was growing up that we would be considered poor by others, but we didn’t know we were poor because we had all we needed and we had a little more than some. What I didn’t realize until I left these mountains and explored other parts of the United States and the world is how the rest of the country felt about most people in Appalachia.
I discovered that to other parts of the world we were rednecks and hillbillies. We were and are portrayed in movies and cartoons as a group of people whose men are lazy and whose women are always pregnant living in a shack on the side of a mountain.
Shows like the Beverly Hillbillies, movies like Deliverance, and cartoons like Snuffy Smith all make us out to be people who are poor, uneducated, backwards and just plan lazy.
Who can forget the scenes in Deliverance of the hillbillies who were inbred, living in shacks that had holes in the walls big enough to throw a softball through, while they were carrying a baby and close to delivering another child? Meanwhile, the men were lazy, aggressive to outsiders, and just plain dangerous.
Then we have the Beverly Hillbillies, where a group of mountain folks are taken to the big city. The entire premise of the show is to laugh at their hillbilly ignorance.
One of the characters makes moonshine for “medical purposes,” one is as dumb as a bucket of coal, one is the stereotypical mountain girl with the cut off jeans. She is pretty but naive about almost everything in society. Finally, we have the patriarch of the clan. Jed is simple-minded and never really understands how rich he is.
Finally, we have the Snuffy Smith cartoon series. Again, we have a man who will not work and spends his days hunting, fishing, drinking and playing cards, while his wife does all the work of the house. The men live a life of luxury while the women work their fingers to the bone.
Today, entire towns are based on the stereotypical hillbilly image. Drive through Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge or go to Dollywood and you will see endless lines of vacationers buying hillbilly clothes, trinkets and even moonshine. They have taken their vacation days to come to a place that perpetuates a negative stereotype of a certain type of people.
The people of Appalachia, or “mountain hillbillies,” are fair game to people who want to make a profit from them. It seems we are the only group of people who others are allowed to mock, mainly because they do not understand how wrong that stereotype is.
Call me a hillbilly if you wish. I grew up feeding chickens, raising hogs, and hoeing in a garden until the sun set. I helped cut wood for my father for two dollars a week and helped put up tobacco. I have dug herbs, pulled leaves and log moss and pealed witch hazel bark to earn money to buy my school clothes. When I got them, I appreciated that I had new clothes I could wear to school.
I have sat on the porch at night and listened to the older folks talk until I could not hold my eyes open, then went to bed, dead-tired and content with a full stomach and a satisfied spirit.
Yes, I am a hillbilly, and I wear the title proudly because I know what the term really means. Next week we are going to talk about how the people of the Appalachian Mountains received the hillbilly stereotype and what others do not understand about them in Part 2 of Hillbillies.
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