Gold in Them Thar Hillbillies

By Fenton Johnson


I grew up a cliché: ninth of nine children in the Kentucky hills, son of a man who made whiskey as his father and his father's father had done. We made it legally until the government made it illegal, then we broke the law until the government changed its mind and the big companies moved in and took over. My father was hired on by the man, in the form of Joseph Seagrams & Sons, for whom he worked for thirty-plus years. When he retired in 1975, his salary (raised steeply in the last couple of years of his employment) was $17,000/year. On this he raised his children, all of whom attended college; built one home and then a second; and gave time and money extravagantly to anyone who needed help.

 A full-tuition scholarship from Seagrams brought me to California, to Stanford University, a school about which I knew nothing except that it was as far from the Kentucky hills as I could get. There I learned many things: I learned that I was poor, though I had never thought of myself that way and my parents would have been outraged at being called as much. I learned that because I spoke with an accent I was racist and ignorant, though my mother had defied convention by inviting black children into her home and I was a straight A student. My classmates roared with laughter whenever I opened my mouth, until I locked myself in my dorm room with a tape recorder and practiced talking like they did, like I was supposed to talk. I hit my head with a book each time I sounded like the hillbilly that I was.

The prejudice of the fortunate against the ill-favored is among the oldest in the race, but in my generation it had one primary progenitor: The Beverly Hillbillies, which taught me to despise myself more than any source (other than perhaps the church, though that is a different story). Now CBS proposes reviving The Beverly Hillbillies as The Real Beverly Hillbillies. Here is the plan: After an extensive search network producers will locate a family who exhibits what the industry moguls perceive as the most profitable combination of accent, guilelessness, ignorance, and poverty. CBS will transport the family to a Beverly Hills mansion wired with cameras so that audiences will be able to watch and ridicule their every move.

CBS has yet to locate its perfect family, but I can predict what they will look like. I know that they will be white -- we have made some progress since the blackface days of vaudeville. I know that they will speak with an accent, the stronger the better, and that they will have little or no education. I know that they will be from the country -- probably from Kentucky, as that would most perfectly fit the stereotype, though just about any Southern state will serve the purpose. Above all I know that they will be desperate enough to sacrifice self-respect for money -- that, after all, is the idea. I know this because I am a hillbilly, and I have endured those stereotypes for as long as I have traveled among the bland, colorless, shuck-and-jive world of prosperous suburbia.

About the Author

Fenton Johnson, a Kentucky native, is the author of two novels, Crossing the River and Scissors, Paper, Rock, and a memoir, Geography of the Heart. He is associate professor of creative writing at the University of Arizona.

This essay was published in the Los Angeles Times on January 26, 2003.

And yet who am I, comfortable and educated, to criticize a network for offering a poor and enterprising family the opportunity to humiliate itself for money? As New York Times writer Alessandra Stanley pointed out, "humiliation is the point of these reality shows." But The Real Beverly Hillbillies differs from its predecessor "reality" programs in one critical aspect: the producers know, as the family they select cannot, that these people's lives will be unalterably changed, possibly destroyed by this experience. It's one thing for an educated, prosperous suburbanite to choose to participate in such humiliation; it's another matter entirely for a rich and powerful institution to set out deliberately to locate a family characterized by its vulnerability. Asked if the network had given thought to what would happen to the family after the series conclusion ("Do you chuck them back to the mountains?" queried one critic), CEO Les Moonves dodged. "I've made the statement I'm going to make on The Beverly Hillbillies," he said.

I write that I grew up a cliché, but the point I want to make is that no one is a cliché. As every writer of any count knows, whether rich or poor every human being has a story that is worth telling well. The producers of The Real Beverly Hillbillies are not interested, though, in telling their subjects' stories well. They are interested in making money, which is their story.

The issue here is power and its attendant responsibilities. Education and money constitute power. They are not possessions but gifts, and we who are fortunate enough to come by them are charged with using them responsibly. The producers at CBS possess both, and are using them in the most cynical fashion to bully the poor for the purpose of making the fantastically rich still richer.

The series may yet be sacked. The Center for Rural Strategies, led by veteran Appalachian organizer Dee Davis, has mounted a protest campaign and has achieved enough success that CBS has been forced to comment on the matter. But producers of mainstream television are paid to anticipate and salivate at popular demand. Whether the series is scrapped or not, their pushing the idea ought to raise a question in all our minds. At a time when the gap between rich and poor is widening, when President Bush proposes more tax relief for the wealthy as a solution to his administration's fiscal irresponsibility, when the homeless are demonized and single mothers forced to leave children alone and untended to make a pittance to survive, just how low are the privileged and prosperous willing to stoop to make a buck?