Hillbillies Get Organized

By Anne Shelby

Last week seemed like a fairly ordinary week here in Eastern Kentucky. But something happened that was quite extraordinary.

For the first time, people on television, on radio, in newspapers and in places all over the United States were talking seriously about a subject those of us from the mountains have been talking about a long time - all the negative stereotypes and jokes about us.

Last fall CBS announced plans for a new so-called "reality" show. They'd find a poor, uneducated, na├»ve Appalachian family,  
put them under camera surveillance in a mansion in Beverly Hills, and call it "The Real Beverly Hillbillies."

Real-life hillbillies have been kicking up sand ever since, and last week the protest escalated to new levels. An organization in Whitesburg, Kentucky, headed by Hazard native Dee Davis, bought quarter-page ads in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Cincinnati Enquirer objecting to the proposed program. More ads are in the works.

Davis also appeared on CNN's "Talk Back Live" last week, along with a guest who took the other side. But callers-in to the talk show and members of the studio audience who spoke were nearly unanimous in agreeing with Davis that there was something wrong with putting a poor Appalachian family on television in order to laugh at them.

It's not that we can't take a joke. In fact, we've lived on these rocky, mined-out, farmed-out hillsides a long time now. If it hadn't been for a good sense of humor, we probably wouldn't have made it this long. We laugh at ourselves all the time, for our human frailties, for our idiosyncrasies, both individual and cultural, and for our lack of sophistication in certain situations.

But that's different. Making fun of yourself and the group you are a part of is different from somebody else doing it, somebody from the outside looking in -- and down. Taking a joke is one thing. Being a joke on national television so a big corporation can make money off of it is something else.

About the Author

Anne Shelby is an author, storyteller, and singer who lives in Clay County, Kentucky. This column appeared in the January 15th, 2003 edition of the Manchester (Kentucky) Enterprise.

As of last week, despite months of searching, CBS still hadn't found a hillbilly family that met all its criteria. Some of us are hoping that if they get enough e-mails against the show and hear enough negative publicity about it, they'll decide not to put it on.

We can also hope that, as an added benefit, some people might start to think twice before telling one more tired hillbilly, redneck, or briar joke.

Y'all come back now, hear?