JD Vance, the venture capitalist and author of “Hillbilly Elegy”, speaks with supporters following a rally Thursday, July 1, 2021, in Middletown, Ohio, where he announced he is joining the crowded Republican race for the Ohio U.S. Senate seat being left by Rob Portman.
While I’m writing to all of you, this is truly directed at J.D. Vance. His memoir is ostensibly of his life from childhood through law school. However, Vance uses “Hillbilly Elegy” as an opportunity to critique and reflect on Appalachian and industrial Midwestern culture. Given his current candidacy for the U.S. Senate in Ohio, it is worth exploring what he writes – and what he gets wrong – about our region. “Hillbilly Elegy” is tonally disjointed. When Vance approaches his prose from the aspect of memoir, it is a rather conversational – though at times cliched – read. However, when he attempts to level critique at the region of his upbringing, he often runs afoul of the tact and humanization that the term elegy invokes.
Vance does have some vulnerable candor in relation to his faith and self-doubts. It does, to his credit, highlight an imposter syndrome that many people express when they find success against the odds that they faced. Unfortunately, those moments of vulnerability play into the tonal dissonance of “Hillbilly Elegy” further as Vance does not extend the same mannerism of grace to the region writ large in his criticisms. Appalachia and the industrial Midwest do face a myriad of issues in terms of economic plight, drug use and family disruption. However, these regions are also a place of extreme resilience. Many of us meet these circumstances and overcome them through the means we have available, just like he did.
What Vance could have been as a graduate of Yale Law School and a former military service member is an advocate for Appalachians and Rustbelt Midwesterners – particularly in education, seeing what his own education allowed him to accomplish. What Vance became instead is a Republican grifter, telling a distorted story of the region to make money. He is now trying to represent part of that region by running for one of the highest offices in the land.
West Virginia has had a similar class of people who exploit the lives of those around them and then come into political power. It has been an ongoing situation here, and young people are leaving the state in droves. Ohio can keep someone like that out of the Senate, and I hope they don’t pass it up.
Below is my open letter to Vance himself. It’s my piece of deconstructing his unnecessary “Elegy:”
In some ways, our stories are alike. Like you, I was raised largely by my white Appalachian grandparents. Unlike you, I’m Black. Before your mind wanders too far: Dad’s white, Mom’s Black, and she died in the aftermath of childbirth – a brain aneurysm resulting from sickle cell anemia. Dad was in the Navy at the time; going with his parents was eventually the best option. I had a good life, I admit. I had an anomalous privilege of growing up well off cause James Lee Bush, Sr. – my grandfather – worked and retired from coal mining.
I wanted to believe that your book wasn’t that bad, that it was a feelgood story that got misconstrued. I’m sorry no editor checked your ego at the door. If you would’ve stuck to memoir, the worst would’ve been you outing your grandmother as crazy enough to cap a man with a six-shooter. Even that would’ve been too much, cause every Appalachian knows you don’t paint your grandmother like that, J.D., as though “hillbilly” was the only word that could define her. Like she wasn’t a “homemaker”, like my grandmother, keeping you fed and clothed and getting the sense of needing an education into you. You couldn’t even bring yourself to admit what good you had, how it advantaged you.
Even being Black and out of place, I can see what I had. I saw it in my classmates too. Tyler Neal didn’t come from much but started his own timbering business and has a family, doing well for himself. Cassandra Clevenger lost her mom as a young woman; she’s a pharmacist now. Aerial Lake had her house burn down our senior year; she pushed and pushed and did her undergrad in three years and became a physical therapist. Cameron Clutter became a barber and can play a mean electric guitar. Samuel Canfield, a biologist, is trying to help the changing environment. There’re so many others in my class who went into a trade or healthcare or just outright working. We ain’t lazy.
I was the only Black kid in my grade for most of my time up until high school, but I know that I ain’t the only Black person in the whole of Appalachia. Where were people like me in that white monolith you wrote, J.D.? Tucked behind your ranting and raving on “welfare queens?” You going to pretend like we don’t exist? Like we’re all just Rustbelt ghosts and magnolia tree ornaments?
You ain’t been to the core of Appalachia where the wild magic is. The hollows know every skin tone: They’re kind of Christian, kind of queer, kind of folk, kind of soul food and moonshine. It’s perfect dirt, fishing, hunting and playing basketball into the nighttime ‘til we bond around bonfires. There’s an empty wicker chair and a mason jar with your name on it; come find me, learn who we really are.
– Torli Bush
Torli Bush is a Black poet from Webster Springs, WV and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from West Virginia Wesleyan College.
This letter was republished with permission from 100 Days In Appalachia Creators & Inventors Series.