Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance – My Five Lessons and Takeaways

I identify with the millions of working-class white Americans of Scots-Irish descent who have no college degree. To these folks, poverty is the family tradition—their ancestors were day laborers in the Southern slave economy, sharecroppers after that, coal miners after that, and machinists and millworkers during more recent times. Americans call them hillbillies, rednecks, or white trash. I call them neighbors, friends, and family.

Hillbilly ElegyThis is one of the many enlightening descriptive paragraphs in the remarkable memoir by J. D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. (I presented my synopsis of this book at the Urban Engagement Book Club, sponsored by CitySquare, today in Dallas).

J. D. Vance came from poverty, and without the heroic love of his “Mamaw,” he might never have made it out and up. And plenty of the credit goes to the people who shaped him in his years as a U.S. Marine:

I came a little closer to believing in myself. Psychologists call it “learned helplessness” when a person believes, as I did during my youth, that the choices I made had no effect on the outcomes in my life.  …If I had learned helplessness at home, the Marines were teaching learned willfulness.

Though this book is credited with explaining why so many working class white voters voted for Donald Trump, his book concludes with these observations:

Public policy can help, but there is no government that can fix these problems for us.
These problems were not created by governments or corporations or anyone else. We created them, and only we can fix them.
We don’t need to live like the elites of California, New York, or Washington, D.C. We don’t need to work a hundred hours a week at law firms and investment banks. We don’t need to socialize at cocktail parties. We do need to create a space for the J.D.s and Brians of the world to have a chance.
I know it starts when we stop blaming Obama or Bush or faceless companies and ask ourselves what we can do to make things better.

The book is a memoir, filled with stories, along with a few observations from social scientists and academicians. It is a terrific, engaging book to read.

And though I have no criticism of the book in this regard, I feel I have to say this — I’m not sure it helped me much to read it. Oh, it added greatly to my understanding. And anytime we better understand the realities of the lives of individuals and groups of people, that is a good thing.

Here’s what I mean: I did not come away with any clear sense of “how we fix the problems” described so thoroughly in this book. I do not fault Mr. Vance for this. But I think we all wish we knew what could be done.

In Joshua Rothman’s review of this book in The New Yorker, he quotes Kevin Williamson from his essay in National Review: Chaos in the Family, Chaos in the State: The White Working Class’s Dysfunction:

They need real opportunity, which means that they need real change, which means that they need U-Haul.

And, just as J. D. Vance got out to go to the Marines, then to the Ohio State University, then to Yale Law School, maybe one simple solution is when you are where there is no way up from your current starting point, you have to first move out — and then find a path up.

This is pretty much the story of the remarkable book by Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Warmth of Other SunsSuns, about another group that had to get out. From that book:

The actions of the people in this book were both universal and distinctly American.  Their migration was a response to an economic and social structure not of their making.  They did what humans have done for centuries when life became untenable – what the pilgrims did under the tyranny of British rule, what the Scotch-Irish did in Oklahoma when the land turned to dust, what the Irish did when there was nothing to eat, what the European Jews did during the spread of Nazism, what the landless in Russia, Italy, China and elsewhere did when something better across the ocean called to them.  What binds their stories together was the back-against-the-wall, reluctant yet hopeful search for something better, any place but where they were.  They did what human beings looking for freedom, throughout history, have often done.
They left. 

Here are my five lessons and takeaways from Hillbilly Elegy:

#1 – Maybe we need more u-hauls…
#2 – Look for the irreplaceable people who are good for you – avoid those bad for you!!!
#3 – Maybe government cannot solve all problems. Maybe personal responsibility and work ethic cannot solve all problems. Maybe… not all problems can be solved.
#4 – We never fully escape who we were, or where we came from.
#5 – The right person at the right time with the right advice/push/correction makes all the difference.

Do I recommend that you read Hillbilly Elegy. Yes, strongly. Expect to be moved, and informed, and maybe saddened, and angry. But, if you are looking for solutions, well… I don’t know the “magic bullet” book to recommend. I wish I did.


A few “after session thoughts” —

#1 — One participant sent me links to two articles in today’s New York Times.  The author, J.D. Vance is moving back to his home state of Ohio.  His reason is to work on issues related to the rising crisis of opiod deaths.  Ohio is clearly being hit by this crisis.

First, read this column by David Leonhardt:  Opioids, Hillbillies and Trumpcare.

Then, read this by the author of the book, Why I’m Moving Home by J. D. Vance.

Rev. Gerald Britt

Rev. Gerald Britt at March session of book club

#2 — Rev. Gerald Britt, Vice President of External Affairs for CitySquare, works in areas of public policy.  The Urban Engagement Book Club falls under his arena.  He commented that the book Hillbilly Elegy is highlighting problems in the white community that have been present in, and not dealt with all that effectively, in the black community for a long time.  He is right, or course.

In our more than ten years of the Urban Engagement Book Club, we

We had a full room at the March book club gathering

We had a full room at the March book club gathering

have read similar stories about problems among the global poor, Native Americans, African Americans, Hispanic people.  In other words, the more we read about these in need, the more we realize… there are lots of people, and lots of peoples, in need.  And this should not finally get through to us only when it is “our people” in need.  Because, in reality, every person, every group, is “our people.”

Dr. Lydia Bean

Dr. Lydia Bean

#3 — Our “after synopsis” reflection and discussion was led by Dr. Lydia Dean, Executive Director of Faith in Texas.  She made the case that things are not hopeless.  But to find solutions, we have to commit to organizing diverse groups of people (ethnically/racially diverse) who suffer similar struggles.  Not a bad closing message for us all!

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