BUILDing an Ally's Booklist, Part Three

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture of Crisis

​This is the third in a series of posts about the books and articles that have had a strong impact on me as I seek to become a better ally and a better friend. I’m writing them as my capstone project for my BUILD Diversity Certificate. These thoughts are mine alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of the DePaul Women’s Network, which is graciously allowing me to share them here, or of DePaul University. I welcome your comments. Email me at kris.gallagher@depaul.edu.

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis
Kris Gallagher

By J.D. Vance


Hillbilly Elegy is an intimate, no-holds-barred story of the lives and challenges of people who I was taught to dismiss as “white trash.” What do my views on poor white people have to do with racism in our nation? Because to defeat racism, nearly all white people need to change, and that can’t happen when politicians are pitting significant portions of the white population against each other.

Growing up, it was clear that “we”—my middle-class, well-educated family steeped in the need to preserve appearances—were not the same at “they.” “They” was embodied by my half-aunt, who lived in a mobile home with her husband and grown children, none of whom seemed to be regularly employed. My folks worried that they would steal things from us or other relatives to finance whatever addictions they had. Needless to say, we weren’t close.

Vance, who was born into excruciating poverty in Appalachia, probably would have felt more comfortable around my aunt than around my upwardly striving parents. He was raised by his rifle-toting, quick-fisted, brawling, poorly educated and deeply loving grandparents. Unlike many of his peers, they recognized where education could get him, and they pounded him, often literally, to stay in school as he roamed between their home and the house of his drug-addicted mother and her string of boyfriends.

Vance frankly recounts behavior that would have my parents and, now that I’m a parent, me fleeing for the door and telling my kids to not ever behave like that. Many of the people he grew up around likely feel, rightly so, abandoned by America. They are either ignored or subjected to policies and programs by politicians and well-meaning liberals who don’t understand anything about them. Things are done to them in the same way that things are done to people of color, immigrants and others who are not part of the traditional white power structure. That structure preserves itself by nurturing deep divides between all these groups so they don’t recognize their common needs and power.

Vance’s narrative parallels the experiences of civil rights leader Peggy Terry, who grew up in rural Oklahoma. She came to Chicago in the 1960s to try to organize Uptown residents who came here from Appalachia. She recounts being coolly rejected by liberal co-eds from wealthy backgrounds. Terry was extraordinarily effective in working with the residents of Uptown because she understood them. The co-eds, despite their efforts, were not.

Which is why you should read this book. Whites from lower-income backgrounds, particularly from the Rust Belt and other regions where traditional employers have vanished, don’t trust the liberal elite. They are right—we don’t understand their needs, and we do tend to pander to them. People like me who hope to talk with others about their views on race and other issues need to meet folks way more than halfway. Bridging the distance starts here. 

Kris Gallagher is a member of the DePaul Women’s Network marketing and communications team, and an associate editor in the Office of Advancement at DePaul University.