Recently, an old friend visited my apartment and, as I was showing him around, he noticed something peculiar. I have a stack of books on my desk, some I’ve read in preparation for coming to Heller and some for specific classes. Most of my class readings are online (invest in blue-light blocking glasses, folks) but there have been a couple I’ve purchased or borrowed (thanks Mom!) outright to really annotate. This particular stack included How to Be Antiracist, The New Jim Crow, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, and Hillbilly Elegy.
Noticing this stack, my friend stopped and laughed out loud: “One of these things does not belong.” He wondered why in the world Hillbilly Elegy was included in a stack of social justice literature? Why would professors at Heller, a quite progressive institution, have us read such a biased and inaccurate portrayal of the Appalachian region? (P.S. The new Netflix film is worse.)
“Because,” I beamed with pride, “we tore it apart in my Assets and Social Policy class.” I picked up the book and showed him the countless tabs I had placed throughout the book where I found faults in the author’s storyline and argument.
Now I know I’ve already written about my Assets and Social Policy course, but this course has some of the most enlightening and engaging readings. From learning about the cultural wealth and capital that communities of color have built as a result of systemic oppression (“Whose Culture Has Capital?”) to examining the role of gender-based violence on women’s assets and wealth (“The Role of Sexual Violence in Creating and Maintaining Economic Insecurity Among Asset-Poor Women of Color”), I’ve gained knowledge in this course that I’ll carry with me throughout my life.
Yet my favorite lesson focused on rural poverty—a form of poverty not often acknowledged in social and racial justice conversations—centering on an analysis of Hillbilly Elegy. I warned my classmates ahead of time, “Y’all, as a native West Virginia, I have to represent the thousands of us who cannot stand this book. I’m about to go in on J.D. Vance (the author).”
And go in I did.
Our professor, Jess, created space for a thoughtful and critical conversation on the narrative of poverty within this book. We analyzed how the author placed the responsibility of poverty on Appalachian communities, identifying it as a character flaw rather than the result of generations of systemic oppression, resource drain, and lack of external investment in these communities. We addressed our personal and societal biases against rural, impoverished America and discussed ways to invest in it.
It was one of the first classes where I truly felt seen and heard. I’m grateful that my peers were able to analyze and critique a novel that feeds into the negative narrative about rural America and, specifically, Appalachia. And I’m proud of how I stood strong for my community. It’s moments like those that remind me of why I chose Heller and excite me for what’s to come.