Social-media websites are alight with the news that J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis” will soon become a film directed by Ron Howard.
Some folks are delighted, others are aghast.
Then the news arrived that Vance would be the commencement speaker at Centre College’s 2017 graduation ceremony. Organizing to contact Howard and Centre on Twitter is underway to silence the film and the author.
I totally disagree with Vance’s politics, but he didn’t write a textbook. He wrote a memoir. He made some assertions in his book that aren’t true for everybody in Appalachia. He fed into some offensive stereotypes. But again, it’s a memoir.
People do that in memoirs because they are writing from their perspectives, from their lives and from their biases. The views are admittedly skewed once “memoir” is added to the subtitle. As a result, the study of memoirs is as much about why the authors write what they do as it is about what they write. The personal experience is in there. Taking that experience as universal, even if the author attempts to extend it that far, gets problematic.
One response would be to invite him to a university to talk about his assertions and challenge some of his thoughts and memories. This would foster a creative environment in which a number of people, Vance included, could grow from discussion and debate.
Now, there has been a long history of folks writing about black people.
Some of these authors write off-the-wall nonsense. Some write deeply offensive and hurtful things; read any eugenics study from the early 20th century. When I read stuff like that, I disagree, show up at a talk by the author and challenge them.
For example, author Dinesh D’Souza, who advocates repeal of anti-discrimination laws, came to Michigan State University when I was an undergraduate. We let him have it.
I might write an op-ed. Then I look for other authors’ writing in response to that writer and support them. I think about the book I want to write someday.
Do I try to shut down the author’s career and get his speaking engagements canceled? Nope, unless it’s an extremist Ku Klux Klan member inciting violence.
We could be using all this time talking about Vance to write about the Appalachia we know and love. White people who disagree with Vance could be writing about their own experiences. We need to hear from poor white people. We desperately need more counter-narratives.
So, like my mama tells me when racism gets me down: Turn that anger into your next writing project. Write about your people. Tell your story. Answer with pen and pad.
Reach Jillean McCommons, a Berea librarian, at firstname.lastname@example.org.