Friday, October 21, 2011

The Shared Steroptypes For Hillbillies & African Americans

Written by Azizi Powell

I applaud Occupy Wall Street and the other Occupy Movements for focusing attention on the huge economic disparities that exist in the United States and elsewhere in the world. But a lot of systemic changes would have to occur in order for those disparities to be greatly minimized or erased even for a time, let alone forever.

And in order for there to be real systemic changes, we have to change the societies' attitudes about and perception of people who are poor. I purposely use the term "poor people" instead of "the poor" because people who are poor aren't a monolith. Individuals who are poor aren't the same, don't always like each other, and don't necessarily see each other as allies. Furthermore, people who aren't poor may be stigmatized by those who actually are poor using the same negative characteristics mainstream society has conferred on "the poor". In the United States, automatic assumptions of poverty with its socialized attendent stereotypes are routinely conferred on African Americans and those people who are referred to as "hillbillies". gives this definition for 'hillbilly':
"Hillbilly is a term referring to certain people who dwell in rural, mountainous areas of the United States, primarily Appalachia but also the Ozarks. Owing to its strongly stereotypical connotations, the term is frequently considered derogatory, and so is usually offensive to those Americans of Appalachian heritage.

For the purposes of this post, I will continue to use the term "hillbilly" with apologies for its offensiveness.

With regard to the part of the above quote that indicate that the term 'hillbillies' refer to "certain people who dwell in rural, mountainous areas of the United States, primarily Appalachia", it's important to note that that same Wikipedia page indicates that "According to Anthony Harkins in Hillbilly: A Cultural History of an American Icon, the term first appeared in print in a 1900 New York Journal article, with the definition: "a Hill-Billie is a free and untrammeled white citizen of Alabama..." The emphasis on "white citizens" is also found in that "white trash" is given on that page as a synonym for "hillbillies". It's important to note that there is some disagreement about where "Appalachia" actually is. That said, historically and in the present, "Appalachia" referred/refers to American states and parts of states where there are lots of Black folks.

"The most commonly used modern definition of Appalachia is the one initially defined by the Appalachian Regional Commission in 1965 and expanded over subsequent decades. The region defined by the Commission currently includes 420 counties and eight independent cities in 13 states, including all of West Virginia and 14 counties in New York, 52 in Pennsylvania, 32 in Ohio, 3 in Maryland, 54 in Kentucky, 25 counties and 8 cities in Virginia,[3] 29 in North Carolina, 52 in Tennessee, 6 in South Carolina, 37 in Georgia, 37 in Alabama, and 24 in Mississippi."

The previously cited quote from the 1900 New York Journal article goes on to give this description of 'Hill-Billies':
"...a Hill-Billie is a free and untrammeled white citizen of Alabama, who lives in the hills, has no means to speak of, dresses as he can, talks as he pleases, drinks whiskey when he gets it, and fires off his revolver as the fancy takes him."

That same Wikipedia page also gives this information about the referent "hillbillie":
"The "classic" hillbilly stereotype - the poor, ignorant, feuding family with a huge brood of children tending the family moonshine still - reached its current characterization during the years of the Great Depression, when many mountaineers left their homes to find work in other areas of the country. It was during these years that comic strips such as Lil' Abner and films such as Ma and Pa Kettle made the "hillbilly" a common stereotype...

The term hillbilly is commonly used outside of Appalachia as a reference in describing socially backward people that fit certain "hillbilly" characteristics. In this context, it is often (though not always) derogatory."

The Wikipedia page indicates that "Redneck is a historically derogatory slang term used in reference to poor white farmers, especially from the Southern United States. It is similar in meaning to cracker (especially regarding Georgia and Alabama), hillbilly (especially regarding Appalachia and the Ozarks),and white trash (but without the last term's suggestions of immorality.)

In recent decades, the term expanded its meaning to mean bigoted, loutish, and opposed to modern ways, and has often been used to attack Southern conservatives and racists. At the same time, some Southern whites have reclaimed the word, using it with pride and defiance as a self-identifier."

Negative depictions of hillbillies and of African Americans are deeply embedded in the literature, music, and mass media of the United States. What surprised me was how similar the stereotypes were for African Americans and hillbillies. For example, note this description for the once popular cartoon character "Snuffy Smith" from
"Snuffy is an ornery little cuss, sawed-off and shiftless. He lives in a shack, mangles the English language and has a propensity to shoot at those who displease him. He makes "corn-likker" moonshine in a homemade still and is in constant trouble with the sheriff. He wears a broad-brimmed felt hat almost as tall as he is, has a scraggly mustache and a pair of tattered, poorly patched overalls. He constantly cheats at poker and checkers. He also has some proclivity toward stealing chickens, which led to a brief but effective use of his character in a marketing campaign by the Tyson Foods corporation in the early 1980s."

Much of that description is exactly the same as the stereotypical Black "coon". I particularly note the parts about "mangl[ing] the English language, constantly cheat[ing] at poker and checkers, and having "some proclivity toward stealing chickens". Visit for information on the coon stereotype.

Snuffy Smith was preceded in those cartoons by "Barney Google". Eventually, Snuffy would later replace Barney Google in those cartoons. From that same Wikipedia page:
"Barney Google and Snuffy Smith, originally Barney Google, is a long-running American comic strip created by cartoonist Billy DeBeck (1890–1942). Since its debut on June 17, 1919, the strip has gained a huge international readership, appearing in 900 newspapers in 21 countries. The initial appeal of the strip led to its adaptation to film, animation, popular song and television. It added several terms and phrases to the English language and inspired the 1923 hit tune "Barney Google (with the Goo-Goo-Googly Eyes)" with lyrics by Billy Rose."

Barney Google is described as "...a little fellow (although he would shrink in stature even more after the first year) with big "banjo" eyes, was an avid sportsman and ne'er-do-well involved in poker, horse racing and prize fights....Barney [was]relentlessly henpecked by "a wife three times his size" (as the song lyric goes). The formidable Mrs. Lizzie Google...[and is a member of] the mysterious hooded fraternity "The Order of the Brotherhood of Billy Goats", a parody of mystic secret societies."

In that comic strip Barney also has a Black jockey named "Sunshine". Regardless of the presence of a Black character, the descriptions of Barney Google and Snuffy Smith, Barney's wife, and the Order of the Brotherhood of Billy Goats certainly sounds a lot like the Amos & Andy characters. Visit'n'_Andy for information about Amos & Andy.

It's my position that Barney Google, Snuffy Smith, and other hillbilly characters have many of the same negative stereotypes as Black coon characters. I'm not sure which came first, but maybe that's a chicken or the egg question.

Part II of this post will focus on the musical ties between African Americans and so-called "hillbillies".

Here are two video examples of "Barney Google":

The Buzz In Snuffy's Bonnet (Snuffy Smith)

SuperClassicToons, Uploaded on Feb 13, 2011

Snuffy and Barney are being driven 'clean' out of their minds by Loweezy's niece, Bizzy Buzz Buzz...

Barney's Blarney (Snuffy Smith)

Uploaded by SuperClassicToons on Feb 12, 2011
The little man goes off telling tall tales to Jughaid.

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