By Jennifer Elam. Pendle Hill Pamphlets (number 475), 2022. 32 pages. $7.50/pamphlet.
Jennifer Elam learned as a child who was relocated from Kentucky to Chicago, Ill., that she was a “hillbilly,” an identity that has been, like Appalachia itself, “a wound and a joy and a poem.” This complicated sense of identity has followed Elam as she has navigated the world generally, and more specifically in her Quaker faith. Elam has been a committed Quaker since 1991, serving for many years as a resident at Pendle Hill study center in Wallingford, Pa., where she labored in the art studio until the pandemic hit in 2020. What has it been like to be a committed Quaker and a hillbilly?
Elam’s story of convincement as a Quaker is simple; her commitment itself is complex. After being told simply that she “was a Quaker” by a mentor in Berea, Ky., Elam has in her decades of commitment to the Religious Society of Friends both felt the love of Friends and been disappointed and hurt by ideas that Friends may hold about people who live in a place that Elam holds dear, a place that may seem fantastical to Friends called Appalachia. In this place, people may be thought to be dumb, morally and financially impoverished, and obligated to abandon their own sense of themselves in order to assimilate into middle-class Quaker norms. Elam calls Friends to critically evaluate what is uniquely Quaker—perhaps prophetic—and what is simply a middle-class value. Doing so might deepen our practice and welcome diversity of experience in our community.
Hillbilly Quaker is a deeply experiential response to a blind spot in Quaker culture that we sometimes acknowledge as “classism.” Class bias, like White supremacy culture, misogyny, ageism, and queerphobia, is endemic in the mainstream culture around Quakerism and within the Quaker community itself, and it is deeply harming Friends we love in our community. This has left Elam feeling unheard, “invisible,” and concerned about the impact of Quaker bias on people she knows and loves. “Might the people in a whole area of the country also feel invisible?” she asks.
Confronting Quakers with “accent activism”—in which she was inspired by author Silas House to not only speak in her native accent (from a dialect, she tells us, that has its roots in Elizabethan English) but encourage students to speak and write in it as well—Elam also discourages those from outside the Appalachian region to do the same. Acknowledging that assimilation to mainstream middle-class culture, including the adoption of speech patterns, is often the way that people in the region can overcome wrong-headed bias about the prevalence of violence and laziness, a bias that prevents economic growth, Elam explains that the loss of native ways of speaking also means a tragic, permanent loss of the stories and identities of a people.
This is a loss for all of us to take seriously. It is a problem symptomatic of the “deep spiritual trouble” that the United States is in, Elam says, as we move away from the discipline of sitting and waiting for the truth with one another and instead indulge in ubiquitous, othering “depictions of people as ignorant, lazy, and drug-addicted,” whoever they might be. This othering prevents solidarity, even around issues where we must find common ground if we are to survive together. As Elam points out, the fight for justice has always had a home in Appalachia.
Hillbilly Quaker is a call for a greater justice, grounded in stories and complex truths that acknowledge the tenderness of the lives we lead together. Elam says that “[w]e must talk about the struggle and the tragedy, but we must tell the truth of those struggles and why they exist in the first place.”
Elam’s father asks us, “What does comfort have to do with living real life?” Quakers might be reminded that in our growth toward love, we will have to squirm a bit, listen well, and claim our own stories while we make room for the stories of those right there beside us.
Windy Cooler, a member of Sandy Spring (Md.) Meeting, describes herself as a “practical theologian, public minister, good Quaker pirate and cultural worker.” She is currently the convener of Testimonies to Mercy, a seven-part traveling retreat series sponsored by Powell House and Ben Lomond Quaker Center. Along with her spouse, she is coeditor of Friends Journal’s News section.