It started, as these things often do, on Facebook.
“Show your solidarity with WV coal miners,” urged several friends via their status updates. Two days after the blast you could do this by joining various Facebook groups: “Pray for the Miners in Raleigh Co. WV” or “Pray for the Coal Miners of the Upper Big Branch Mine,” to name two.
Within another day or two, many on Facebook were appealing to Americans everywhere to leave their porch lights on all night to show support for the victims of the mine explosion. I didn’t have the nerve to reply to several well-meaning friends with what seemed an obvious response to such a request: “Wouldn’t that actually benefit the coal companies more than the miners and their families? Is that what we really want to do at this particular moment?”
I am a native of West Virginia, having grown up in Pocahontas County, an area known more for tourism (skiing, hiking, biking, and trout fishing) than for the business of mining coal. But when I was very young my grandfather worked for awhile in a coal tipple; I grew up with at least some first-hand awareness of coal mining and its consequences.
I moved away after graduating from college and have only recently returned to teach at my alma mater, West Virginia Wesleyan College. In those intervening years I heard every West Virginia joke there is. The hilarious ones about poverty and incest; the side-splitters about ignorance and neglect. When a friend asked me a few years ago, “Who do West Virginians make fun of?” I replied, without having to think, “ourselves.” We learn early and well that we’re the end of the line when it comes to crass regional humor. There’s no one below us–culturally, socioeconomically–to laugh at.
Since the mine explosion, I’ve been unsettled by some native attitudes and assumptions that I had almost forgotten about–attitudes and assumptions which reveal, I think, how this enculturated self-effacement (no group is more ridiculed and pitied than we are so we might as well ridicule and pity ourselves) morphs into a kind of stoic pride. This pride may seem admirable, but in reality it undermines the interests and long-term well-being of people who do things like mine coal for a living.
Lest I be misunderstood (which I fear might happen anyway), let me say, as clearly as I can, that I don’t wish in any way to denigrate the risky work that coal miners do, nor the sense of accomplishment they rightly feel in their vocation.
But here’s the thing: I worry, at least a little, when generations of West Virginians–whether they’re connected to coal mining or not–absorb this notion that they are beleaguered and put-upon, the most-derided in our culture, and then turn that woundedness into a kind of guarded bravado that refuses to reckon with some hard, uncomfortable truths.
To say we’re proud of coal miners without acknowledging that for decades miners have been given the shaft–literally–by greedy coal companies does not serve the long-term well-being of those who do this dirty, dangerous work. And, sure, we should pray for the victims of this most recent tragedy, but we should also do the holy, pressing work of challenging an industry that enriches absentee corporate shareholders while sucking the life out of the people and places it needs for its pursuit of profit at any cost.
This latest disaster should not be one more occasion for West Virginians to turn their latent defensiveness into full-blown denial of what’s really going on. Here’s the truth: Coal has not been good for West Virginia. Coal has been good for corporations like Massey Energy and its subsidiaries. After more than a century of extracting this valuable resource from the earth, the considerable profits it has generated have gone elsewhere. West Virginia is not known for a robust economy or a prosperous citizenry.
As Kentuckian Wendell Berry has said, “we need to quit thinking of rural America as a colony.” And rural Americans need to resist, en masse, the colonizers. Sentimental pride creates brief feel-good moments but it also dulls the sense of urgency required to address these grave injustices. Stoicism is not called for this week–righteous anger and a willingness to act are.