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Representing Courage

I hoped for a while that writing this paper about the Upper Big Branch disaster would be a cathartic experience in which I could begin to stop being outraged and to end my period of mourning. But the more I learn, the angrier I get. The more I realize how important it is to really and truly learn what’s going on and what specific processes of law, of politics, of economics, and of history come into play to allow disasters like this to happen (and ignore consistent smaller incidents in which one or two miners die, as the events in which three more miners died in Kentucky and in West Virginia since the explosion at Upper Big Branch). For me, this is just the beginning: the next decade or so of my life will be dedicated to these mining communities, and if this keeps up, this will only be the first of many disasters and deaths I will have to deal with.

My mom made a comment to me the other night when I was telling her about my deep emotional involvement with this project that eventually I’d work through it to get to the objective perspective I need as an anthropologist. Now, I’ll never be objective in the truest sense of that word, and I don’t think anyone can really expect me to be. My bias will always be in favor of the people, the brave men and women who work underground, knowing that the slightest spark could end their lives; their families who support them endlessly and who make their lives in the coalfields; those willing to speak out against the wrongs of the coal companies; those who have already given their lives for coal and those who died for the rights of miners. Whether I support strip mining, underground mining, or no mining isn’t even relevant; it’s a privilege that I have as a West Virginian who is not tied to the coalfields to make that kind of judgment.

What’s important is that people continue to mine coal, above and below the ground. Sometimes it’s a choice: mining jobs are well-paid, compared to other options, and sometimes it’s an obligation where no other jobs exist. Either way, coal is people’s livelihood, and that’s undeniable. That’s the starting point. The question then becomes why this is the case: what factors have made coal mining people’s best or only option? And how is it that the mining companies get away with considering the miners an expendable resource? What keeps people so attached to this land that they stay and accept the daily dangers of living in mining country – and can that sentiment even be put into words? In terms of my own position as anthropologist, I am an outsider academic as well as being inherently connected to the people of West Virginia and knowing their attachment to that land because it’s my land, too.

But how can I maneuver representing a group of people who have been so negatively stereotyped in this country? How can I write about people who make a decision I would never (and would never be forced to) make for myself without making them seem like foolish pawns of the industry? How can I show that people are making a choice both because of obligation and because of tradition while at the same time explain how the industry works in ways that leaves people with no choice at all? Furthermore, how can I simplify this complexity in a way that my interlocutors can gain something from that insight?

In the end, what I want to avoid in my quest for some kind of more objective perspective is losing sight of the people I’ve learned to admire and respect (albeit from afar, for now) for their courage and their commitment in the face of so much adversity: poverty, corporate exploitation, physical danger…it’s these people I am writing for, and it’s their troubles I am writing to confront. It’s for them that I’m angry, and it’s to them I dedicate this work.

2 Responses to “Representing Courage”

  1. Allison Says:

    I can definitely understand the difficulty of coming at things from the right angle. You’re obviously coming from the right place and hopefully people will always see that. This is only the beginning! I loved reading this, can’t wait for more!

  2. Footenotes » Blog Archive » The Week That Was: 5/3 – 5/9 Says:

    […] vs. Kennedy vs Tree Sitters vs Science.  Irreverence aside about long titles the follow up post, Representing Courage, is a really beautiful post from the author about the genuine conflict a researcher in the […]

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