Giving Thanks for Letter Writing Campaigns

Posted in Uncategorized on November 20th, 2010 by Emily S. Channell-Justice

I’m typically not too taken by letter writing campaigns. However, I was recently sent an email asking for urgent action against the proposed surface mine that would affect Blair Mountain, where the largest uprising in US labor history took place in 1921. If you have the time to print, sign, and send the form letter linked here or even write your own in the next few days (to be received by November 26), hopefully the WV Department of Environmental Protection will receive enough letters to think twice about issuing this permit.

Blair Mountain - from

The Aracoma Coal Company, a subsidiary of Massey Energy, is currently applying for a 554-acre surface mining permit that borders and intrudes into a section of the Blair Mountain battlefield. The application is in the public comment period, letters must be received by November 26th, and Friends of Blair Mountain is asking for your help in generating letters.

The group is pursuing a multi-faceted strategy in stopping this permit from being approved, and yall’s voices are essential. Below is all the information you’ll need to write a strong letter against this application being approved. Letters must be received no later than November 26, 2010.

Four main points:

–       Blair Mountain battlefield, site of second largest insurrection in US history, is a major part of American culture.

–       The Pine Fork surface mine would negatively impact both the battlefield and the viewshed area of the battlefield, both of which are protected due to the battlefield being eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.

–       The area has not had any archaeological investigations undertaken, and has a high potential for containing significant archaeological resources. A full archaeological survey is needed to assess the extent of archaeological resources in the surface mine permit area.

–       With all the other mines in the area, the overall cumulative impact on the Blair Mountain battlefield and surrounding landscape would be severe.  Because the topography is integral to understanding the combatant’s movements, it is an archaeological ‘artifact’ in itself and should be protected.

Personal letters are always better, with your own perspective and reasons why you disagree with the permit being issued. But we know that time is limited, and writing letters can be a pain. For those who would rather send a form letter they can print out and sign, then click here.

Letters must include the applicant’s name (Aracoma Coal Company, Inc.) and the application number (S-5035-08). See example here. Letters must arrive no later than Nov. 26, 2010, and should be sent to:

Permit Supervisor

WV DEP Division of Mining and Reclamation

1101 George Kostas Dr.

Logan, WV 25601

Like I said, I’m typically a bit cynical about letter writing, but this site is tremendously important both in terms of historical memory and in its archaeological potential. Anything that can be done to protect Blair Mountain should be, and if letter writing is where we start, I think it’s frankly stupid not to contribute.

Here’s a segment from my paper on WV labor history discussing the Battle of Blair Mountain:

At the beginning of 1921, Sid Hatfield (the pro-union chief of police in Matewan, WV) and fifteen others were tried for the murder of Albert Felts in the Matewan Massacre, but a union-friendly jury acquitted all of them (Corbin 215); the only way the Baldwin-Felts men could see to get revenge was to take matters into their own hands, and, on August 1 of that year, two Baldwin-Felts guards gunned down the unarmed Hatfield on the steps of the McDowell County Courthouse (Batteau 112). What Batteau refers to as “the murder of this hero” (113) set off a string of protests in the miners’ camps in Mingo County, and armed miners began marching toward Blair Mountain, south of the state capital of Charleston. Estimates of the numbers of armed miners range from 5,000 to 20,000: Batteau suggests 10,000 (113), while Corbin increases this to between 15,000 and 20,000 (219). The previously mentioned blending of class and racial consciousness played out here among the “estimated 2,000 black miners, mainly union men from the Kanawha-New River Field” (Trotter 112) who marched on Blair Mountain.

The march to Blair Mountain was directed in large part toward Don Chafin, the sheriff of Logan County whose vehement anti-union activities, including commanding the army pitted against the miners at Blair Mountain, had earned him the ire of miners throughout the state. Chafin’s army was equipped with machine guns and bomber planes, as well as over 2,000 men. Yet the miners were not only organized across racial lines, they came together as disparate communities to form one, united group: “Exploitation, oppression, and injustice had created a common identity and solidarity among the miners, and their geographic mobility had turned the hundreds of seemingly isolated company towns into a single gigantic community,” writes Corbin (219). It was this mass combined with the complete secrecy about organization and leadership that allowed the miners to hold off Chafin’s army in a week-long fight to ascend Blair Mountain (Corbin 221). At the point that the miners were preparing to descend the mountain to Mingo and Logan Counties, the federal government was finally convinced to act, and President Harding ordered an additional 2,500 troops plus machine guns, bombs, and bomber planes to the region, and the miners were forced to surrender (Corbin 224). Though bombs were dropped, there were only around 100 deaths (Trotter 112) in what has been termed the largest armed labor uprising in United States history. Chafin kept his power, and the union was defeated, but this event remains one of the most significant moments in this country’s labor history.

Miners from all races and ethnicities as well as from widely unconnected geographic locations were able to come together to fight the dominant power, and the fact that they were unable to win simply proves the entrenchedness of the coal operators’ power structure, which has grown since the 1920s. In all the accounts I have encountered, writers insist on the sobriety and seriousness of the miners – this was not simply moonshinin’, guntotin’ rednecks’ attempt to fight the law, it was a highly organized battle that had a clear goal, and its fighters were outgunned and overpowered. Because the coal operators won, they were the ones who established how the story of Blair Mountain was retold and later how easily it was forgotten. Even today, coal owners would rather West Virginians forget this part of our history, because, without this event in our minds, it is easier to exploit the state and its people for coal – if we do not truly understand our own history, we have no real inspiration to stand up to coal companies today.

Please do show your support for the protection of this site. Thanks in advance to all of you who take the time to do this.

Rednecks are Stupid, and other important facts I learned from Anthropology

Posted in anthropology, environmentalism, race on November 6th, 2010 by Emily S. Channell-Justice

Sometimes Anthropologists need some little reminders:

We often forget that the discipline was initially founded on the tenets of scientific racism.

We often think we’re smarter than everyone else because we’re so critical of the way the world works.

You can probably imagine what happens when someone forgets both.

I recently joined the Environmental Anthropology listserv, which typically has some pretty interesting discussions about the nature of environmentalism, conservation, climate change, and other relevant topics. Recently someone posted a link to a really interesting and provocative (because of its incomprehensible conclusions and misuse of anthropology) evolutionary psychology article which suggests that people who stay up later and are productive during the night hours are simply smarter and more evolved  than those who don’t (i.e., those who live in “undeveloped” countries where lack of electricity means people sleep when it’s dark and are productive when it’s light). Because of its really problematic application of “anthropology” to describe how different cultures have typically “used” the hours of dark, it received a nice trouncing on the listserv that I thoroughly enjoyed reading until one post happened, which I’ll quote in full:

“Not to reopen debate on this issue, but I have traveled extensively and interacted with numerous cultures and groups of people, and likewise have read much literature and other works from an extremely diverse amount of cultures. Now, shouldn’t everyone be in basic agreement that every single group of people in this world, no matter which way they try to push or pull it, in fact has some smart people, and a blisteringly, overwhelming amount of dumbasses? (Pardon my French; the more blithely the point put forth, the more I tend to speak French)

Kind of like how every country in this planet has a small core of “sophisticants” and an American dessert portion gram-cracker coating of rednecks? Even checking out Wikipedia it states “with the median set score at 100, and a standard deviation of 15″. Egads! I didn’t exactly score genius level on any standardized tests, but I was smart enough to look up that, on the whole, excellence in standardized testing proves that you are extremely capable of standardized testing (but doesn’t show much else).”

I’m not sure if it was the haughty reference to being more well-traveled than most people or the use of “cracker” in the same sentence as “redneck,” but this just pissed me off (in plain English. As someone later pointed out, the euphemistic pardoning of one’s French doesn’t excuse one of being disrespectful). And so my entry into the world of listerv participation was this:

“So now poor, rural white folks are not just backwards and ignorant – which are bad enough stereotypes as it is – they are the marker for what it means to be stupid in this country?

There are many ways to describe how thoughtless a statement like that is. I’ll just take one example: two Goldman Prize winners in the past decade are women you’d probably call rednecks. Having “traveled extensively and interacted with numerous cultures and groups of people” doesn’t absolve us of our biases, especially toward the groups we think we know the best.”

I have to say, I was pretty proud of myself for only writing four sentences, none of which stooped to the level of calling this person a dumbass right back, but it is unfathomable to me that a person who describes her or himself as an anthropologist does not recognize the problems with such a statement. It’s one thing to actually think rednecks are stupid. It’s entirely another to pretend that you know more about everything than anyone else because a. you’re smarter and b. you’ve had a good education and c. you’re well-traveled and still be suggesting that there is something inherently stupid about being poor, rural, and white. It sickens me that anthropologists (and other academics, to be sure) so often think so highly of themselves that they think they no longer have any prejudices, and then they fail to see the ones right in front of them.

Maybe this person doesn’t know the interesting history of the word “redneck” or how poor whites were long part of the list of groups targeted by eugenics proponents with (as described by another respondent) “such bad ‘genetics’ as alcoholism, feeble-mindedness, illiteracy, having twins, being a migrant worker, single-parent family, pauperism, homelessness, being of Franco-Canadian descent, being of Indian or African-American descent” and that in the 1920s it was suggested they be sterilized along with the other groups mentioned to stop breeding among “bad” sorts of families. Or maybe this person doesn’t recognize the important work women like Julia Bonds and Maria Gunnoe have done in places like Appalachia and what their presence means to so much of what environmental anthropologists tend to care a lot about. (I also don’t wish to assume that Julia Bonds and Maria Gunnoe self-identify as rednecks, though they very well might. I think I’m probably safe in guessing, though, that the uninformed poster would categorize these women as such, being rural white folk and all.)

Then the poster had the nerve to relegate the response to the lengthy conversation about the “redneck” comment to a post-script:

“PS: I think I see where some hot buttons were – “rednecks” and “sophisticants”, which immediately dredged up socio-economic concepts. Please disregard – I was attempting to state that there is no segment of any society in the entire world that does not possess individuals of high intelligence. This includes rural regions. “Redneck” was a poor choice of words when posting to a listserv filled with individuals who exercise precisely named categories for groups.”

Disregard. No, I won’t apologize, or suggest that I might have offended someone, or recognize that I might not understand the complications of this term that I so carelessly flung about, or – dare I reference the great Pierre Bourdieu – that I misrecognize my own assumptions about what it means to be poor and white, therefore perpetuating the stereotype that they really are the stupid segment of our society and certainly don’t deserve a place in all this academic talk.

There’s a reason we “exercise precisely named categories for groups.” Maybe it annoys you, poster. But it annoys me that you’re careless enough to think that such statements aren’t examples of how deeply embedded such stereotypes are. Yes, pop culture loves to portray rednecks as dumb, but apparently, some anthropologists still think they are too. Redneck was a poor choice of words here, period.

Anthropology has come a long way from studies that measured brain sizes to confirm that African-Americans were less developed than Whites, and most of us recognize that there’s still a long way to go to really get to an anti-racist anthropology (on this topic I highly suggest Leith Mullings’ 2005 “Interrogating Racism: Toward an Antiracist Anthropology” in the Annual Review of Anthropology (vol. 34)). But I have to insist that we take this criticism further, because it’s obvious to me that people still do associate stereotypes with people of certain races and from certain places, and one of the easiest targets of such stereotypes is the rural white poor. Maybe they’re the least exotic, and that’s why they’re the most ignored group by anthropologists. They’re the most invisible and therefore the least complicated. We think we already know everything about them, so they are useless to us and our significant academic contributions (though Eliza Darling’s work is an exciting intervention into that last bit).

I’ve always liked anthropology because of its ability to provide critical perspectives on the assumptions we have about the way society works and the way we think about one another. But I wonder if this discipline is guilty here of its own misrecognition (according to Bourdieu, “the fact of recognizing a violence which is wielded precisely inasmuch as one does not perceive it as such”). Anthropology recognizes the violence we’ve done to other groups of Others that we’ve constructed as counter to our Selves, but we miss out on the fact that just saying we do violence doesn’t mean we stop doing it. Or, just because we recognize that anthropology was long complicit in constructing racism doesn’t mean that we still don’t have really awful stereotypes about people that we continue to accept without question because we think we’re past all that. We’re critical enough of everything else that if one group gets left out, it’s no big deal. We don’t see that such unchallenged assumptions, such acts of misrecognition perpetuate the invisibility of groups like the rural white poor and therefore allow inequalities and subjugation to remain ignored.

I sure do hope I’ve used that ‘misrecognition’ thing right. Otherwise they’re going to kick me out of that ‘sophisticant’ category and into the American-dessert portion graham-cracker redneck group of dummies.

Then again, would that really be so bad?

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