Identity crisis: without coal, who will we be?

I have been trying for the past month to figure out how to write about the presidential election and Appalachia’s role in it.

As an ex-pat Appalachian, friends have asked me why my home region voted for Trump. I am specifically from the Appalachian coalfields of Southwest Virginia, and I try to explain about coal jobs and culture. But I keep getting tripped up on why people hold on to coal. For people outside, it seems obvious coal is dying. No one but the politicians talks it up. They don’t understand how it may look from the inside.

I have been irritated by some of the national commentary on how Appalachia voted. There are the pitying stories about how used Appalachians will feel once they realize they were lied to about a resurgence of coal. There are the mystified commentators who don’t understand how people could vote against their own self-interests.

Neither of these camps seems to understand the conflicts that coal can create in the psyche of people from the coalfields.

My grandfather was a miner and then a coal truck driver. His father mined coal, his brothers mined coal; one was paralyzed in the mine. His sons mined and hauled coal. Two of my cousins still mine coal; one just got laid off.

I grew up the child of teachers, a life not dependent on the coal mines an hour west of our house. But a visit to Mom’s family meant a drive past mine tipples, a coke oven that belched fire into the night sky, the parked coal trucks of my uncles. Coal permeated the atmosphere there, from the smoke from stoves to the conversation.

It became a part of my identity, like it is a part of the identity of many people from the coalfields. I’m not as close to it, as entwined with it, as many who grew up in even closer proximity to coal. I osmosed a visitation level of coal culture on weekend visits, playing with cousins, listening to uncles talk.

I had trouble finding the words to explain that until this week, when I read this story on the post-coal economy in Appalachia. Go read it. Go read the whole series.

The writer says coal is “is a foundational part of the cultural identity. … To grow up in the heart of Appalachia is to internalize this narrative.”

Yes. This is what I have been trying to describe. This is what I mean when I tell people coal is complicated, when I try to explain that even though coal is dirty and environmentally devastating, it’s what is familiar and known to people. It is, as the story above says, woven into the fabric of life so tightly you can stop noticing it. You don’t really think about the fact that they’re building a King Coal highway or that Bluefield just tore down a decrepit Coal City Auditorium, a relic from a boom time.

Coal was always a part of my life, thanks to Mom’s family. From overheard grownup conversations I absorbed a trust in the UMWA and a corresponding distrust of coal companies. It was always part of my identity. But it became solidified as part of my internal narrative in high school, when I read Denise Giardina’s “Storming Heaven,” a fictionalized account of the mine wars.

I hadn’t known the cost of unionizing the mines, hadn’t known how poorly miners were treated in the early days. I was infuriated, and it informed a sense in me of miners having been wronged, of my people having been wronged. I was angry at the injustice of it. Being about 16 years old at the time, I was primed to have a seed planted in my sense of self, that sense of injustice. A sense of a people being mine. It might have been romanticized, built in part on myth and grievance, but it was planted.

Coal has infiltrated my identity even though I hate to see the decimation of mountaintops, ruination of streams, scarring of lungs. Coal raised my mother’s family and virtually every one of my cousins. It is a conflict, to dislike what coal does yet still see myself as a product of the culture and history and conflict around it.

Imagine that, intensified for people who were not just the grandchildren of coal miners but the children, or miners themselves. Coal culture is much bigger than just the dwindling numbers of people actually employed in the coal industry. The descendants of miners and former miners are all over the coalfields and beyond. Miners do a dirty, dangerous job. You have only to look at the coal-related vinyl on vehicles around the coalfields to understand that that creates a sense of communal pride.

When I hear questions about how Appalachia could vote against its self-interests, I think about who is defining the interests. It certainly isn’t the voter. The outsider asking the question suggests they know what is best for Appalachians. It hints at a feeling — once again — that Appalachians must be too stupid to know what’s best for themselves.

Coal was the self-interest that motivated many of the Appalachian voters I know. Many aren’t even working in the industry, but they can see the effect its latest slump — possibly its last slump — is having on communities.

The downturn in the Appalachian coal industry, which has been going on for years, has become more acute. In the past four years, the industry has lost 25,000 jobs. That affects whole communities, not just miners. When a monolithic industry like coal slumps, the whole community slumps. Schools in Southwest Virginia have lost so many students they’re begging the state for help paying the bills.

A lot of what I heard from friends, relatives and social media in Southwest Virginia, my home region, during the election was a plea for the economy of the coalfields. Everyone had heard Clinton’s comment about putting coal miners out of a job. When my hometown newspaper endorsed Clinton, there was an online fury — how, people said, could the paper endorse a woman who would finish digging the grave of the industry that was the lifeblood of the region? Voting for her was voting against their self-interests, people felt.

They have seen the downturn of the coal industry. And they have certainly heard the politicians decry the “War on Coal” — at best a half-truth, told by the men in suits to the men in coveralls, a false promise that they can get their way of life back at the ballot box, but an effective call to that sense of community and identity.

They knew a President Clinton would not seek a coal comeback. For her supporters, that was a plus — moving forward away from a dirty and dying industry. For many people in the coalfields, though, the future she promised was at best uncertain and vague, whereas coal is real.

When friends ask me why people in Appalachia supported Trump, they’re also asking why there are people in Appalachia who want to revive coal. It is the last century’s fuel. It has killed people, ruined landscapes, poisoned water, flattened mountains, and when it’s done with all that it denies men black lung benefits and cuts bankruptcy deals to avoid paying their pensions. Why, they say, do Appalachian voters refuse to move forward, adapt?

It’s easy to say “adapt” when you’re not the one having to do it.

That is an economic choice, but it’s also an identity one. As Courtney Balestier writes in the article cited above: “To say goodbye to coal—even if just to say goodbye to its halcyon days—is a profound spiritual and emotional decision for a people who have watched their family members work, suffer, and die underground, who have loved and taken deep pride in the community coal created.”

I think the last part is the most relevant to understanding how people still vote for coal — because they love and take deep pride in the community coal created. It is a fundamental part of this sense of “my people.” Coal has defined the people and the region of the coalfields for more than 100 years. It isn’t easy to let go of that.

Two years ago I left journalism, a career I had since college, and took a non-journalism job. It was wrenching, because journalism was such a big part of my identity. I defined myself as a journalist. That wasn’t just what I did, it was who I was.

I think coal is similar. It isn’t just what people do, it is who — individually for some, communally for others — they are.

The series of stories linked above examines what the Appalachian diversification is looking like. I find a lot to be hopeful about in those stories. I hope new industries, large and small, can save the communities we have loved, help people build new identities as coal leaves for the last time, and rebuild that foundational identity. After I left journalism, I had to rebuild my identity and my sense of self (that’s also about when I started this blog; perhaps I reformed my identity more strongly around being Appalachian). Appalachians will have to do the same, and decide the answer to this question: without coal, who will we be?

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3 Responses to Identity crisis: without coal, who will we be?

  1. Catherine Spence says:

    Thank you for giving me a vocabulary to work through my own conflicted feelings about the coal industry. Like you, I’m not a child of the coalfields – my closest family connection to coal is my great-grandparents’ generation – but coal is such an integral part of Appalachia that I can’t help identifying with it, even when it causes personal conflict because I also hate MTR and the treatment of the miners. Coal is a complicated subject for those of us inside Appalachia; how can we possibly explain it to outsiders?

  2. D Kruger says:

    did a lot of research on this topic..Did you know..SUNCOKE the local mine owners, made more money during Obamas presidency than ever before, paid out dividends for first time in 23 years, still closed local mines blaming EPA/Obama regulations, even though TVA had met EPA regulations 6 years ago(and why demand went up)..Real reason for closing?..Like fracking for oil, pan coal mines out west became more lucrative/cheaper to mine..They chased the almighty dollar and lied to the locals..

    • Catherine Spence says:

      So, there’s nothing new under the sun as King Solomon said. Just another example of why Appalachian coal mining had the highest profit margin of any industry in the US during the early 1900’s.

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