I have felt the need to add the qualifier, I am a coal miner's daughter, to add credence to my writing or a thought I was hoping to express since the "Trump Digs Coal" slogan and his election, I've done it countless times. As far as I have been able to gather, my family ended up in this far armpit of eastern Kentucky to mine coal on all sides. We've been pioneers of the Appalachian mountains since we came over the big water, and my Cherokee family, well... this land is theirs.
The top picture is my great great grandparents on the Hansel side and where my name is descended from - Zachariah Taylor Hansel and Elizabeth Evans Hansel. The little dark headed fellow standing next to his dad is my great grandfather John Thomas Hansel Sr. The Hansels moved to Harlan from the Mount Sterling area of Kentucky to mine coal and that is where the very direct experience I have with coal miners begins.
The bottom picture is William Stephens and Amanda Sue Clay Stephens from Olive Hill, Kentucky in Carter County. They moved to Letcher County during the building of Jenkins, Kentucky which was built by Consolidation Coal Company beginning with the purchase of the land in 1911. My great grandmother who was my babysitter all of my young years was their daughter - Golda Ruth Stephens Johnson. She was born in 1912 as the first of eight children. It seems the family came around 1914 to Letcher County for coal mining. My Mamaw Johnson always told me her daddy was a Blackfoot Indian which seems kind of strange to me considering he or his family would have had to travel a long way in order get to Olive Hill, Kentucky from Montana or Canada even. Who knows though? He's definitely from somewhere.
Golda Ruth (Goldie) married Luther Johnson. Papaw Johnson was my best friend when I was small and the way we spent our days together was directly influenced by his time as a coal miner. Luther is the tall man in the second row with the pipe hanging from his lips. He was a union miner as most were in those days. Yet, he realized really fast that being in the mines wasn't going to pay him off in the long run and could potentially take him from his family and this old world. Papaw Johnson had the wit, grit, and wherewithal to find a way to get himself out of the mines and into the business of being his own boss. Weekends at the Isom Stock Sale turned into the Cowshed Trading Post, and there I "helped" him keep shop nearly every day of my childhood. The Cowshed was a kid paradise.
That brings us back to the Hansel men. Pictured below is John Thomas Hansel Sr. and Junior, both coal miners. Great Papaw Hansel lost his larynx to throat cancer, and as a kid I used to be fascinated that the piece of gauze that flapped over the open hole in his neck was the only thing that kept the outside world from seeping in to his body where it could not be rightfully contained. I will never forget the hushed sucking and choke sound that he used to create his voice with family. He didn't like the mechanical voice box to use all the time. Inconvenience, I suppose.
Papaw Hansel became an electrician in the mines and eventually took that skill and became a teacher at the vocational school in Letcher County. So, he too found a way out of the mines, but not the economy dependent upon it. When I was 8, he moved his family to South Carolina where he applied his mining skills working on machinery and such things at a fabric printing plant. He passed away of bone cancer in South Carolina just a few years ago.
So, here I am. This proud coal miner's daughter working for a place that has the commonly associated tag of "anti-coal" by some in the community. My dad supports my work and always will because he's confident in how he raised me. Here's the thing... Appalshop is not "anti-coal", we are an arts, culture, and media organization who documents and preserves life and tradition in Central Appalachia. However, you will find some related people who in their personal lives and opinions are not believers that coal mining is good for the region and especially strip mining. Yet, as with any organization, company, or workplace you will find a wide range of beliefs none of which in and of themselves represent the principles of the organization.
My dad experienced some of this directly when he worked for Enterprise Coal which was located in the building next to Appalshop at one point in time. A member of a visiting group called Mountain Justice Summer who were in Whitesburg to organize and demonstrate against mountaintop removal coal mining vandalized my dad's work truck by urinating in the truck bed and marking the paint. They were caught in the act and when my dad tried to confront them, he was spat upon. Now, someone not understanding that various organizations sometimes have to interact would leave that situation with a very strong opinion about "liberal" minded people who protest mining and because they were visiting Appalshop, direct that opinion onto Appalshop.
Fortunately, my dad knew better. He knew that many of the founding members of Appalshop were his neighbors and classmates in school. He played basketball for Whitesburg High School with one and lived down the street from another for awhile. He knew a large number of Appalshop employees were locals. Of course, he held some really strong feelings about the association and the kind of education or encouragement that would lead young people to violate the respect of their elders and personal property. I think he has mostly let that go these days. I haven't, and I won't. It's been said about us "hillbillies" that we have tribal loyalty to a fault. Maybe we do, but I plan to set this action right for the good of my community as best as I can. I want to redeem the dignity of my dad and the men and women who stay, work, and worship here.
The recent election has brought new attention of the coalfields and it seems we've become the poster children for "Trump Country" as before we were and always seem to be the poster children for American poverty. It's really laughable, but at the same time I've seen a lot of troubling behavior stem from this renewed attention. Every week, I produce a 5 minute radio news roundup of the coal industry and its place in the bigger picture of the energy profile of the United States. It's unbelievable how many ways the same thing can be rehashed with different words and published to lock in the attention of new readers. I doubt there was ever a planned "War on Coal" fueled by legislation aimed to cripple the industry. I do believe some of the legislation did not help an already failing industry.
James Higdon wrote the best article concisely explaining what I believe to actually be happening for Politico and it was published last week - The Obama Idea to Save Coal Country. He begins with the "War on Coal" and takes us through Kentucky Republican Representative Hal Rogers's RECLAIM Act which was shot down by Republican law men from the western coalfields states which is the most recent government effort to provide assistance to the barely breathing economy of the Appalachian coalfields.
I think of the information in Higdon's piece, my dad's experience with social justice activists, the media coverage of my home during the election, and the disgusting opinions of people wishing death upon Trump supporters and coal miners reflected in the Facebook comments of a radio story my colleague Benny Becker produced with Howard Berkes when it was shared by National Public Radio (NPR), and I'm embarrassed to be thought of in terms of political leanings or someone who could sit by and do nothing in response to the comments of the very people who claim to have a heart for the poor and troubled. Here are some examples from that comment thread.
"One candidate ran on improving job training and education opportunities as the means for navigating the 21st Century job market. The other candidate promised to bring back coal mining jobs. Millions of Appalachians considered those proposals and said, "I want black lung disease, too!" ~Jeff Fulmer
"West Virgina, PA, and Ohio...all solid Trump territory. They loved that the fool actually said he would bring coal back, and that he would dismantle ACA (Obamacare). For many years, people like me (considered the coastal liberal elite) fought to bring politicians into power to bring jobs and health care to these regions---services that we personally don't need in regions that we don't live in--because it was the right thing to do. But apparently, a bigoted, misogynist snake oil salesmen promising them a version of the US that looks like Berlin in 1939 was more appealing. So, this liberal American is done with the Rust and Bible Belts, and focusing on California and California only." ~Michelle Whiting
There's so much wrong with these comments and the disgusting political divide that they represent that I would have to write my own book, or create a collection of the articles already written in counter to such opinions. It boils down to the fact that a mono economy was purposefully created in the coalfields by the coal companies that wished to take the money to the bank. They wanted to make this money on the backs of people they considered as little more than property. This labor created the "coastal liberal elite" cities that Ms. Whiting referenced through the industrialization of America. When these men died under needlessly dangerous conditions and did not receive fair wages, sometimes being paid in script instead of money which could only be used in company owned stores, they fought battles against their employers and the United States government to earn Americans the fair labor laws we have today. Because coal mining was seen as a service to the nation and a vital support of the entire American economy, these men and women found their worth in mining coal and providing an honest living for their families. Americans have demanded coal to power this country for the last 100 years and now the region of America that was populated for the sole purpose of mining coal has been forgotten and looked upon with nothing less than disgusted disregard by people who would claim to be interested in the pursuit of social justice and opportunity for all. The people making these comments have no idea what our families fought for and that now, coal mining done right and well is not without risk, but fairly safe and pays really well in the $70,000 a year range with no college debt for those that go in right out of high school. Add to that, full benefits, and aside from the fact that coal has been in steady decline and these jobs have become fewer and fewer, who wouldn't mine coal? It isn't coal mining in and of itself that has caused the problems we see in coal mining. It is however, crooked politics and money that has.
Then, there was this article by the founder of Daily Kos, the left leaning group blog for those involved with "netroots activism" to further the socially progressive policies and candidates in politics - Be happy for coal miners losing their health insurance. They're getting exactly what they voted for.
That article solidified my questioning of being involved at all in journalism or anything that can be labeled left or right. I've never desired to be a career social activist, and I don't now. I mostly see it as hot air blowing. I'm more interested in the tangibles. My community is more interested in the tangibles. As my ancestors chose to make a life here, and stayed here to do a job they were told was important for the well being of the nation, we work in the hard rock of reality. We always have.
Last week, Daily Kos tried to redeem itself with An Open Letter to America's Coal Miners and America by former coal miner and company man, Mark Sumner. I wish Sumner had taken his letter to another outlet, or maybe he wrote the appeal as a prompting from Daily Kos as a redemptive action. However, the letter is quite good. As Higdon's article summarizes the realities of the down-turned coal industry well, Sumner encapsulates the feelings of a miner and his family in a pill that's hard to swallow. Voting for Trump was a hail Mary for the coalfields. No one representing the power in this country or the liberal or conservative elite has fought hard enough for the future of a people that in no small part helped build this country.
Some would argue that with the same vote for Trump that we expect to save some jobs, we screwed ourselves out of the best healthcare access we've ever had. Increased access to healthcare only does so much. Yes, it provides more healthcare industry jobs. Yes, it brings federal dollars into our economy. Yes, it brings some people who desperately need doctors into the clinics to receive care. What we know well is that as always, federal programs are subject to change and political whim whereas a good job is a Godsend. One statistic someone might share with me is how many of the people who are insured for free under the Affordable Care Act expanded Medicaid actually made it to the polls to vote. And, because our access to news is somewhat limited by poverty and lack of wide availability of broadband internet, a jaded media brought confusion by renaming the Affordable Care Act to the point of essentially doing away with the original title - ObamaCare. And then, memes like this were created.
You know what's real hillbilly of me. I wanna fist fight you people. What I want to do is scream at you and make your nose bleed. It would be wonderfully gratifying. In your social activist and liberal and segregated city bubbles, you are part of the system that have always seen my ancestors as collateral and expendable. You want people to believe that we are all lower class white people, which in my layout of my family history was disproved. If this is widely believed, you feel you have permission to publicly belittle us and make fun of us and still call yourselves politically correct. I wouldn't care if we all were the color of hospital bed sheets bleached to stiffened, you still have no right. We are human beings, and you in doing so are a hypocrite and I don't trust you to have my well being in mind or anyone else's that you see as against your social values.
When Hillary Clinton won the Democratic nomination and then said, "We're going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business." the Democratic party lost coal country. I understand that taken in context Mrs. Clinton's comment can be understood in a totality that adjusts the impact slightly, but not enough. Our region's economy is hurting so bad that such an insensitive comment could not be redeemed. Many of us became willing that very moment to see in tunnel vision as many working poor must, to where our next meal will come from and if our kids will have equal or more opportunity than we do, and take a gamble on the nutcase of a Republican candidate and businessman - Donald Trump. In case you want to know what those of us in the eastern Kentucky coalfields think about opportunities for our children, in the Spotlight on Eastern Kentucky the 2012 Kentucky Health Issues Poll, 65% of us said the next generation will be worse off than the current generation of working adults. To not expect us to fight for anything we can to fill those gaps, would be akin to us consuming our own children.
It was a two party and polarized political system that failed us by creating an environment where such a thing could occur. Both parties see the coalfields Appalachians as expendable or little more than pawns in a game of dollars. See as proof of this an article from the Heritage Foundation explaining away a government bailout for UMWA (United Mine Workers of America) backed pensions. The same government that created a situation where homeless veterans beg for money and food in Washington D.C. and 20 veterans commit suicide every day after they sacrificed themselves in service to the country is well on its way to allowing former, elderly coal miners to lose the healthcare and benefits they earned by retiring coal miners. This same government allowed an industry to push out the unions without requiring that they do anything in good faith to the miners who made their money. Here's one fine example of how coal miners are being thrown out with the sludge and coal ash in order to give company executives big bonuses in hopes they'll stick around even though their job won't last even with the down sizing of debt and assets. Alpha Natural Resources is just one of many. Corporate greed and government complacency.
I could go on and on and on trying to explain to you why so many of the people I know, respect and love voted for Donald Trump, but I think so many of you would continue to think of us as merely ignorant or stupid and will label us with your social justice buzz words like - misogynistic, anti-Islamic, homophobic, and white supremacists. That's an easy way for you not to claim your responsibility in the creation of this situation we're finding ourselves in, and your democracy's willingness to overlook a group of people hidden away in the mountains of Central Appalachia as a means to keep progress moving forward without facing the issues that progress was making.
I won't fight your ugly words with more ugly words. I won't hunt down the brainwashed kid who thought he was protesting "corporate greed-heads" by spitting on my dad and kick his teeth in. I won't even laugh out loud as I see those who identify with us either celebrating or debating the very simplistic and unthought provoking memoir of J.D. Vance just one more time. I mean dag gone ya'll, give it a rest. Instead, I'm going to listen to you when you speak. I'm going to take your concerns deep within, and I'm going to ask the hard questions of my community that need to be asked. I'm going to try to encourage people who are working with the concrete things that can offer some relief in our dying coal towns every day. Those who are offering things we can touch. Things we can eat. Words that give hope instead of tear apart. I'm going to keep talking about opioid addiction for the very fact that it's damn unpleasant and it is another way the people here have been exploited for the sake of a dollar. I'm going to give prescription drug misuse a human story because I've lost a stepmother and numerous friends to it. I don't care what anyone thinks about focusing on solutions rather than problems. Our problems haven't been faced in any real way yet, and until we do that, we won't see solutions, we'll see bandages.
I am going to love on people as best as I can with the gifts I have. I will share the story of my people with those in these city bubbles who do give a hoot and want to listen because I know there are more reasonable folks than there are hypocrites. The thing that keeps me going in radio journalism is the thought that someone is listening who cares or who is willing to change their mind when presented new facts. The God's honest truth is that I don't know that journalism is where I can best serve my community. I'm giving it everything in me I have to give, but I question the tangibles. I am going to share yoga with my community to help heal the deep generational trauma we have experienced. I'm going to share spiritual insights that have helped me. I am going to try my best to be a mediator between you folks and my community. I'm going to try to heal broken relationships related to this ugly rhetoric. Relationships that on both sides we should have fought harder to maintain. I'm going to write ranting blogs like this one, fiction, and poetry. I'm going to love people instead of ideas. I'm going to consciously choose the middle road.
Kelli B. Haywood is the mother of three daughters living in the mountains of southeastern Kentucky. She is a writer, spiritual explorer, and avid yogini. Haywood is the Public Affairs Director for WMMT-Real People Radio in Whitesburg, Kentucky. Connect with her on Facebook @ Confluence Mama.
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