by Brandon Nida §
I find it somewhat difficult to think and write about central Appalachia without falling into the use of essentialisms and stereotypes. Even though I am from West Virginia it is hard to escape the traditional narratives, the mountain-folksy caricatures, the one-dimensional portrayals of Appalachian culture. Those essentialisms are not really the Appalachia that I know. In fact, I continue to have serious doubts whether ‘Appalachia’ is a real thing or not.
What I’ve experienced in growing up here, in completing my doctoral dissertation on the Battle of Blair Mountain, and in organizing against environmental issues regarding coal extraction, is a story that is much too complex to be captured within traditional frameworks. First there is a need to understand that the area within the central Appalachian Mountains does have distinct characteristics in comparison to the rest of the country. Some of these differences are important, but in their telling they have often been emphasized and devaluated past the point of absurdity. The stereotypes that have formed have helped to draw an obscuring veil over Appalachia.
These stereotypes are often what come to mind when issues such as Appalachian poverty are brought into the national discourse. Our minds automatically shift to the culture and to the people. Stories like the Hatfield and McCoys and the movie Deliverance help facilitate the portrayal of a degenerate Appalachian culture that through its own failures is responsible for its situation, and therefore needs to be saved from itself.
But instead of explanations of a degenerative culture, or even a noble one, the reality is that a brutal and exploitative system has been laid over central Appalachia. The extraction of ‘cheap’ Appalachian coal has been a cornerstone of American industrialism, providing the raw energy for utilities, foundries, and factories. In order to obtain ‘cheap’ energy, over time extraction costs have been externalized onto workers and surrounding communities. A monolithic industry gained control of West Virginian politics in the late 19th century, and ever since the mountain state has been caught in a cycle of poverty and dependence.
We have not been passive victims, though. For generations there have been many emancipatory struggles in the coalfields. I am reminded of this everyday in my own work. I live and work at the base of Blair Mountain in Logan County, West Virginia. This is where in 1921 ten thousand coalminers fought in the largest open class war in US history. I am part of a group of organizers who have established the Blair Community Center and Museum in the town of Blair. This is part of a multi-faceted activist and research campaign based on long-term grassroots organizing emanating from Blair.
The Battle of Blair Mountain itself lasted five days, and was a conflict where machine guns, airplanes, bombs and other apparatus of modern war were fully engaged. Striking coalmining families who had undergone a generation of brutal labor and living conditions in the southern coalfields of West Virginia fought a private army backed by coal operators. Federal troops were the only force that was able to stop the coalminers from overrunning the anti-union forces entrenched along the ridges of Blair Mountain.
While this was an extremely violent episode of class warfare, it was not due to any peculiarity of mountain culture. But ever since, the class warfare at the root of the American industrial system, has been obscured and explained away as resulting from a culture of violence. According to the Americanist narratives the United States is a class free society. Blair Mountain punctures that myth; it stands along with the workers’ struggles in Europe as upheavals against a dehumanizing and exploitative system. It was a basic struggle for human liberation — the same as has taken place all over the world.
Currently, an extreme form of coal extraction called mountaintop removal (MTR) threatens the Blair Mountain Battlefield, as well as the town of Blair. This is a process where whole communities are depopulated, and then mountains are deforested and blasted up to 1200 vertical feet for thousands of acres. The ‘overburden’ from this process is pushed into valleys, and the result is a flat moonscape of rock and rubble. Peer-reviewed scientific studies continue to be published about the health problems of living below an MTR site, such as rare cancers, birth defects, problems with the nervous system, and many other ailments.
What is happening to our mountains in Appalachia is tied to and emanates from the same struggles that the miners fought for at Blair Mountain in 1921. The specific modes of oppression may have changed, but the fundamental system of domination by a monolithic industry, of the merger of corporate and political spheres in the pursuance of economic goals, and the externalizing of suffering on to people, remain the same.
Blair is a convergence point, both historically and currently. Right now there are MTR permits closing in on four or five different sides. In the past decade, the town has been systematically depopulated, dropping from over 700 people to 44 today. One surface mine in the late 1990s destroyed the mountain ridges on one side of the town. Carcinogenic dust, constant house-rattling blasts, health problems, and everyday annoyances drove many people away. The people that remained did so for various reasons, and most are determined to stick it out.
A well-known surface mine permit that will seriously impact the community of Blair is the Spruce No. 1 operation. The Spruce permit sits right above the Blair Community Center and Museum, and it stretches the whole length of the town. It is the largest surface mine permit ever granted and would wipe out over two thousand acres. It has been a fiercely contested permit for over a decade now and is currently in the midst of a legal battle involving the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the National Mining Association, and the US Army Corps of Engineers. It has transformed into a national struggle over the basic power of the EPA, with conservatives wishing to drastically reduce the ability of the EPA to conduct regulatory oversight. This would affect the EPA’s ability to act on issues concerning climate change – problems that affect all of us at a global scale.
Part of our work at the Community Center and Museum is to challenge the MTR permits that will impact the battlefield and the community. We also conduct water monitoring for people in the community due to high levels of toxins such as selenium and manganese that have resulted from MTR mining. We have a full research program developed in conjunction with community members and researchers from multiple universities working on multi-disciplinary projects. In the midst of destruction, sometimes the most powerful challenge to power is to create and build.
The system of extraction that has been emplaced here for over 120 years is not so different than those in other places around the world — in the coalfields of Colombia, of Northern India, the coalmines of Northern China, the copper mines of Indonesia, uranium mines in Australia. Extraction in all these places creates not just environmental destruction but social destruction. It creates poverty and sickness; it rips the earth and it rips social fabric.
In the end, the human condition and the environment are not separate stories. Humans are inextricably imbedded in the environment, although some of us in very different ways. The study of human culture must absolutely involve the environment and our many-faceted relationships with it. It is just as much a part of humanity as our bodies, buildings, and achievements. Anthropology can shed light on our dynamic experience of the environment and hopefully work in the service of improving this vital part of our human condition.
Brandon Nida is currently finishing his dissertation at UC Berkeley on the archaeology of the Blair Mountain Battle. He is a core organizer with the Blair Mountain Heritage Alliance, which operates the Blair Community Center and Museum in Blair, West Virginia.