A few years ago, I posted this meme on Facebook. It came after I had a few family members tell me “Coal is what raised you!” It was a phrase I’d also heard from the angry wives of coal miners in their comments to some of my earliest posts. It got me to thinking about my childhood, and the many things that did “raise me.”
I know it was the love of my parents, and the selflessness they showed me and my brother, that really “raised me.” It was the mornings spent in the garden picking beans with my mom as dad slept in a bedroom darkened by plastic garbage bags, having had to work the hootowl (3rd shift) the night before. It was driving to the strike shacks during the ’89 strike against Pittston Coal to support the miners there, and singing the songs at strike rallies with mom while dad was off talking to others. It was learning how true, honest to God coal miners, sacrificed their paychecks to get the pensioners health benefits restored.
It was the way my mom taught us work ethic, but would also pack our school backpacks full of crackers, Vienna sausages, and the little bottles of water dad brought home in his work bucket from the mines, then turn us loose into the woods where we’d spend the day discovering new places or building “bases” with our cousins. It was all those times dad would stop on his way home from the mines and pick us up little things, all to see how tickled we’d be when he got home, and the time he’d spend with us rough housing on the living room floor. It was the many evenings after school we’d spend at the public library with mom when dad was working evening shifts. It was helping mom and dad dig the family ginseng patch, and learning about yellow root and blood root, all so we could have a Christmas following the massive layoffs in the early 90s. It was watching my dad tear up as a man refused his $20 bill for tilling our garden one spring, because the man knew dad was laid off.
Sure, dad worked in the coal mines, and by trade he was a coal miner, but it wasn’t coal that raised us. That was just what paid the bills. If we’d lived in Michigan and dad and mom worked in the automotive industry, I guess people would try to say that cars raised us. If we lived in the rust belt, they’d say that steel was what raised us.
Industries want us to have pride in our work, but in truth, it is their work we’re doing. They use our labor to make profits, doing jobs they wouldn’t do themselves, all while getting the lion’s share of the benefits. If we’re lucky, we survive with a few comforts and conveniences, and have just enough left over to live until our bodies finally give out.
I know that dad was proud to be a coal miner, as were my grandfathers and great grandfathers. It got in their blood. But if you strip away the profession, they were just proud to sacrifice for their families and neighbors, and proud to be thought of by their peers as good, hard working, selfless people. In truth, they were, and still are, Appalachians—not coal miners.
They were farmers, woodsmen, craftsmen, carpenters, blacksmiths, mule team drivers. Coal mining is just what everyone had to do because powerful industries, along with their land agents and corrupt politicians, forced us all into mining coal a century ago. If we were really coal miners, we would have turned them away, put down our farm implements, and slowly found ways to dig all that coal ourselves. Then we would have all the profits and we wouldn’t be one of the most economically depressed areas in the nation. We’d be as rich as the middle east. After all, Appalachia has been considered the “Saudi Arabia of coal.”
If coal did do anything to raise me, it raised me to understand how greedy and selfish people can be. It taught me the difference between right and wrong while reinforcing the values Appalachian people held to for so long—love thy neighbor and do unto others as you would have them do unto you. No, coal didn’t raise me. The goodness of people’s hearts is what raised me.