The Great Migration was marked by hundreds of thousands of African-Americans who moved north, and consequently, made significant contributions to the development of industrialization in the United States. This specific input from blacks is often diminished or lost in the broader discussion of the development of the United States as an industrial powerhouse. For example, in Coal: A Human History, Barbara Freese omits the contribution of African-Americans in her discussion of coal in the U.S., despite the fact that she mentions several other non-white groups of people who worked in the coal industry.
Race and class have traditionally been factors in environmental and labor issues, with a disproportionate number of illness and deaths occurring in lower-income areas as a result of exposure to pollutants and toxins. This history of race and class in America, and its’ coal-mining industry, is told in the contemporary poem “Black Diamonds” by Crystal Good, and in “The Congo: A Study of the Negro Race,” by Vachel Lindsay, written almost a century earlier.
As recently as 2010, in what’s known as “The Big Branch Mine Disaster,” 29 men died from an explosion in the Massey energy mine. African-American poet Crystal Good wrote about the tragedy as a tribute to the widows of the miners. In what became a very controversial poem, “Black Diamonds for Miss Sweet Jenny Lynch,” Good wrote the poem in rhythmic, song-like tradition of spoken word poetry, where she unapologetically describes the death of the miners as “industrial homicide.” The poem also appears to be unavailable in regular format (with black type on white background), and could only be found either performed live, or on a blackened broadside, with white text, in somewhat difficult to read handwriting. The document, completely soiled and smudged from coal soot, is difficult to read. Good forces the reader to struggle through the obscurity and darkness, and strain to see the light, or the truth of her words.
The controversy underlying the poem emerged from an incident in which a 16 year old West Virginian girl who wanted to recite the poem at a government function, was asked not to, due to the nature of the topic and the number of high-ranking officials from the local coal-industry who would be present in the audience. After news of the censorship went viral and public outrage ensued, officials changed their minds and decided to let her perform “Black Diamonds.” In Coal, Freese writes about the role of the media in institutionalized attempts to subdue the catastrophic and often fatal effects of coal-mining dating back to 1767. Accommodating the requests of the mine owners, newspapers in 18th century England, “avoided disturbing their readership by mentioning the ongoing deadly explosions for the next several decades” (51-52). Centuries later, similar attempts at censorship still exist.
Although it is unclear what percentage of miners in The Big Branch Mine Disaster were black, Crystal Good regards herself an environmental poet who “represents the African-American population in the Appalachian region” of the United States (You Tube). The repetition of “the pressure, the pressure, the pressure,” in her poem emphasizes the tension and often unspoken struggle between blacks and whites, and upper and lower working class. On her website, she includes a disclaimer “I am not anti-coal industry. I am for protecting human lives and our environmental landscape.”
Edwards, David. “West Virginia Official Tries to Censor Poem on ‘industrial Homicide’ of Coal Miners.” West Virginia Official Tries to Censor Poem on ‘industrial Homicide’ of Coal Miners. The Raw Story, 9 Mar. 2014. Web. 02 May 2014.
Good, Crystal. “Black Diamonds.” Crystal Good. Crystal Good, n.d. Web. 02 May 2014.
Hendryx, Michael. “Mortality Rates in Appalachian Coal Mining Counties: 24 Years Behind the Nation.” Environmental Justice 1.1 (2008): 5-11. Print.
Lenstra, Noah. “The African-American Mining Experience in Illinois from 1800 to 1920.” IDEALS @ Illinois:. University of Illinois, 2 Feb. 2009. Web. 02 May 2014. .
Lewis, Ronald L. “From Peasant to Proletarian: The Migration of Southern Blacks to the Central Appalachian Coalfields.” The Journal of Southern History 55.1 (1989): 77-102. JSTOR. Web. 02 May 2014.
Lindsay, Vachel. “The Congo: A Study of the Negro Race.” Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation, n.d. Web. 09 May 2014.
“Vachel Lindsay.” Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation, n.d. Web. 02 May 2014.