For almost 30 years, my late friend Claudius Miller edited the New Harmony Journal, a quarterly newsletter for those whose spirituality exceeded their patience with religious structure and bureaucracy. Claudius had been the pastor of a major establishment church in St. Louis at the beginning of the 1980s when he underwent a profound spiritual transformation that lead him and his wife Sally to Chapel Hill and writing.
Claudius never forgot our anniversary, including a dollar coin with each annual note sent by the USPS although they lived just down the road until 2004. He asked that I revise my May 2008 response, concerning our first nine months in coal country, for publication in the New Harmony Journal.
May 27, 2008
Thanks once again for remembering the anniversary of our nuptials and for your query concerning the Commonwealth of Kentucky’s support for Senator Obama relative to North Carolina’s vital affirmation of his electability. As I warned a year ago, we have relocated to the central Appalachian coalfields in Letcher County, KY to serve as Director of Appalshop, the 39 year old non-profit media arts and education center. We are renting a modern, passive solar heated home at about 1600 ft above sea level with a glorious view of a 120 mile long, 3000 foot ridge called Pine Mountain. We’re renting 4 flat acres created by strip mining in the 1970s and 21 acres of steep mountainside climbing to 1800 feet. The strip mining uncovered cross shafts from the deep mining here in the 1940s. One neighbor is a coal miner, the other an attorney. We’re about 200 feet above the hollow of Cram Creek which flows into the Kentucky River less than a mile away.
This Obama challenge is not new to me. I watched the North Carolina primary returns in Nebraska City, NE at the Arbor Day Foundation bar during a Kellogg Foundation Rural People, Rural Policy Conference. Knowing full well that I am a North Carolina ex-pat, John Herrara from Durham’s Self-Help Credit Union immediately inquired whether the Commonwealth could rally with the Tar Heel State behind the Senator from Illinois.
As I told John, and later you, Kentucky could not rise to the challenge, despite the preponderance of the population in Louisville, Lexington, and greater Cincinnati. We did have two counties, the homes of those first two cities, to vote for Obama. Two more counties than West Virginia, which raised the spectre of the mainstream media mocking us as happened the prior week – “I just thought our president should be a full-blooded American.”
It was crushing here in southeastern Kentucky, leaving me rather chastened driving to accept a preservation award for Appalshop in the state capitol the next day. In Mayking precinct, Becky and I joined 16 other democrats in voting for Obama as opposed to 320 for the Senator from New York. Throughout mountainous eastern Kentucky, less than ten percent of the democrats turned out for Barack, and John Edwards often trailed him by only a handful of votes.
The Kentucky situation is more complicated than just black and white. This is the Bill Clinton South. He remains spectacularly popular in these hollows and campaigned here, as did Senator Clinton. Hardly anyone around these parts is still angry that Bill Clinton gutted the NEA with a devastating effect on arts organizations and experimental theater. Obama nearly avoided Kentucky altogether. The natural Obama supporters here were already drawn strongly to Edwards’ populism and saw his July visit before they even heard of the Illinois senator. Despite Obama’s calculated moderate position on coal (Illinois is a coal producing state, so he knows the nuances), Senator Clinton benefited from the appearance of being more “pro-coal” than her opponent.
Few jobs with decent pay exist outside the mines. You mine or you leave. People, therefore, look out for their immediate self-interest and defend their employers’ interests. Like the post-Goldwater GOP, the mining companies have dominated the language. Rather than a productive dialogue concerning the road ahead, the debate has become an emotion laden either for coal or against coal dichotomy. Too much passion exists on both sides and too little rational negotiation. Mining has poisoned the water and ruined the aquifers for who knows how many decades to come, but is also an essential resource. The current debate here on (and in) the ground, however, does not permit one to be in favor of mining as long as stringent regulations are in place. Nor can one be pro-miner and anti-coal operator anymore. That is a shocking turnaround given that 10,000 armed miners attacked the coal operators and their allies at the Battle of Blair Mountain only 88 years ago. There exists a simple reason for this. Central Appalachian coal is more expensive to mine that coal from other sources, especially the mountain west. This area has dropped from 40% of the US market at century’s turn to just 25% in less than a decade.
Still, race did matter. West Virginia and eastern Kentucky, however, hardly have a duopoly on racism, even if portrayed as mere religious bigotry. Appalshop’s Appalachian Media Institute teaches civic leadership to area youth ages 14 to 19 through media making. AMI alumna Ada Smith addressed the primary race issue directly in a commentary aired May 21st on NPR’s “All Things Considered.” “We may be scared to admit,” said the 21-year old, “that more Americans than just Appalachians have a race problem. Instead of questioning how we’re going to deal with racism as a country, it’s easier to make Appalachia the scapegoat.” She further stated that this stereotyping distracts from her home’s “real problems” – poverty, environmental damage, prescription drug abuse, poor health care, and access to education. A link to her commentary can be found at www.appalshop.org/ami/issues.htm.
What central Appalachia lacks – in contrast to North Carolina – are any African-American voters to counteract the 1/5 who admit to being swayed by race and all those not so honest. Letcher County, like its neighbors, consists of 99% European Americans. It was not always so. Ten of thousands of blacks once worked in central Appalachia, mining, timbering, and building railroads. The effects of global energy prices shape life in these coalfields. Post-1950 decreases in coal prices combined with rapidly diminishing labor needs brought by mechanization and surface mining induced more than half the population of Letcher and adjacent counties to leave. The population of Letcher County has fallen from 50,000 in 1950 to 20,000 now. Especially between 1950 and 1970, central Appalachian coal field ex pats crowded US 23, the “Hillbilly Highway” that carried them toward industrial jobs in Cincinnati, Columbus, Chicago, Flint, Dearborn, Gary, and Toledo. African-Americans proved so disproportionally well represented among the emigrants that an annual convention of such folks continues to flourish. The few who remain in eastern KY face unusual challenges. A young woman from nearby was rejected as “too hillbilly” to be a hip-hop and rap air personality by the station in Indianapolis to which she applied post-college.
But we were talking about November. Folks, including not a few in enlightened North Carolina, have latched on to a convenient confusion about his faith – I say “convenient” since the same ones also bash Rev. Wright, tacitly admitting they know Obama is Christian. Thus they can say the “M-word” rather the “N-word.” I do greatly fear that the racists could win out once again. If so, I hope that Obama will be the anti-Goldwater, reversing the dominant language and just as the Arizonan did while getting walloped by LBJ in 1964. The Democrats have triumphed but thrice since then with “liberal” a bad word. The left has to take the long view and reclaim the political language regardless of November’s results. In the long run, that will prove a far more productive strategy than continuing to move the Democratic Party to the right.
Oh, our state senator, guilty of buying votes, won in the democrat primary, and that was a very good thing, given the choice.
Meanwhile, Appalshop fascinates and challenges me with the wonders of true self-government. Even the board consists of employees and former employees, so objectivity can be hard to find. I am trying to pull together a vision to reinvent Appalshop for its next forty years, but this requires maneuvering a battleship in the Kentucky River. Yet the artists and cultural organizers here have continued to raise money and produce outstanding work in Appalachian-based film, traditional music, theater, media justice, youth media training, and radio.
Becky has found great joy in hosting a weekly “First Generation Bluegrass” show on Appalshop’s community radio station, WMMT. I also deejay on a traditional music program about once every three weeks. Becky is employed in several part-time jobs including city horticulturalist and photo stringer for the local newspaper, the Mountain Eagle.
Sincerely wishing you all the best,