My maternal grandfather scissored his own father out of a wedding portrait: his mother stands smiling, aglow, and alone. Poppa was young when he cut the photograph, the eighth of ten children, too young to know that in West Virginia, dead and absent coal-miner fathers can’t be ignored. They live forever, whether you want them to or not.
West Virginia is conflict. Our history highlights wars such as the Battle of Blair Mountain and intense skirmishes such as the textbook controversy that rocked Kanawha County in the 1970s. My people fight hard. Gunshots, axe handles, knives, and balled fists take lives. Our cultural landscape is scarred. On a recent visit out of state, I heard myself trying to explain life in West Virginia, and what came out of my mouth was, “We are a culture of winners and losers.”
It was so obvious once I said it that I hardly knew how to start explaining. My dinner companions were confused by a way of life that routinely gives a benefit to some and a penalty to others. That someone or some group doesn’t always have to suffer is foreign to us. The country needs cheap electricity, so some families are just going to have heavy metals in their drinking water. It’s too expensive to delay coal production, so from time to time equipment will break and fatalities will occur. Communities thriving in other parts of the universe have either never accepted this dynamic or have so solidly rejected it that hearing it is still real is like hearing that dragons exist. It’s not out of the realm of possibilities, but one is still surprised to learn about it.
We don’t resolve things in Appalachia. We allow our wounds to become scars. When I look at mountaintop removal, or mine deaths, or cancer rates, I wonder where the line is when people stop trying to get well and resign themselves to cataloguing marks on their skin. Our life has beautiful moments, and they are often good enough to disguise the oppression. Maybe we are good enough to ignore it in favor of what we love. We are tied to the land, to the creeks, to the sky, to hills. We are bound by a birthright and burdened by a collective pain. I imagine my great-grandfather was like most of us, that he held a conviction that the land around him was worth fighting for, that anyone who would endanger hills and streams and air would be defeated. What none of us know at first is that our place is a commodity, and that our loyalty means a lifetime of loss.
Breece D’J Pancake once wrote this to his mother from Charlottesville, Virginia:
We all leave pieces of our hearts in West Virginia when we go. Looking for them is foolish, irresistible, dangerous. My family on both sides is made up of generations of Appalachian people, but we are in other mountains now. We will pray and dream. We will remember the dead; but going forward we will live in the light.