Review: Robert Gipe on Chris Hamby‘s “Soul Full of Coal Dust”

How does one tell the story of a place not one’s own in a way that honors the lived experience of its inhabitants? Here in the coalfields of Appalachia, we have myriad important tellings of our own story. Newspapers like The Mountain Eagle; journalists-turned-author like Sharon Hatfield; scholars like Jessica Wilkerson and Karida L. Brown; poets like Savannah Sipple and Diane Gilliam; fiction writers like Crystal Wilkinson, Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle, and Ann Pancake; filmmakers like Ashley York and those at the multi-media group Appalshop have depicted many truths about this place.

Visitors coming from elsewhere to describe what goes on here have been more of a mixed bag. While legions of reporters have arrived in too great a hurry and with too many preconceived notions to see either what is wonderful or what is in need of redress in Appalachia, a few journalists have stayed long enough to do work grounded in our lived reality—I’m thinking of Beth Macy’s Dopesick and Trevor Armbrister’s Act of Vengeance, books that find in Appalachians’ experience reverberations of forces at work in the larger world rather than an aberration from some ill-considered “norm.” Now we can add to that journalistic honor roll Chris Hamby’s Soul Full of Coal Dust.

Soul Full of Coal Dust: A Fight for Breath and Justice in Appalachia is based on Hamby’s Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting on the resurgence of black lung disease, also known as coal worker’s pneumoconiosis, a crippling and fatal disease caused by breathing coal dust. After Congress passed legislation in 1968 instituting a system for controlling airborne dust in and around coal mines and for paying benefits to miners who contract black lung, it came as a shock to many when investigation into the 2010 Upper Big Branch mine disaster revealed that black lung had not been vanquished but was in fact on the rise. The coal-dust explosion at Upper Big Branch, brought about in part by company failure to abide by mine ventilation rules, caused the death of twenty-nine West Virginia coal miners. While documenting how companies like Massey Energy, owner of the Upper Big Branch mine, flout rules protecting workers, Soul Full of Coal Dust also documents the perseverance of miners and their advocates in seeking fair treatment from a system stacked against them.

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At the center of Hamby’s book is John Cline, who came to West Virginia from New York in the 1960s as an advocate and ended up going to law school in order to represent miners in black lung benefit cases. Following Cline and his clients, particularly miner Gary Fox, a mining veteran of thirty years who was finally forced to retire because he could no longer breathe, Hamby ably describes the white settlement of the Southern Appalachians; the establishment of the coal industry; the dusty, dangerous work of coal mining; the miners’ organization into a union; and how that union came to betray the interest of its members. In the late 1960s rank-and-file miners organized a rebellion within their own union, a rebellion whose spearpoint was the miners’ fight for black lung legislation. In the ensuing years, though, the coal companies eluded the landmark regulations that resulted from the uprising, allowing black lung to spread among workers and shielding that spread from scrutiny.

Hamby traces how Cline and the small, tight-knit community of miners’ advocates developed a series of cases—cases few lawyers would touch because of the coal companies’ formidable legal defenses and the slim prospects for victory—that exposed how black lung benefit decisions had come to be controlled at every stage by the companies. We follow Cline and his companions as dust-sampling scandals confirmed companies’ rigging of mandated air-quality controls; as bosses, lawyers, and doctors routinely passed off on and defended findings that miners have not been provably harmed; as efforts at legislative remedies were stamped down. Among the enablers we meet Paul Wheeler, former director of a pneumoconiosis unit at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, who became the industry’s most reliable x-ray and CT scan evaluator, failing to find evidence of black lung even in the x-rays used to define black lung. Hopkins’ Black Lung program was closed without explanation following Hamby’s original coverage of Cline’s work in 2013. Cline’s casework recorded company lawyers parlaying the prestige of Hopkins’s company-funded findings into suppression of medical reports favoring the miners, and Hamby describes the premature death and financial struggles of thousands of coal miners whose benefits were consequently delayed or denied.

Soul Full of Coal Dust has the legal drama of Grisham, the rigor of top-flight investigative journalism, and the emotional complexity of the most powerful novels. In a world crowded with drive-through hot takes and politically expedient caricatures, Hamby’s patient telling of the stories of John Cline, Gary Fox, and the rest of the people inside and outside of Appalachia working for justice results in a book of great use to all readers genuinely interested in learning how this country works and what has to be done to make it work better. Journalists like Chris Hamby will always be welcome here, at least by the likes of this reviewer.

Robert Gipe is a writer and arts organizer living in Harlan County, Kentucky.

Book Notes
The biggest splash made by a poem that I can remember certainly has been Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman’s “The Hill We Climb,” the inaugural poem she delivered under a crystalline sky on the Capitol steps on Tuesday at the swearing in of President Joseph Biden. (The available texts are all transcriptions; to read the poem with the correct lineation you’ll have to go to the book unless you have a copy of Thursday’s New York Times.) Poems are not a regular feature of inaugurations; the whole list of American inaugural poets is short: Robert Frost (pioneering the genre for JFK’s 1961 inaugural), Maya Angelou, Miller Williams, Elizabeth Alexander, and Richard Blanco. Frost famously read his beautiful if now historically fraught poem “The Gift Outright” from memory when he had trouble wrangling his made-to-order poem in a high wind. (Hat tip in Gorman: “The dawn is ours before we knew it,” for Frost: “The land was ours before we were the land’s.”) Gorman was chosen for the job after Jill Biden heard her read at the Library of Congress. I heard her read, too, at the Harvard’s Woodbury Poetry Room in February, just before the lockdown, where she cut a commanding figure with an erasure poem drawn from Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia. We also participated together in a really fun program at Harvard’s Houghton Library in December for Emily Dickinson’s birthday that Zoomed in a surprisingly huge and eclectic throng of Dickinson enthusiasts from around the globe to eat a spice cake prepared from an archival recipe and read Dickinson’s poems. She’s one of those people who suddenly seem everywhere.

The poem Gorman brought us yesterday drew on considerable oral magic both in its construction and its delivery. With a density of wordplay and internal rhyming recalling both Dickinson and more contemporary forms of music-making pioneered by African Americans, and lines that shrunk up and unfurled like ancient accentual forms, it held its audience rapt the old-fashioned way. Her incantatory recitation, drawing out the rhyming syllables and almost conducting them with delicate movements of her hands, knit the whole experience together. Lin Manuel Miranda complimented her on her Hamilton allusions and declared the poem “perfectly written, perfectly delivered. Every bit of it.” I wondered if her measured recitation and gestures had some origins in the childhood speech impediment she is said to have overcome.

Gorman came to us as the nation’s inaugural “Youth Poet Laureate,” a position she earned in college after having been named Los Angeles Youth Poet Laureate at sixteen. The Youth Poet Laureate program had its origins in a New York City literacy project called Urban Word, growing since its 2008 inception to serve forty-three cities by identifying upcoming writers who are committed to artistic excellence, civic engagement and social justice.” Recently young writers, especially writers of color, have been making the most of opportunities to bring the writing life before the eyes of the potential scribes of the future. As the Library of Congress’s National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, poet and children’s book author Jason Reynolds has been showing up in the Zoom rooms of middle and high school students across the country, soliciting especially underserved and remote classrooms to participate in his “Grab the Mic: Tell Your Story” program. (Last month Reynolds bought up his own books from Washington, DC, bookstores to give them away free for Giving Tuesday, supporting at a stroke both bookstores and readers.) The National Book Foundation, until recently headed by Lisa Lucas, sends winners of the National Book Awards and its 5 under 35 award out across the land as ambassadors for writing and reading.

A year ago the Mellon Foundation, under the leadership of Gorman’s fellow inaugural poet Elizabeth Alexander, announced a $4.5 million program to fund the nation’s (adult) poets laureate around the country. Alexander spoke of the ability of city and state poet-laureate programs to nurture local talent and poetry’s connections to everday life. Luis Rodriguez, who served as the grown-up Los Angeles Poet Laureate alongside Gorman, estimated in a recent memoir (featured by us), that as poet laureate he spoke directly to more than twenty-five thousand people, and millions more via broadcast and internet, visiting libraries, prisons, festivals, schools. He said of his fellow laureate Gorman in 2017, “Don’t doubt she’s going to be a major literary figure in this country, if not the world.” You may not know you know who your poet laureate is (are), but they are at work all around you, finding “a skinny black girl, / descended from slaves and a single mother” who “can dream of becoming president, / only to find herself reciting for one,” and handing that girl a mic.

Gorman’s book for young readers and a collection of her poems will be published in September, and a stand-alone version of “The Hill We Climb” will be out sometime this year. Thirteen-year-old Brayden Harrington, meanwhile, who appeared reading Kennedy’s famous passage, “ask not what you can do for your country” during the televised inauguration celebrations after his speech about bonding with Biden over their shared experience overcoming a stutterer from the Democratic convention went viral, will publish a children’s book in August and a middle-grade novel next year. As Gorman put it, and these two who overcome literal obstacles to expression show, quiet isn’t always peace.

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