If only it would rise again.
By Jeff Sharlet
(The Revealer has been wobbly of late while I’ve been attending to other duties, but the spring crunch is almost past. The Revealer should return to regular form within a week or so. In the meantime, I’m posting a short riff from the latest edition of Oxford American, the annual Southern movie issue. It’s not quite a religion story, but it’s almost supernatural. Check out the rest of Oxford American‘s Southern film issue, or, better yet, go down to the newsstand and buy a copy with a DVD of rare and amazing clips.)
To start with, let’s get at least one thing straight: Harlan County, Kentucky, the location of Barbara Kopple’s 1976 documentary Harlan County, U.S.A., isn’t really the South, is it? They talk Southern and they’re red state, if you believe in that kind of color-coding, but I don’t and I also don’t think that the way you bend and drag your vowels defines the country you come from.
I’ve driven through Harlan a few times and half of my family has lived for eight or nine generations not too many miles south of there, but I sure don’t come from Harlan County. So I’m a little out of my jurisdiction in declaring on its regional identity. All the same, I’m positive that they’re not Southern. I’m not talking about the fact Harlan County went Union a hundred and ten years before the union fight documented in the film. What I mean is that Harlan County isn’t South or North or part of any other big bloc of states ruled by civilized crooks in big cities, Southern or Northern. It’s Appalachian. But that doesn’t quite get at it, either. It’s mountain. And that’s still too vague. I don’t know if there really is a name for the kind of country that the Harlan of Kopple’s movie is. I do know this, though: It’s a lost land, a place that doesn’t exist anymore. A coal country Atlantis. Harlan County, U.S.A. is a ghost story.
What happens in the movie is this: The men of the Brookside Mine in Harlan go on strike because the Duke Power Company refuses to recognize their right to join the United Mine Workers of America. One of the issues is water. A lot of the miners don’t have it. I don’t mean down in the mines, I mean in their company housing. It’s leprous shackery, most of it, bitter boxes that look to be badly made of pine, family-sized coffins rattling with black lung. That is, if the family patriarch should survive long enough to come up from underground and die slow and awful of coal miner’s disease.
Nine months into the strike, a bunch of miners go up to Wall Street to pass out fliers. There are not many takers. The pinstripes, it seems, can’t even see the miners, though you can’t really blame them. Most of the men are rail-thin, gray cadavers, too polite to push their pamphlets across the divide. Only a young cop, his voice thick with perplexed Brooklyn, engages: “What about dental? You got dental?”
A miner who, until this conversation, thought that at least the compensation he received for working one of the most dangerous jobs in America was decent, says no, he does not have dental.
“A lot of people,” he continues, “don’t understand that that electricity burning over there”—a sweeping gesture that takes in the whole city, shiny and modern, one giant black lung, really—“there’s a man dying every day for that. There’s one man that dies every day.”
I don’t know the miner’s name. None of the miners in Harlan County, U.S.A. have names. It’s not that Kopple’s trying for a collective character, “the union” en masse; it’s that her camera is too close, too much part of the fighting, to pluck out individual souls from among the miners. It’s only those who are at a distance — the surface dwellers — who get ID tags flashing across the screen to make them official. The company men have names, the organizers have names. And we know who Florence Reece is, the woman who wrote “Which Side Are You On?” in the “Bloody Harlan” battles of the 1930s and who shows up at a rally to sing it one more time for the miners two generations removed from its inception, for them and for her father, dead of black lung, for her husband, dying of black lung. Her voice wobbling like it’s about to fall down, her face shrunken like an old apple, her eyes behind her big goggle glasses like little explosions: She’s weak and tired, but she’s as angry as she was forty years ago. Angrier; forty years ago! Why must this song chase her to the grave?
They say in Harlan County
There are no neutrals there
You’ll either be a union man
Or a thug for J.H. Blair
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?
There are gun thugs in Harlan County, U.S.A., in particular a mean, squinty-eyed, jackal named Basil Collins, his pistol sticking out of his Dickies like a goofy cap gun. It’s hard to take Basil seriously until he’s shooting. At Kopple, among others. When she made this movie, Kopple was one of the bravest filmmakers working. Harlan wasn’t a war zone, but by the time one of the mine wives tucks her own pistol into her giant bosom and announces, “By god, you fight fire with fire!” it’s something a little worse, a piece of America walled-off or carved out of the rest of the world. Pretty soon all the guns are out, in broad daylight, and no help is coming, not for the union men (and union women; there never were more fearless soldiers than these mine wives), and not for the gun thugs, either. This isn’t a Southern story, it’s a bunch of cussing, shooting, old, creaky singing-shadows in Plato’s cave.
A little while ago I was in Southwest Virginia at a political meeting. There are less than a handful of unionized mines left in Virginia, and this wasn’t technically a union meeting, but when the man at the front of the room asked for this committee or that one to stand and be recognized, it was miners who rose, every time. How could I tell? Their United Mine Workers camouflage, real jungle camo emblazed with slogans like GOD, GUNS, GUTS, AND SOLIDARITY. These boys had uniforms! They were ready to fight!
Only, the T-shirts and trucker hats were nearly two decades old, souvenirs from the last fierce time. The Pittston Strike of 1989. It rippled cross the country — I remember running into a camouflaged crew in Southern Illinois that’d just set a fox they said was rabid on its way down into a mine full of scabs—but I never was able to figure out who won. I don’t think they got dental.
At that meeting in Virginia, I met one of the leaders of the Pittston Strike, an enormous man whose real name was Jackie Stump. Mr. Stump, I said, I keep hearing about miners getting killed but I don’t hear much about the union. I know which side I’m on, but I can’t find it. Where’s the union?
Jackie Stump says: There may not be a real fighting union again in his lifetime. His bet? Someday, years from now there’ll be a bunch of miners who never even heard of a union, and they’ll in vent one. The union will rise again!
That’s what I call a ghost story. I hope it’s a true one.
Jeff Sharlet is the author of Jesus Plus Nothing: How American Fundamentalism’s Power Elites Shaped the Faith of a Nation and the Politics of an Empire, forthcoming from HarperCollins.
Purchase a copy of Harlan County, U.S.A. here.