Paul Corbit Brown: Rapt in Red, White and Blue - The Enthrallment of Appalachia

Image from the Facebook page for Mari-lynn Evans and Jordan Freeman's Blood on the Mountain. (I've asked for an attribution.)  Photographer Paul Corbit Brown wrote the following essay on August 7, in response to an August 4 story by Marcus Constantino in the Charleston Daily Mail, "Dirt airstrip in Logan tailor made for training Guardsmen for war." Alpha Natural Resources   has "reclaimed" a mountaintop removal site in Logan County WV by letting the Air National Guard use it as a  a 3500 foot  "unimproved, or unpaved runway" when pilots could earn their landing certifications. Alpha acquired Don Blackenship's Massey Energy in 2011 following the Upper Big Branch  mine disaster in Montcoal.


Wrapping it in red, white and blue doesn’t change its color-coal will always be black. Likewise, Patriotism isn’t simply an idea wrapped in red, white and blue. Patriotism, is not sacrificing a poor segment of our citizenry for the comfort and ease of the rest of the country. Patriotism is not the construction of a military complex on an MTR site. More than 500 mountains have been leveled by mining. Are we really to believe the only suitable location for an airstrip is the one that strips us of our history, our culture and our contributions to humanity in order to profit a handful of individuals?

Our heritage is not so much what we did, but how we did it. It wasn’t that we were coal miners as much as we were hard workers. It wouldn’t have mattered what the industry was, all that really mattered was that we were loving and we took care of our own, that we were compassionate and always lent a helping hand, that we were resilient, that we were, and still are, survivors.

The workers who mined these mountains all those years ago could have just as readily been ranchers or sawyers or stone masons. The job title was merely a byproduct of our environment. Most folks mined coal simply because they needed a job. I have met countless folks who feel the same today, “Give me another job and I’ll crawl straight out of that black hole and never look back,” they say. I know many who have done so.

It’s disingenuous to question our integrity, given our true character and heritage, if we now understand that mining is killing us far more than it supposedly helps us. There is no altruism in "giving" us mining jobs. We don’t accept them because we have a need to live in the past, we simply want to live.

The coal industry doesn’t exist as a mechanism to make jobs, it exists to create a profit. It makes this profit largely by externalizing its costs. The primary cost being the detriments to the health of the workers as well as those who live in the communities where coal is mined, processed, and/or burned. The secondary cost being the toll put on the environment which amounts to robbing subsequent generations.

When the true history of West Virginia is finally written, it's pages will be printed in blood. It will be the blood of the men and women who took up arms and laid down their lives at the battle of Blair Mountain. It will be the blood of the many lives that were carelessly taken by the lawless and money-grubbing attitudes of coal operators like Don Blankenship. It will be the blood of the children born with birth defects as a result the toxins in our water. It will be the blood of the 4000 people who die early deaths every year as a result of the poisons the extraction industries pump into our communities. That same blood is already upon the hands of the politicians who uphold these processes and who continue to ignore our pleas for help. Make no mistake, the day has already arrived in West Virginia, there is no clean water to wash that blood from their filthy hands.

True patriotism, as it concerns our nation’s need for energy, would be for each and every citizen to roll up their sleeves and dramatically conserve energy while working to create energy sources and economies with liberty and justice for all. That’s the way a nation at war becomes victorious. And we are at war. It is not a war on coal, nor is it a war on terrorism. We are at war with ourselves and our horribly skewed sense of what it means to be a great People and we are at war with a terribly flawed idea of what freedom really is. We do not own freedom through the enslavement of others. We do not bask in freedom by surrendering to fear and giving up the personal liberties that our forebears paid for in blood- blood that is ironically symbolized by the red stripes on the American flag. We have confused the toll of funeral bells for the ringing of freedom. We do not let freedom ring for all with the knell of funeral bells for Appalachia, her people, her waters or her air. In Appalachia, Patriotism and Profit couldn’t be any more diametrically opposed. Appallingly, the two are very often misconstrued as one-and-the-same, and as the Truth.

Paul Corbit Brown
Keeper of The Mountains Foundation

Photo by Bob Wojcieszak for the Daily Mail.