There are many kinds of coal—peat, lignite, torbanite, anthracite—but my family comes from bituminous country. On the way across Pennsylvania every summer, we would stop in Centralia, where the underground coal mines have been on fire since 1962. The state bulldozed evacuated houses and abandoned stores to soften the impression of a ghost town, but some days you can still see the ground smoking. They say there is enough coal to burn another 250 years. Many streams throughout Pennsylvania are toxic with mining runoff and overtaken by the bright metallic slime that people call “Yellow Boy,” so named because the colors of its acids evoke a particular brass-plated model of Winchester rifle.
My dad’s grandfather was among the itinerant Slovene miners who dug coal in a scraped-out drift mine without a company, just dynamite and a mule. He died of black lung; the only words of his passed down to us were follow the seam. Oil and gas are often found near coal seams, but earlier extractors hadn’t known what to do with these substances, or with the Seneca infrastructures assembled along the creek to collect oil bubbling to the surface. In 1859, a train conductor used coal-powered engines to drill the world’s first oil well in Titusville, along the edges of the county where my father was later born. The railroad followed immediately, part of an assemblage of kindred industries that came to characterize this region—to move the oil, you needed a railroad (like the one my grandfather worked on), but that requires steel (from the mills where my grandmother worked), and steel requires even more coal. A few towns in western Pennsylvania were already using natural gas by the late 1800s, prefiguring the regional fracking boom to come (see Willow and Wiley 2014).
I find myself going back to these family carbon legacies in the wake of the election. At least in part, it’s because many analysts are turning to my home state for clues about Trumpism by analyzing “the two Pennsylvanias” that my family and I supposedly grew up moving between. Yet journalistic reportage often skims across the surface of certain tangles—theorizing in global terms about nativism, without digging into more uneasy regional histories of placemaking (see Phillips 2016; Sharpe 2016; Walley 2013). For example, media outlets from the Washington Post to Politico to Bloomberg all ran election stories about Johnstown (where my mom’s mother grew up in a Polish coal-mining family) to report on the town’s struggling coal and manufacturing sectors. In addition to highlighting economic hardships, these articles all referenced the town’s infamous 1889 flood. Yet none mentioned a more recent piece of history, which seems just as important for understanding how Johnstown’s iconic white working class became so white: in 1923, its 1,600 black residents were all driven out of town.
I don’t know what role my family played, but they lived there then.
Leading up to this expulsion, coal and steel companies in Pennsylvania had devised a strategy to undermine the tenuous solidarity among incipient unions (which then were largely composed of recent immigrants from Europe): whenever unions began to gain traction in demanding less oppressive conditions, the companies would specifically recruit black miners from the South to come and break their strikes (Sherman 1963; see also Brown, Murphy, and Porcelli 2016). At its ugliest, several hundred strangers confronted each other with racial slurs and mining tools, while the company’s private police kept guns trained on them all. This violent strategy of pitting people against each other for low-level jobs and profit went on for decades, tense divisions carefully stoked by those in power and accompanied by absences and horrors often underrecognized in history books: murdered “blacklegs” were found in coal piles, and rural Pennsylvania became an unlikely stronghold of the Ku Klux Klan.
The name for an exposed seam of coal is its face, but such surfaces are suspect. No one will see the end of coal. There is still enough underground that if we continue to rely on coal for a majority of our world's electricity, human life on earth will be poisoned and killed off by atmospheric warming long before coal supplies run out. The United States contains more coal than any other country, meaning everyone in the world has to deal with how we regulate it (or do not). Its health effects are compounding and disproportionate. Coal’s material history is also inseparable, now, from the oil and natural gas markets and petrochemical industries it helped bring into being.
The last time I was in western Pennsylvania, the local bar was filled with fracking guys from out of town. They called their work “shale play,” proudly showing off broken fingers and twisted knuckles from laying pipe below a winter stream. One man drew on a napkin the tattoo he was planning to get across his shoulders, a skull with gas pipes instead of crossbones. It looked like the poison symbol on a bottle of chemicals, but whatever the lines carry or leak will not be labeled. After the workers move on, the pipelines left behind will run liquid to distant refineries or leave waste water to be injected in ground wells, with toxic traces most likely to impact communities of color segregated from my own. “What does the skull mean?” I asked when he handed me the sketch. He just laughed, because obviously the answer was danger. But what I didn’t know how to ask was for whom (see Murphy 2013)?
My dad used to take us swimming at the beach on Lake Erie. Back then, I wasn’t aware that it was a Superfund site. He said that whenever they used to drive up there for fun in the 1960s, everyone knew to expect twenty or thirty feet of dead fish choking the coastline, bobbing layers along the shore as far as the eye could see. I remember giggling at the terror of this mental image as a child. At the time, I used to think that what frightened me were the ominous fish. Now it is the depths of collective denial that must already be in effect for families like mine to cheerfully, knowingly travel hours to such a portending landscape with plans for a picnic.
Brown, Karida L., Michael W. Murphy, and Apollonya M. Porcelli. 2016. “Ruin’s Progeny: Race, Environment, and Appalachia’s Coal Camp Blacks.” Du Bois Review 13, no. 2: 327–44.
Murphy, Michelle. 2013. “Distributed Reproduction, Chemical Violence, and Latency.” Scholar and Feminist Online 11, no. 3.
Phillips, Patrick. 2016. Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing. New York: W. W. Norton.
Sharpe, Christina. 2016. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Sherman, Richard B. 1963. “Johnstown v. the Negro: Southern Migrants and the Exodus of 1923.” Pennsylvania History 30, no. 4: 454–64.
Walley, Christine J. 2013. Exit Zero: Family and Class in Postindustrial Chicago. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Willow, Anna, and Sara Wylie, eds. 2014. “Politics, Ecology, and the New Anthropology of Energy.” Special section, Journal of Political Ecology 21: 222–348.