February 23, 2011


Alessandro Portelli, They Say in Harlan County: An Oral History (Oxford & New York: Oxford U. Press, 2011) (From the bookjacket: "They Say in Harlan County is not a book about coal miners so much as a dialogue in which more than 150 Harlan County women and men tell the story of Harlan County from pioneer times, through the dramatic strikes of the 1930s and '70s, to the present. Alessandro Portelli . . . draws on 25 years of original interviews to take readers into mining communities and inside the lives of those who work, suffer, and die in them--from black lung, falling rock, suffocation, or simply from work that can be literally backbreaking. The book is structured as a vivid montage of all these voices--stoic, outraged, grief-stricken, defiant--skillfully interwoven with documents from archives and the author's own participating and critical voice. Portelli uncovers the whole history and memory of the United States in this one symbolic place, through settlement, slavery, civil war, industrialization, immigration, labor conflict, technological change, environmental and social crises, and resistance." "With rare emotional immediacy, gripping narratives, and unforgettable characters, They Say in Harlan County tells the real story of a culture, the resilience of its people, and the terrible human costs of coal mining." Over the several days of reading this book I followed the news reports on the looming threat of a shutdown of the federal government due to impasse on how to address the budget deficit--raise taxes or cut programs. However, the bigger story concerned the budget crisis at the state and local level. As reported this week and last in the New York Times, for example, the Republican governor of Wisconsin plans to cut collective bargaining rights and benefits for public workers. Real American history is not pretty; it is not neat; and, if it has an ending at all, it does not have a happy ending. The struggle in ongoing and constant.).

As America slips further into authoritarianism, it might do those who believe in political freedom and social justice to remember these lyrics. "They say in Harlan County, There are no neutral there. You'll either be a union man, or a thug for J. H. Blair." (Florence Reese, Which Side Are You On (1931). Corporate America, taking advantage of the prolonged economic crisis, is rearing its greedy head, beating down . . . just about everyone. America is becoming Harlan County writ large! Which side are you on?