Coal Miners And The Genesis Of My White Privilege

Coal Miners And The Genesis Of My White Privilege

Coal Miners And The Genesis Of My White Privilege

Last night, the documentary film Harlan County, USA was shown on Turner Classic Movies and it got me thinking about my “white privilege”. The documentary follows the coal miners of Harlan County, Kentucky in their 1973 strike against Duke Energy. Although I am not a fan of unions, I am grateful to those coal miners. If it were not for them and their brave wives, mothers, sisters and daughters, I would not have my “white privilege”.

The white privilege argument is accepted fact by anyone on the Left and most people under 40 years of age. We have been lectured about it by none other than The Oprah Winfrey. I argue that privilege of ANY kind is a relatively new concept. Exhibit One is Harlan County, USA. Here is the description of the firm from Criterion:

Barbara Kopple’s Academy Award–winning Harlan County USA unflinchingly documents a grueling coal miners’ strike in a small Kentucky town. With unprecedented access, Kopple and her crew captured the miners’ sometimes violent struggles with strikebreakers, local police, and company thugs. Featuring a haunting soundtrack—with legendary country and bluegrass artists Hazel Dickens, Merle Travis, Sarah Gunning, and Florence Reece—the film is a heartbreaking record of the thirteen-month struggle between a community fighting to survive and a corporation dedicated to the bottom line.

I had seen snippets of this film in the past, but it never really touched me. Having been lectured, recently, by someone very close to me about my white privilege, I saw Harlan County through new eyes.

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.

L.P. Hartley

coal miners
Big Mom and Me on the right.

My family is from Hazard, a city in Perry County, Kentucky, just north of Harlan. Well part of my family. Another part if from Bloody Breathitt County just north of Perry County. And, just so you know, Perry County is is about an hour Southwest of Loretta Lynn’s Butcher Hollow. Several of my uncles died of the black lung.

In 1973, the year of the Harlan County strike, the coal miners’ homes had no running water or electricity. In 1973! That seems shocking except that it got me thinking about my childhood. Visiting my great grandmother, Polly Stamper Cox aka Big Mom, was like a trip to a foreign country. She owned a dog trot house. Dry kitchen and living room on one side and 2 bedrooms on the other side of the open breezeway. The water pump was by the back porch. The outhouse was on the right side of the house looking from the street. In order to bath us great grands, Big Mom would set a giant tub over the coal heating grate and fill it with water, by bucket from the pump. My great aunt worked in the office for the local coal company. Her brothers were coal miners. The cousins would run barefoot on the dirt road to the coal company office and wave at the trains. We would stop by the general store for a popsicle.

This wasn’t our life. We were suburban kids down in Hazard for a couple of weeks every summer. We had good schools, indoor plumbing, paved roads, and dentists. From Hazard or Harlan to suburbia is a long way. Much longer than distance would tell. I owe those brave coal miners and their women for making that journey even possible. That’s my privilege.

In the documentary, one of the men tells a story about the mules used in the mines, before automation. One of the supervisors told him to be careful with the mule. The reason: You can always get another man, but a mule costs money. The coal miners’s lives were cheaply held.

A black coal miner looks over at his white colleagues and says when we go down, we look different. When we come back up, we look the same. That and their clothes were so full of coal dust the clothes scuffed when the men walked.

Here is the opening scene from Harlan County, USA:

The strikebreakers and corporate thugs were vicious. One man in the film is shot in the head and killed. His sixteen year old wife, carries their infant at the wake. Duke Energy said they could only have three men picket at each mine entrance. That’s when the women got involved. And the Duke executives were appalled that the women were doing something so unladylike. In 1973!

That was only 47 years ago. And yet, like the distance from Hazard to suburbia, the time seems much longer. We forget how hard and cheap life was for every person who was not to the manor born. Few were. So, I am going to thank those ignorant, dirty coal miners, and their women, for my privilege. My privilege, white or not, is that I was born here in this country at this time. I have an attitude of gratitude reinforced by the history that I am privileged to know.

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10 Comments
  • Skillyboo says:

    I have a hard time understanding White privilege everyone who went to the fully integrated schools I went to had the same opportunities as me to succeed. Those minorities I served with in the military, and are still friends with, and who made it a career, all believe that opportunity is there for all and that White privilege and systemic racism are conspiracy theories designed to divide us. Unfortunately those pushing these myths have been indoctrinated by an education system hijacked by the left, a complicit media and now the democrat party.

  • Nina Bookout says:

    Love this! My white privilege is generations of farming/ranching and military service. Generations of people who worked hard 24/7 to put food on the table, feed their communities, raise their children, and serve their country. My white privilege is also of shoemakers, merchants, lawyers, and business management starting in the early days of the airline and space industry.

    Where I am and who I am today is because of all those who in my family who came before me. I call that AMERICAN PRIVILEGE!

  • Robin H says:

    My white privilege is great grandparents that were terrorized in Russia so left everything and came here. I was also privileged to be the child of divorced parents that had no money for extras. I was privileged to be able to start working when I was 12. Worked all through school, college and then after. I have never gotten a hand out or a hand up from anyone.

  • Dietrich says:

    My “White Privilege” was earned by male members of every generation of my family serving in the U.S. (or C.S.A) military (including me and my three brothers AND one sister) all the way back to the French & Indian War. And now my oldest son is a Marine.
    Oops, can I say “French & Indian War? I must have meant the White European and Indigenous Peoples War.

  • GWB says:

    My privilege, white or not, is that I was born here in this country at this time.
    THIS. The only reason these folks can sit about and gaze at their navels and come up with idiotic things like “white privilege” is because they are born in the richest nation on earth – even the poor people. All built with folks like those coal miners.

    As to unions, I realize their value. My problem is when they are given more power (specifically monopoly power) than the employers. The unions have ridden the “look how awful the companies are!” from things like the coal miner strikes for decades now. And tried very hard not to let anyone talk about how often their tactics were just as bad or worse. But they have definitely done some good in some places.
    (Oh, and no one should be allowed to unionize if they work for the gov’t. Period.)

    Me? I have farmers, ranchers, milkmen, locksmiths, electrical engineers, pilots, career Green Berets, accountants, construction company owners and workers, train engineers, a cattle rustler, a cad, at least a couple of ne’er-do-wells, a couple of military academy graduates, and lots of other folks in my family who have helped make America the great land it is. They have given me a great amount of privilege – and not a danged bit of it related to their or my race.

  • Cameron says:

    The only privilege I can legitimately claim is having two parents that cared about me. Everything else was my doing.

  • Mark Gist says:

    I remember a conversation between my father and his mother about how heavy a new hoe was when chopping cotton. My grandmother was around 5’1″. Think about this – she and her six kids were out i the fields chopping cotton enough to wear down hoes like old shoes. For people who never heard of this, chopping cotton was thinning the rows of cotton plants by cutting them with a hoe. It was very difficult work.

    Once I had a copy of a catalogue of traditional items still being made. My father spent a while trying to identify which mule harness matched the one he used when plowing cotton fields with a mule.

    In the late-1970s I was doing some work in West Virginia and a woman my age (born in 1955) told me about how thrilled her family had been then they got electric power and running water. Even in 1977 she’d never been in an indoor movie theater, just drive-ins.

    Now explain to me again about their white privilege.

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