Muriel Rukeyser, at the young age of 22, wrote the documentary poem “The Book of the Dead” which chronicles the Hawk’s Nest Mining Disaster. This event, which took place in the 1930’s, has been called America’s worst industrial disaster, but it is not well-known to most American citizens. Rukeyser’s poem features transcripts from court hearings and meetings of the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Labor, as well as testimony from men who worked in the tunnels and their families. While it is unclear to me at this time whether or not she actually spoke with these individuals in their homes or worked from documents that were provided to her, Rukeyser’s take on the Hawk’s Nest Mining Disaster sheds a necessary light on the desperate persistence of the tunnel workers despite fatal conditions. Sia, an Australian music artist, released the song “The Greatest” in 2016. The song, according to the website Genius which provides annotated song lyrics, was written as an anthem for LGBT individuals after the shooting at the Orlando Pulse nightclub. Both Rukeyser’s poem and Sia’s song speak to the experiences of marginalized people.
In Rukeyser’s poem, she tells of the workers who contracted silicosis after digging out a tunnel rich in silica to divert water for hydroelectric power for the Union Carbide Company. This tunnel was located in Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, and the dam and tunnel entrance can be seen from the hiking trails along the New River Gorge. Silicosis is a lung disease; the dust fills the lungs of the individual affected, and that person eventually suffocates as they can no longer breathe. “I can’t breathe” is a well-known cry of the Black Lives Matter movement in response to the deaths of unarmed black men in the hands of police, specifically Eric Garner who uttered these words prior to his death. Some have argued that these deaths should be considered murder. I believe some would argue the same about the Hawk’s Nest Mining Disaster. Most of the men working in the tunnel at that time were men of color, migrant workers from southern states. Sia’s song opens with similar words, “Uh-oh, runnin’ out of breath, but I/Oh, I, I got stamina/Uh-oh, running now, I close my eyes/Well, oh, I got stamina/And uh-oh, I see another mountain to climb/But I, I, I got stamina” (“Sia – The Greatest Lyrics”). While Sia’s lyrics speak specifically to the challenges that LGBT individuals face in this country, and her treatment of not being able to breathe is figurative (the mountain is a metaphor), it parallels the literal experiences of both the Hawk’s Nest victims as well as the black men who have lost their lives more recently.
Rukeyser includes the bill passed by the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Labor in “The Book of the Dead,” under a section called The Bill. Toward the end of that section, there is a direct quote presented before the signed names of the representatives. It reads, “If by their suffering and death they will have made a future life safer for work beneath the earth, if they will have been able to establish a new and greater regard for human life in industry, their suffering may not have been in vain.” While this is an admirable statement to make, the struggle for human rights for non-white, non-male, non-heterosexual people in this country is ongoing, and we cannot make martyrs out of those whose lives were taken. History cannot be erased, nor can these lives be brought back. Perhaps statements like this bring some comfort to the families of those whose loved ones have died, but it’s an embarrassment that as a country, America has not yet figured out how to ensure basic protections to all of its people. Sia’s song declares “I’m free to be the greatest, I’m alive/I’m free to be the greatest here tonight,” and one annotation claims that “Redemption, self-preservation, perseverance, and finding inner-strength are all common themes in Sia’s music” (“Sia – The Greatest Lyrics”). I would argue that these qualities are common themes in American culture, but that these values unfairly place the burden on marginalized individuals to fight for what they should already have, rather than calling out the systemic issues that allow this cycle to continue.
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