Joe William Trotter Jr.’s book African American Workers and the Appalachian Coal Industry is new from WVU Press. To celebrate Black History Month, we’re pleased to share an excerpt from the introduction.
When I proposed this volume to West Virginia University Press in the fall of 2019, the devastation of Covid-19 was just months away. Hence, the impact of the pandemic did not figure into my rationale for wanting to publish this book. My motivation for producing this volume stemmed from the impending thirtieth anniversary of my book, Coal, Class, and Color: Blacks in Southern West Virginia, 1915–32 (University of Illinois Press, 1990). I hoped to use this collection of essays to reflect on my personal and professional journey to the notion of proletarianization (class formation) in scholarship on Black coal miners in the southern Appalachian coalfields; explore the transformation of research on the topic since publication of Coal, Class, and Color; and suggest directions that the next wave of research on the topic might take. These objectives remain core elements in the book’s raison d’être, but the disproportionate impact of the coronavirus pandemic on people of African descent represents an even more compelling rationale for publishing these essays at this particular time in the history of the region and the nation.
During the early phases of the pandemic, media reports downplayed the potential impact of the virus on poor and working-class Black communities. Evidence of widespread racial disparities in sickness and death from the disease soon dispelled such thinking. Over the past several months, growing numbers of scholars, media, and public policy analysts from a variety of fields have located the roots of these disparities in the concentration of Black people in the most dangerous, unhealthy, and underpaid work, housing, and living conditions in the geography and political economy of the nation. While these debates and discussions accent the need for historical perspectives on these racialized issues, they are unfolding without sufficient attention to African American health care activism designed to creatively combat disease, restore their own health, and insure their survival in the face of substantial trauma. These conversations also elide the precise ways that socioeconomic, labor, and environmental conditions undermined the health and well-being of the African American community in particular places at specific moments in time.