Special report for National Miners Day from I-10 in West Texas: Black lung is called pneumoconiosis by doctors and what it means is that your lungs get so clogged with coal dust you can't breath anymore. Your lungs are like a kitchen sponge soaked in motor oil. Every breath becomes a struggle and a victory until their are no more victories. When there are no more victories, there's a widow and four children who are stunned to lose their husband and father at such a young age. The wife will take in wash, the son, when he gets old enough, will start sweeping floors at the local newspaper. The coal miner will not live to see his son buy that newspaper, to see his grandson graduate from Harvard, or to hear any of the songs his great granddaughter writes about black lung.
Sutherland Hankins died of black lung at the age of 46. He was my great grandfather. That is his story and I know very little more of it because I never met him. His children, who were toddlers when he died, barely remembered him, and there is no one left to tell me his story. This is hard for me to accept -- this missing story and no way to find it.
Sometimes I have conversations with him in mind and he asks me, "Why do you write songs about black lung, because of me?"
And I answer, "Yes, because of you and because it got better for a while, but now it's as bad as when I was born."
I ask him to look in a coal mine today and tell me what he thinks.
He says, "You put a man on the moon, you talk to each other through waves in the air, and this is your coal mine? This ain't much better than Jewell Valley in 1931."
Then he walks away shaking his head.
Yesterday was National Miners Day.
I dream of the day we tell the story of black lung because it's something that never happens anymore. I dream of the day when no miner has to live like he's drowning. I dream of the day when the safety and health of workers is the first concern before any other decision is made in every industry.
In honor of Sutherland Hankins, coal miner, Jewell Valley, Virginia, 1931. Top left, standing.