Q&A with The Poco Field author Talmage A. Stanley

Cover for stanley: The Poco Field: An American Story of Place. Click for larger imageTalmage A. Stanley is the director of the Appalachian Center for Community Service and an associate professor and chair of the Department of Public Policy and Community Service at Emory & Henry College in southwest Virginia. He answered our questions about his newly published book The Poco Field: An American Story of Place.

Q:  What is the “Poco Field”?

Stanley:  “Poco Field” is a shortened way of saying the Pocahontas coalfields, located in the southern-most portion of West Virginia, in the area of McDowell County, and in southwestern Virginia, in the area of Tazewell County.  In the mid-twentieth century, this particular coalfield was described as the “billion dollar coalfield.”  The coal seams in this area were renowned for their ease of mining and for their exceptional quality and purity.  Coal from these deposits was used in steamships, industrial processing, railroad locomotives, and a host of other industrial enterprises that required intense heat, high-pressure steam, and low levels of smoke.  The Pocahontas coal was also greatly valued for its contributions to the making of steel.  For these reasons, Pocahontas coal was at the heart of the American economy in the twentieth century.

From the late nineteenth century through the middle of the twentieth century, a multi-ethnic, biracial population, with a dynamic, diverse culture that carried in it the influences of many people and places, from far beyond the mountains, defined the Pocahontas coalfield.  In the Pocahontas field, persons from Italy, Eastern Europe, the Deep South, from the southern mountains and piedmont, and from the urban northeast in America converged to stake their claims in the American Dream.

The name itself, “The Poco Field,” is taken from letters my grandfather wrote my grandmother. Both had immigrated to the Pocahontas field from their childhood homes
in Virginia in the 1920s.  In his letters, in describing the place, my grandfather often used the term “the Poco Field.”

Q:  How are you personally connected to this area?

Stanley:  I grew up not far, about sixty miles, from the Poco field, and knew people that had come from the Poco field or went there to work.  My grandfather was sixteen years
old, and my grandmother was about twenty when they went to the town of Keystone, in the heart of the Poco field, to work.  They met there and my mother, their only child, was born in the Poco field.  They were not the only members of their immediate families who eventually came there to work, though.  Both of my grandparents helped find jobs for siblings and childhood chums.  Although my grandparents moved from the area in 1948, shortly before my grandfather’s sudden death, my grandmother remained close friends with a great many folks. From time to time during my childhood, we would travel to Keystone to see my mother and grandmother’s friends.

I have always been interested in what we describe as the Poco field, partly because of my family’s close ties there, and partly because I had this sense that the people and places of that area were profoundly connected to the American experience, to an America that was more like the industrial areas of the Midwest and the northeast.  I grew up in a broad agricultural valley, very unlike the terrain of the Poco field. Going over to visit friends and family in the Pocahontas field, I always had the sense that it was an urban, industrial place, quite unlike what I was used to, just sixty miles away.

Since 1994, I have been closely connected to an organization in the Caretta community of McDowell County, Big Creek People in Action (BCPIA).  BCPIA is a grassroots organization focused on building strong communities and developing effective civic leaders in McDowell County.  Since 2004, I have served on the Board of Directors for BCPIA.  As a teacher and coordinator of civic engagement at Emory & Henry College, I have had many students work with BCPIA on a host of projects and issues, including disaster response, educational reform, after school tutoring, housing rehab—just to name a few.

Over the years, since my earliest knowing, the Poco field has been a part of my life.  I have also come to understand that, because of its history, its story, it is a part of every
American’s life, either directly or by implication.  This book gives expression to that.

Q:  Who controls the local industry and development?

Stanley:  People who have never been to the Poco field often ask, “Why can’t they do such and such for economic development?” or “What will it take to diversify this economy, away from its nearly exclusive dependency on coal?” or, “What is going on here that the economy is in such bad shape and the people seem caught?”  These questions, while perhaps quite natural, really do not get to the root causes and fundamental systemic issues in the Poco field.

While its history is rooted in the foundations of the earth and there had been settlers in that place since the late 1700s, the Pocahontas field was developed in the 1880s to take advantage of and control the enormous geologic resources of the place and the staggering wealth to be derived from those resources.  In a process of land acquisition fraught with all manner of contradictions, conflicts, illegalities, struggles, violence, and expressions of overt economic and political power, three or four industrial interests wrested control of the farms from the persons long settled there, and came to control nearly 85 percent of the total land area and mineral rights in McDowell County.  Through a series of consolidations, takeovers, and buyouts in the 1890s through about 1905, the Norfolk and Western Railroad and its subsidiaries and one or two other companies acquired nearly monopolistic control of the coal seams and surface land of McDowell.  That pattern of land ownership has not altered since, now over one hundred and thirty years later.  Today, one may own a house in McDowell, but own only two inches or less of the ground surface on which the house sits.

In 1948, the year my grandparents moved from the Poco field to Newbern, the population of McDowell County was about 100,000 persons.  In the six decades since, the restructuring of the American economy, the closure of the larger mining operations in the 1980s, the transition to other mining practices and other companies, the ongoing boom and bust cycles of the coal industry, the environmental hazards resulting from contemporary mining practices, and the floods to which those practices give rise, have reduced McDowell’s population in 2010 to about 23,000 persons. Following the catastrophic floods of 2001 and 2002, many persons who lived along the creeks and streams of McDowell were not allowed to rebuild their homes because it was determined that these residences were in the floodplain.  With the land companies and coal interests holding nearly all of the remaining land, where were the people to go?  A compelling case can be made that current public policies and economic structures are on a conscious
trajectory toward final and total displacement of the people of McDowell so that the work of mining can proceed apace.

The situation is all the more complicated when one realizes that these same companies, the railroad, energy, and resource companies are largely publically held, and that many have done quite well since the financial collapse of 2008.  In times of economic difficulties, we are told that the best investments, the safest places to put money are in energy, transportation, commerce, blue chip firms that are the foundation of the American economy.  These firms offer safety and stability for small investors as well as those with more resources.  Many Americans have pension funds, retirement accounts, insurance accounts, and life savings that are in part invested in these well-earning companies.  The
endowments of many academic institutions and those of a range of philanthropic
foundations all derive income partially gained from investments in firms that profit from the situation in McDowell. The situation then, the questions and issues, are ones in which all of us are involved and all of us must grapple.

Q:  Are there key characteristics of Appalachian culture that differ from the larger American culture?

Stanley:  This is a very difficult question.  To say that Appalachian culture differs from
American culture could imply that the two are different realities, separate and distinct from each other.  To answer affirmatively could also imply that there is one Appalachian culture and one American culture.  When I am asked questions such as this, I often wonder if the same questions are asked of those who celebrate and study Cajun culture in Louisiana, or those who celebrate and study Gullah culture in the coastal region of South Carolina, or those who celebrate and study the culture of Brooklyn or Harlem.  Though I am not certain, I doubt these people are asked how they or their culture differ from American culture.  Rather, we assume, quite correctly, that they are expressions of the varied and complex hues and intonations, the rhythms and cadences of American cultures.  The same is true with Appalachia.

In The Poco Field, I take on this idea that Appalachia is somehow exceptional from, distinct from, America.  My grandparents’ stories make clear that they did not think of themselves as Appalachians, but as Americans, as middle class Americans with a rightful title to the American Dream.  Central to their identities was this place, the Poco field, the town of Keystone, rooted in the foundations of the earth.  So too with Appalachia, with its
own great diversity of cultures—they are connected to, are shaped in, and give expression to those American cultures.

Are there things that are distinct?  Yes. Just as there are distinctive elements in Cajun and Gullah cultures, in the vibrant cultures of Brooklyn and Harlem—music, dance, food, patterns of relationship, mores, there are distinctive elements in Appalachian culture—music, dance, food, patterns of relations, mores.  Each is grounded in places complexly formed and is shaped in, gives expression to, and helps to shape those places, and they also are shaped in, give expression to, and help to shape those larger influences that we describe as American culture.

Q:  Who is in the image on the book cover and how do they fit in to The Poco Field story?

Stanley:  The cover is actually two images.  The upper image, of houses along a ridgeline, is a photograph of Westfield, the neighborhood in Keystone that was the center of middle class life in that place. Westfield came to represent to my grandparents and many, many others, their hopes for the American Dream.  In The Poco Field  Westfield is that particular neighborhood, but it is also the convergence of ideas, habits, patterns of social relationship, social divisions, forces, silences, questions, assumptions, that define the
American Dream and American middle class culture.  Westfield is a place, that neighborhood, but it also speaks for something larger, something far beyond that one
neighborhood—the ways that American middle class culture devalues places as commodities for exchange on the market, dividing people from their places.  I use Westfield as a metaphor for all that, as a means of making complex and sometimes off-putting ideas accessible and relevant to a range of readers. It is a means of making connections.

The lower image is that of my grandmother’s family.  I discuss this photograph in the first
chapter of the book, suggesting how it points to the themes and questions, and the places that are central to the story I tell in The Poco Field.  In the center of the group are my great-grandmother and grandfather.  Arranged on either side of them are their children, along with the spouses of those who were at that time married.  Made on Sunday, December 3, 1933, this photograph held special and enduring significance for my grandmother and her siblings.  It was taken on the afternoon of a family gathering, at the Williams homeplace in Newbern, Virginia, some sixty or sixty-five miles, “as the crow flies,” from the Pocahontas coalfield.  One of the defining ambitions for all the members of this family was “to be somebody,” “to make something of themselves,” to claim a stake in the American Dream, and to have more than they had as children.  During their lives, all of these folks would come to associate whatever part of the American middle class they could claim with the places in which they went to work and live.  Of the thirteen adults in this photograph, seven of them would work and live in the Pocahontas coalfield.  My grandparents, C.T. and Aldah Williams Apperson are the couple on far left of the group. They had been married three days previously, on Thursday, November 30, in Keystone.  Following the taking of this photograph and the goodbyes, they would travel back to Keystone to go to work the next day, in the Poco field—the American place that would define their lives.

Q:  What can you tell us about your approach to the writing of The Poco Field?

Stanley:  The Poco Field is shaped in a particular approach to the art and craft of writing, representing several of my ambitions for my writing.  I have worked to use the core concepts and insights of cultural studies, such as hegemony, ideology, capitalism,
resistance, subversion, mediating structures, democratic prospect, social capital, without resorting to the use of jargon or the terms themselves.  I worked to write so that the stories of people and places illustrate and embody the substance of the ideas and concepts, showing them as living and applicable; theory as lived experience.  I did not want the use of a highly specialized language to discourage or exclude readers who were not
familiar with that language.  An example is my use of my grandparents’ Keystone neighborhood of Westfield as a metaphorical way of talking about the American Dream, American middle class aspirations, and the values, assumptions, and power of capitalist culture.  Another example is my use in the book of the story of my grandfather in the Cadillac showroom and his ambition to purchase a Cadillac.  Similarly, the way I use the
stories of my grandmother’s citizenship and service in Newbern, in the years following my grandfather’s death, is a means of talking about an alternative approach to place than that of Westfield. My aim in this is to write the story of capitalism and a people’s history at the same time, in the same place. I take some pride in that I have been able to accomplish this without resorting to jargon.

Believing that a good story well told is the best teacher, I endeavored not to overwrite, but to trust readers to see, to understand, to make connections, and draw conclusions.  I did not want to clutter the work.  I also sought to make the book accessible to a range of readers, from within and from outside the academy, but to do so without sacrificing the story, its substance, or integrity.  A great many persons who have never had access to the academy are part of this work; it is the story of a man who never had opportunity to graduate from high school, and a woman who did not have much more education.  I wanted to write this book in such a way that all of these persons could see their own stories and understand them as part of larger stories and questions, seeing new meanings and new importance in their choices and journeys.  I aspired to provide an honest, compassionate, and insightful representation of middle class life, its contradictions, and its inconsistencies, its social and cultural costs, and its damages.

I also wanted to write the biography of a place, to narrate the long, long history of a place and its deep complexity, and to do so by utilizing what David Harvey has described as
“militant particularity.”  My ambition for this biography of a place is for the people of that particular place to see and understand more deeply their place, for those unfamiliar with that place to know it and understand it in its fullness, and for all readers to begin to
grapple with the deep interconnection of places and the analogous forces, issues, and questions at work in every place.

Q:  What was the impetus, the genesis, for your writing and thinking for The
Poco Field?

Stanley:  My grandmother, her mother, and her mother before her, provide me with a rich legacy, an archive of letters, stories, recipes, photographs, legal documents, account books, scribbled histories, advertisements, stretching over 160 to 175 years of this family; and all of it uncataloged and unorganized, just put away in boxes and drawers.  All of my life, I have been interested in that collection, curious about it.  From that curiosity, for most of my adult life I have lived with a question—How to keep faith with that and how to be true to the trust and the truths of that story?

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