On Suffocation

by Edward Moran

“Men have been lynched and will be, alas. Men have died of silicosis in tunnels.”                                                                                –Hyam Plutzik (1911-1962)

My grandfather would have wept for George Floyd.

He was a coal miner and knew what suffocation was like. But he would have known without a doubt that his sufferings could not compare to the spectre of a human being lying motionless in the streets, begging for breath from the police. It was not the kind of America he wanted his grandchildren to inhabit.

My grandfather died seventy-eight years ago at the age of fifty-four, in a coal-mining accident. On St Patrick’s Day 1942 he was returning from his shift at the Franklin colliery in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, when he stumbled into an unlighted pit and pitched to his death fifty feet below. The coal company hastily installed lights the next day–before the state inspectors came through–and sent a wreath to his funeral.

I never met my grandfather. He died five years before I was born. The only picture I ever saw of him in his miner’s gear was a photographic negative where his black-smudged face appeared white, “his darkey face smudged with faith’s bright minstrelsy” in the words of a poem I wrote about this man who would forever loom large in my ancestral imagination.

Whenever I look at vintage photographs of breaker boys like the one above, I wonder if his is one of the faces staring at me across six score years. He was eight years old in 1896 when he started working in the anthracite mines decades before progressive legislation would bar boys under fourteen from working underground.

The coal mines around Wilkes-Barre were still productive through my childhood in the 1950s. I remember sitting on my front porch watching legions of blackfaced miners trooping out of the pits every day except Sunday, when the mine owners—they were mostly Presbyterian—affirmed their adherence to the cycle of creation by declaring a Sabbath rest.

The tee-vee had just come to our green valley around that time, bearing news reports of “Negroes” marching for their rights in Montgomery and Little Rock. In my childhood naivete, I assumed the coal miners surrounding me were Negroes, too, for they were totally black from head to toe, and their work clothes and their lunch pails, too. It was not until I met a person of color for the first time, when I was sixteen, did I begin to think otherwise.

Our weary world has changed much since those days of toil and trouble. I welcome with gladdened heart the way my ancestral land has become one of the planet’s strongest advocates of diversity and human rights. I am reminded of how Frederick Douglass visited Ireland during the Famine years to enlist Irish support for the abolition of slavery in the United States. I know that Marcus Garvey was greatly inspired by the revolutionary fervor of those who participated in the 1916 Easter Rising. As a gay man, I am especially proud that Ireland—who would have thought it?—became the first nation to approve marriage equality by a nationwide referendum. I am proud also that the former Taoiseach, Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, is a gay man of mixed heritage whose father hails from Mumbai and his mother from Waterford.

From what I know of my grandfather, I trust he is looking down from heaven with a kindly eye on these developments. As one of the huddled masses from the post-Famine generation–I doubt whether he could be considered “legal” by today’s immigration policies–he knew both the overwhelming pain of exile and the transformative power of struggle.

And I know that he would have wept for George Floyd and legions of others who were choked into submission by lynching, whether by noose or by knee.

As children in coal country, we were exposed to blackface every day. It was not a sign of prejudice but of abundance, knowing that our fathers and grandfathers were toiling underground to put food on the table and clothes on our backs. How must we, today, deal with the insouciant way we sported blackface in our parochial-school minstrel shows? I am thinking of Noel Ignatiev’s How the Irish Became White, a book that challenges me to examine my own conscience and repent for the besetting sin of privilege.

And yet we were among the privileged, able to scrub away our coalish camouflage at the end of a working day or when the curtain fell on our minstrelsy. Our dreams might have been deferred, might have sagged with the heavy load of sixteen tons and the company store, but we were graced to move with an incredible lightness of being, knowing that our blackface was merely masquerade, never a sentencing for life to the sad penitentiary of otherness in America.

I know it is my grandfather’s prayer that we must distance ourselves from the pale-faced legions of Minneapolis and Charlottesville and Selma and a thousand other places in this, our America. To distance ourselves from those who see whiteness as a privilege and a weapon, not as an opportunity to share our gifts and multiply our talents for the benefit of all. To welcome the exile and the stranger, to give hope to the hopeless, breath to the breathless. To call out hatred and racism for the evil that it is, a sin crying to heaven for vengeance

We are all Minneapolis this Paddy’s Day.


Born in Wilkes-Barre, Edward Moran grew up in a working-class family and graduated from the former St Leo’s High School in Ashley.

6 comments

  1. Thanks, Ed, for this inspiring story about a grandfather you never met and of your childhood growing up in Wilkes-Barre seeing the blackened face of miners so often. I am grateful for your thoughts here, for your gift as a writer, and for your activism for social justice over the years.

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  2. My grandfather and his brothers were all breaker boys in Scranton. He remembered that when they walked to and from the collieries each day their lunchboxes bumped on the railroad tracks – that’s how small they were. I am very inspired by writers like you who are illuminating the human and labor history of the Anthracite Region and carrying forth the long overdue work for social justice in the coal regions.

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  3. James Alouf · ·

    Wonderfully written essay about your grandfather and his own social justice issues. Those were the days when justice was the rule of the stronger, including coal mine owners. I remember the faces of the coal legacy in Wilkes-Barre when I arrived in the fall of 1965. The mine fires were still burning on the mountain tops and the sky seemed perpetually gray. But I loved it there. The people were real and kind. But the mine fires were an ominous reminder of the past. And the coal cars coming out of the pit in Ashley-Sugarnotch are still lodged in my memory. Social justice is simply a mandate for the future.

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  4. Ed, as always, I’m moved by the magic of your mind and the power of your pen. When I read this piece I felt moved by the story of the minors—my ancestors, and your grandfather. They were humble people, and resilient. For them, as for your grandfather, to provide food and shelter for their families was a dream fulfilled. I think your grandfather would be proud that you stand on his shoulders speaking within a broad human context—of love, and justice, and gratitude. Your piece caused me to hope that my Ashley and Wilkes-Barre grandparents are proud of me, as I hope that I have carried their values forward in my own life. Still, it is your beautiful way with words, your brave choice of this phrase and not that, and your thirst for justice that has warmed me. That you elegantly mine the seam between past minors’ lives and those of our black brothers and sisters is a gift to us. Thank you my dear St. Leo’s classmate.

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  5. Thank you for illuminating some Irish history as well as your insightful contribution to racial unity. My grandfathers were miners from Ukraine and Austria, and neither lived long enough to retire. My maternal grandfather died of black lung.

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  6. John Drury · ·

    Hi Ed,

    We who know you well, continue to marvel at your gift. The sensitivity and poignancy in the message from your own personal history, your recollections, the dreadfulness of the immigrant work day, the shared poverty of a particular segment of humanity and the expressions of homelessness are all part of your testimony.

    But alas what has changed since those days? What will change the circumstances of what you reveal; On a personal level an escape through education?, a new emperor?, a socialist state?, defeat of corporate capitalism?, a return to collective decency? Or getting down to basics perhaps we are left with prefrontal lobotomies or cauterizations of the right amygdala of the Conservatives?

    Then again, heterogeneity may render us just…stuck.

    Hope all is well,
    John

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