Race and Social Ecology in Rukeyser's Book of the Dead

My proposal to the 11th Biennial Conference of the American Society of Literature of the Environment was accepted. Here's what I sent:

In 1930, Union Carbide discovered a large deposit of silica during a tunnel-building project near Hawks Nest, and began to mine it illegally using a workforce made up of 75% black migrant workers. A West Virginia historical maker at the site reads:

"Construction of nearby tunnel, diverting waters of New River through Gauley Mt for hydroelectric power, resulted in state's worst industrial disaster. Silica rock dust caused 109 admitted deaths in mostly black, migrant underground work force of 3,000. Congressional hearing placed toll at 476 for 1930-35.”

Rukeyser's “modernist poem as radical documentary” (Robert Shulman) about the Hawks Nest mining disaster is a polyphonic text incorporating government reports, correspondence, and her own interviews with the black migrant workers exposed to incredibly dangerous conditions in the illegal silica mine in West Virginia. I posit that there is a social ecological link between the “objectification of people as mere instruments of production” and “the objectification of nature as mere ‘natural resources’” (Murray Bookchin) but in the case of Hawks Nest and Rukeyser’s poem, this link is further complicated by the history of American racism. Because the lungs of the workers filled with silica and the dead were buried unceremoniously in nearby cornfields to cover up the tragedy, the disaster evokes rhetoric surrounding slaves as being legally “part of the landscape” (Michael Bennett). From the 1936 report of the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Labor: “one hundred and sixty-nine […] workers were buried in a field at Summerville, West Virginia, with cornstalks as their only gravestones and with no other means of identification.” Rukeyser’s text shows how Union Carbide kept their illegal environmental actions, wanton disregard for safety, racism, and the death toll underground.