In the face of public criticism, officials in West Virginia have change course and will allow a high school student to read a poem about coal mining disasters in the state.
The West Virginia Gazette reported that Hurricane High School student Grace Pritt, a finalist in the 2013 Poetry Out Loud contest, had been asked to perform at West Virginia Governor’s Arts Awards ceremony this week.
But officials at the state Division of Culture and History balked when they found out that Pritt would be reading “Black Diamonds,” a poem by Charleston poet Crystal Good that honors the widows of the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster. In 2010, 29 men were killed when the Massey Energy mine exploded.
“I really hate to do this to you, but because your poem deals with coal and many state representatives will be there, our director wants you to choose a different poem,” Division of Culture and History grant coordinator Tabitha Walter told Pritt in an email on Monday. “I’m so sorry about this. I’m just now finding this out.”
Good’s poem recalls how the miners were trapped “underground with nothing but their prayers,” and then “29 men died in what they call a ‘mine disaster,’ others, ‘industrial homicide.'”
In a Facebook post, Good expressed outrage that the state would ban her poem at the awards ceremony.
“We are weeks away from the UBB anniversary. This is sacrilegious,” she wrote.
After the news went viral on social media, officials at the Division of Culture and History changed their minds, calling the whole thing a “miscommunication.”
“It was just simply a miscommunication, which sometimes occurs. [Walter] is new to the position, and I think that this has just kind of gotten blown out of proportion,” Culture and History Director of Arts Renee Margocee explained on Tuesday.
Margocee said that Division of Culture and History Commissioner Randall Reid-Smith had “just called me and said there’s no room for censorship of the arts, and we all regret the spin this has taken, but we will not be censoring [Pritt].”
According to West Virginia Blue, Reid-Smith had also triggered a mining-related controversy in 2009 by taking the Blair Mountain battlefield off the National Register of Historic Places, clearing the way for the area to be strip mined for coal.
For her part, Pritt said that she wasn’t trying to cause trouble, but “Black Diamonds” seemed like the obvious choice.
“Since the Governor’s Arts Awards seems to be all about honoring West Virginia art and artists, I thought doing a Crystal Good poem to honor coal miners’ widows… made sense,” Pritt pointed out. “To me, ‘Black Diamonds’ is a real and very West Virginian poem. I was in no way trying to cause trouble. I just wanted to honor Crystal Good, the coal miners who died at Upper Big Branch, and those miners’ families.”
The Governor’s Arts Awards is scheduled to take place at the Charleston Culture Center on Thursday at 6 p.m. The free event is open to the public.
Watch the video below of Crystal Good reading “Black Diamonds.”
[Photo credit: Portrait of tired coal miner wiping forehead via Shutterstock]