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On "George Robinson: Blues"


John Lowney

The most ironic testimony to the lethal power of whiteness is that of George Robinson, a black migrant driller who became the workers' "leader and voice," who "holds all their strength together: / To fight the companies to make somehow a future" (OS 16). His insider's description of Gauley Bridge contrasts ironically with the reporter's first impressions: "Gauley Bridge is a good town for Negroes, they let us stand around, they let us stand / around on the sidewalks if we're black or brown" (OS 21). His definition of a "good town for Negroes" indicates the degree of official harassment a black man might expect in such a segregated town, but his tone is more ironic than we first suppose, as his account of Union Carbide labor practices goes on to substantiate. Significantly, Robinson's testimony is written in the form of a blues poem. Of the many examples of "our buried poetry" (LP 98) that Rukeyser discusses in The Life of Poetry, she pays the greatest tribute to the blues. As she writes of Bessie Smith, the pain expressed by so many blues singers corresponds with the treatment they receive by a social system quick to capitalize on their talent—on their labor—but slow to provide necessary support in time of need: "their powers realized, these singers in a moment are surrounded by the doorless walls of an ambivalent society" (LP 112). Robinson's blues testimony exposes how systematic such "ambivalence" is. He conveys every absurdly dehumanizing detail in an understated manner that indicts as it seems to so passively accept the pervasiveness of the "white dust." The end rhyming and repetition of key words and phrases reinforces this awful absurdity: "When the blast went off the boss would call out, Come let's go back, / when that heavy loaded blast went white, Come, let's go back . . . the camps and their groves were colored with the dust, / we cleaned our clothes in the groves, but we always had the dust" (OS 22). Robinson's blues concludes with an image of whiteness that is brutal in its parody of racial coding:

As dark as I am, when I came out at morning after the tunnel at night,
with a white man, nobody could have told which man was white.
The dust had covered us both, and the dust was white. (OS 22)

The cost of such racial equality is of course the lives of both the black miner and the white miner. If, on the surface, both appear white in their shared experience as laborers, the lack of value ascribed to their lives by their employer suggests a commonality more often associated with black lives in the United States. The white appearance of the workers, the virtual erasure of blackness in the deadly silica dust, certainly speaks to the racial coding of the history of Gauley Bridge. Yet the commonality compelled by shared adversity also suggests a potential for interracial alliances to contest the white supremacist thinking that Robinson so bitterly mocks.

from "Truths of Outrage, Truths of Possibility: Muriel Rukeyser's 'The Book of the Dead'" in "How Shall We Tell Each Other of the Poet?": The Life and Writing of Muriel Rukeyser. Ed. Anne F. Herzog and Janet E. Kaufman. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999. Copyright 1999 by Anne E. Herzog and Janet E. Kaufman.


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