Harlan County, Kentucky made some news a few years back when Rand Paul, senatorial candidate from the Commonwealth, professed not to know about the Appalachian county’s contentious history of labor strife in an article on him published in Details. Shockingly, that other Rand—Ayn—appears never to have written of it. What is really not forgivable in a U.S. Senator (Paul won the election) is more easily expected of the country at large, particularly in my corner of it. The promise of Southern California has always been that you come here in order to leave places like Harlan County behind, except that most of the people who emigrated from the middle of the country were middle class rather than working poor. Many had made their money and now, as Nathanael West bluntly put it in The Day of the Locust, they came here to die.
Dying is something Harlan County knows, only there aren’t any palm trees or beaches in sight and “retirement” has too often been stood for terminal iron-lung support. Harlan County is actually one of those true American places where culture and politics merge, and where labor history and folk music are woven together in the same cloth, and where the citizens have demanded respect for the exchange of their labor and lives. This rich legacy is captured by Italian scholar Alessandro Portelli in his book They Say in Harlan County, a result of three decades of oral history and ethnomusicological field work in coal country. I’ve written of Portelli’s work on an the memory of an infamous German massacre in Rome, and in his new book he once again weaves authentic voices with his own ruminative and thoughtful one, presenting a mosaic of memory, history, and cultural nuance. Portelli will present “Harlan County, Kentucky: Thirty Years of Fieldwork” at California State University, Fullerton’s Titan Student Union Tuesday, October 8 at 5:30 p.m. as the annual Hansen Lecturer presented by the Center for Oral and Public History.
The week before Portelli’s lecture on Tuesday, October 1, the CSUF Cultural and Public History Association will host a screening of Barbara Kopple’s Academy Award-winning 1976 documentary Harlan County USA. Kopple’s remarkable film captures the famous Brookside coal strike that began in 1972, with flashbacks to the violent clashes of the 1930s and 1940s mixed in. I will introduce the film and lead a discussion in Humanities 412 on the Fullerton campus beginning at 6 p.m. Both events are free and open to the public.