For writer Gary Bentley, coal became more than just a job.
Bentley is a former coal miner and the author of In the Black, a series of short stories published by the rural-themed online newspaper The Daily Yonder. The blogger serves as an advocate for miners as he travels the country speaking about his writings. He plans to speak for EKU’s Appalachian Studies Program on February 21.
Bentley’s writings capture in realistic detail the grit and daily grind of working in a mine in southeastern Kentucky, as well as the dangers and harsh realities that come with being employed with big coal companies. He worked underground from 2001 to 2013, and his first-hand accounts of what he saw have garnered both acclaim and occasional controversy.
For the former mine foreman, this amount of recognition was never expected.
“My uncle was playing in an old-time string band at an event on UK’s campus,” Bentley said. “Afterwards, he told me I should write some songs about my experiences as a coal miner.”
While Bentley liked writing music, he said he liked the idea of writing something bigger instead.
“I was at a point where I was done with music, so instead I just wrote some short stories and made copies to bring to the family reunion so they could get an idea of what it was like,” Bentley said. “A few of my friends who were writers got ahold of them and started sending them around, and eventually The Daily Yonder got ahold of me.”
Bentley said his biggest challenge writing stories was deciding how to approach things people might not feel comfortable with.
“For one, it’s remembering to change the names of the people so I don’t expose anyone doesn’t want to be exposed. But it’s also to paint a story that allows you to be there in the moment and form your own opinion,” Bentley said.
Bentley seeks to not only paint a picture of everyday life in the mines, but to also change perceptions on the miners themselves. Through his writings, he hopes to expand the public image of coal miners beyond the “romantic” images of miners from the 1930s—men covered in back dust carrying pickaxes and shovels.
What the general public truly lacks, Bentley said, is the understanding of the contemporary coal miner.
“I hear a lot of people refer to miners just as the guys from the 30s carrying picks and shovels, especially when I travel out of the state – sometimes even in Louisville or Lexington,” Bentley said. “They don’t realize the modern technology, the automation, or even the skill or intelligence required every day to be a miner.”
For the blogger, it’s about giving readers the “full picture” of miners – regular people who struggle with addiction, religion and other problems that everyone can relate to.
“It’s an eclectic group of people that a lot of times don’t feel like they have many other options,” he said.
One stereotype of eastern Kentucky that Bentley said remains true is the lack of options in earning an honest living.
“Originally, my parents didn’t want me to go into the industry. In their mind, I was their baby; they didn’t want me to be unsafe. But I didn’t want to work a minimum wage job and live at home. We [the miners] all agreed that there really are no other jobs in the area – if there were any factories in the area then hey, maybe we wouldn’t be doing this.”
Bentley, whose grandfather died of black lung, said many are stuck because Kentucky has failed to rely on anything but coal in the last one hundred years. As mining becomes a default way of life for many lower-middle class youth in Appalachia, so does a degree of mental toughness.
Bentley makes this all too apparent in his Dec. 26 article titled “Working through Lunch.” Despite being badly bruised after getting trapped under some rock, Bentley recounts lying to his family about seeing a doctor just so he could work the next day. He explains how a life of working overtime can make a miner prioritize their next paycheck over their physical or mental health.
“It was very common for someone to get injured or hurt and continue working,” he said. “One time I dislocated a shoulder racing motocross on Sunday afternoon and went back to work on Monday morning. In 2012 I fractured five vertebrae after wrecking a motorcycle and went back to work two days later. It was very common for men to get serious injuries and not tell their families about it.”
Bentley’s writings have made a strong impression on former coworkers and coal company executives – both good and bad.
“The miners that I worked with in the past say they really enjoy it and that they share it with their family and friends,” he said. “Even if it didn’t paint the best picture of who they were then, they think the stories are really cool and they appreciate getting to look back on them.”
At other times, the reception isn’t quite so warm.
“I had a guy who I mined with try to tell me I was perpetuating stereotypes,” he said. “Stereotypes are there for a reason – it’s unfortunate, but I can’t take out something that someone doesn’t like that I know is true.”
Coal companies have also seem to have taken notice.
“I was home this past week and stopped by a mine where I used to work to take some photos,” Bentley said. “One of the guys recognized me from a story that NPR did and was quick to let me know that they didn’t want me bringing media organizations back to the mine.”
While Bentley will admit that he’s no political writer by definition, he hasn’t shied away from using his voice to defend former co-workers and miners affected by the decay of the coal industry. The blogger has recently spoken out against Friends of Coal in a separate article with Lexington Herald-Leader, stating “We need more friends of miners and fewer friends of corporations. #friendsofcoalminers”
Bentley’s event, In the Black: A Contemporary Miner’s Story, will be held Feb. 21 from 4:30 to 6 p.m. in room 208 of the Crabbe Library.
During the conversation, Bentley said he aims to talk about the history of coal in Appalachia, how working in the industry affects people, social aspects of living in coal country, and how the media perpetuates “poverty porn” – exploiting the poor to gain newspaper sales and charity donations.