Silas House | Mourning 'a true hillbilly,' Judy Bonds (1952-2011)

The Appalachians are in mourning.

Last week, the mountains — and their people — lost one of their fiercest and most loyal defenders. Judy Bonds was 58 years old when she died of cancer only months after first being diagnosed.

It is ironic and perhaps even illuminating that Bonds died of the disease after more than a decade of fighting against the coal industry because she feared it was releasing cancer-causing chemicals into the water supply. It was a fight that led to her becoming perhaps the most beloved hero of the anti-mountaintop-removal movement.

Bonds, a coal miner’s daughter, was the seventh generation in her family to grow up in MarFork Holler, near West Virginia’s Coal River. Just over a decade ago, she witnessed her 7-year-old grandson being surrounded by dozens of dead fish while wading in the creek.

When she reported the fish kill to Massey, the coal company that owned the processing plant at the head of the holler, her battle had only begun. It ignored her, despite subsequent black water spills. “So I started to put together. … They’re poisoning everybody,” she later recalled. Water tests of the creek proved that the preparation plant was releasing polyacrylamide — a cancer-causing agent used to prepare coal for burning. Her state government paid her no mind.

The media ignored her, too, which she blamed on prevailing stereotypes about the region. “Appalachia is a bad taste in mainstream Americans’ mouths,” she once said. But she refused to go unheard.

In 2003, the world started to take notice of Bonds’ tireless efforts. The Goldman Environmental Prize — the world’s most prestigious award for environmental activism — was presented to her. She popularized a T-shirt emblazoned with “SAVE THE ENDANGERED HILLBILLY.” Film crews and authors flocked to her home to cover the issue. Bonds traveled across the nation to give rousing speeches that left audiences slain by her humor, outrage and humanity. The first time I heard Bonds speak, in a packed Harlem church, I cried hard and laughed aloud, as did just about everyone else. She was sharing the stage with Robert F. Kennedy Jr. that night, and despite the eloquence of his speech, it was Bonds who left the bigger impression.

Bonds suffered for the attention she brought to the issue. Once, while protesting that Massey had built a 2.8-billion-gallon coal sludge pond just above an elementary school, a Massey employee’s wife assaulted her. People in her community cussed and threatened her so much that she was forced to carry a stun gun to work and to install surveillance cameras around her home. Others chose not to even speak to her at the grocery store.

But Bonds was defiant. The strong always are.

“I’m not going to … bury my head in the sand and say, ‘I can’t do anything,’ ” she told me and co-author Jason Howard when we were working on a book that featured Bonds. “I’m not made that way. I’m going to get a lick in so they know they’ve been in a fight. Now ain’t that what a true Appalachian does?”

It is. True hillbillies (a description Bonds said she “loved”) always stand up for what they believe in, and fight back, no matter what. But only the truest hillbillies are full of the kind of light that Bonds possessed.

The coal industry’s favorite adage is “Coal Keeps the Lights On.” But Bonds knew that there is a light that is more important than electricity. She knew that the clearest, truest light is one made of defiance and compassion, strength and love. That’s the light that lived in Judy Bonds, and no amount of coal dust will ever be able to darken that.

Silas House serves as the NEH Chair in Appalachian Studies at Berea College and on the fiction faculty at Spalding University’s MFA in Creative Writing program. He is the author of four novels, including “The Coal Tattoo” and “Clay’s Quilt.”

(This article was taken from the Louisville Courier Journal)

One thought on “Silas House | Mourning 'a true hillbilly,' Judy Bonds (1952-2011)

  • August 12, 2012 at 9:35 pm

    Amazing Lady!! Wish I had known her!…….Unfortunately citizens in Eastern Ky and Southern WV are still dying of rare cancers at earlier and earlier ages and no one wants to hear about the contaminated creeks and water that we live with. I am almost 53 and every few months I am losing people my age to cancer of all sorts!! I do hope my children leave here. It is too late for us!

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