The largest coke works plant in the US casts a long shadow on the residents of Clairton, Pennsylvania. Built in 1901 by the St. Clair Steel Company and taken over by US Steel in 1904, the Clairton Coke Works produces 4.7 million tons of coal-derived coke every year, releasing a toxic mix of hydrogen sulfide, benzene and hydrogen cyanide in the process.
Melanie Meade’s family has lived in Clairton since before the steel mills even arrived — her maternal side has indigenous roots in the region. Her grandfather worked for US Steel before he passed away at age 45—a fate that has been brought on her entire family in the decades since. Between 2011 and 2020, Melanie buried her parents, her older brother, older sister, and younger brother. She still lives in Clairton, where she is the only surviving member of her immediate family.
“I buried all of my immediate family from 2011 to 2020. My eldest brother passed away in 2011 with heart conditions. Both of my parents in 2013, my eldest sister in 2015 and my baby brother in 2020.”
Melanie’s story of loss is not unique in this industrial town, where pride in the state championship high school football team provides an escape from the brutal realities of living beside the Coke Works. As Melanie puts it:
“There are layers that make people huddle their voices, cover their eyes, cover their ears. It’s like something is covering every ability for them to see, speak and hear what they experience. I have three relatives with cancer who are younger than me that won't talk to me about their experience. Our pastors aren't talking about it, but they're burying people too soon. The Clairton School has 812 students, they said, and three out of 12 of them have asthma. We have a national asthma epidemic that's three times the national average. And none of those parents speak out. None of them.”
Polluting industries count on this culture of silence, denying all culpability for the illnesses they cause. They tell fence-line residents that their experiences of illness, loss, and grief are nobody's fault but their own—that the health issues communities face aren’t caused by chronic pollution, but by individual lifestyle decisions, genetics, or family history. We might call this the privatization of death—a process of making systemic violence look and feel like isolated, individual suffering. When we face systemic problems alone, it is easy to feel overwhelmed, powerless, incapable of facing Goliath—let alone rising up to defeat him.
In her everyday advocacy and her work with Black Appalachian Coalition, Melanie has been challenging this privatization of death by insisting that her family’s tragedy is a tragedy shared by many, and that grief, experienced collectively, can indeed become a mobilizing force. Informed by the African traditions her father passed down to her, Melanie understands death as an integral part of life, highlighting the presence and the power of the ancestors in the world of the living:
“My ancestors are protecting me here in this space. They are guiding me and warning me.”
In Melanie's telling, the statement “we refuse to die” is an affirmation: an active insistence that the dead live on. They walk among us, giving us strength, teaching us, and guiding us as we struggle, together, for the next generation. As future ancestors, vested with the power of those who came before us, we are never alone. This consciousness gives us a reason to fight.
“If I’m going to die, it best be for something. So I’m not going down without a fight. We Refuse to Die means you're taking action. You're not going down. We refuse to die when we stand up and say something, when we identify with our pain and speak to what we need to heal.”
* The above quotations were transcribed from an interview with Melanie Meade on August 10, 2023