We Refuse to Die was part of the exhibition, Unsettling Matter: Gaining Ground, at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, August 2023 - January 2024.
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Report from Clairton: "This Statue Will Not Be Removed"

January 18, 2024

On November 11, 2023, dozens of community members in Clairton, Pennsylvania joined frontline activists from Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio on a bluff overlooking the US Steel CokeWorks Plant, one of the worst sources of toxic, cancer-causing industrial air pollution in the nation. As plumes of heavily-polluted steam billowed out of the facility, residents, faith leaders, community activists, musicians and dancers joined together to honor the ancestors whose lives have been cut short.

This was not simply a memorial to the victims of environmental violence. It was a call on the living to stand in solidarity with the dead, whose enduring, undying spirit gives courage to those who, facing incalculable loss, are fighting for a just and liveable world for all.

MC’d by Black Appalachian Coalition’s Kidest Gebre, the event featured song, libation and prayer, West African drumming and dancing, and the inaugural planting of an Externality — a new public monument to the power of the living dead, hand-carved from a tree killed in Pacific Northwest wildfires. Permanently installed on land stewarded by Clairton resident Melanie Meade, the carving now overlooks US Steel Clairton Coke Works, glaring defiantly at a facility that is causing enormous health harms for the largely poor Black population living in its shadow.

Melanie’s speech testified to the deep pain, grief, and suffering that she shares with people living on industrial fence-lines across the country, but also to the power that their coming-together represents:

We need to unite with all of you. Those of you in the city of Pittsburgh need to identify with the Mon Valley. And the Mon Valley needs to identify with Louisiana, the Gulf South, and the West Coast. It's time that we come together and realize that this destruction and pain is experienced by all of us equally.

There is no sitting the fence. There is only telling the truth. And the truth is: pollution kills. Capitalism kills. And I want you all to remember: we refuse to die.

I buried my father in 2013, my mother six months later, my sister in 2015, my baby brother in 2020. I am now the last living, immediate relative of this family.

And I will not let them take my land. I will not let them tell my story and I will not let them take my history.This statue will be here. It is not moving. It will not be removed. And you will all see it any time you’d like to stop and visit.

Because it's time that we honor our nature. And our nature has always been to live with nature as one. We are not against nature and we do not exploit. We are loving and caring of our nature. Let us return to it. We refuse to die.

This was the first of many carvings to be installed in the yards of Appalachian and Gulf South residents living near petrochemical facilities and other energy infrastructures that are harming public and environmental health. Up next is a ceremony in East Palestine, Ohio, on February 3, 2024, the one-year anniversary of the catastrophic Norfolk Southern train derailment.

If this campaign represents a new chapter in the environmental justice fight, it is a chapter rooted in tradition — in the struggles of the ancestors, whose victories and losses we inherit, whose lessons we learn from, and whose spirits we awaken in our collective work.

Photo: Mark Dixon

Reminding those in attendance that they stand on the shoulders of giants, Gebre concluded her remarks with a poem by Jamaican-American poet Claude McKay:

If we must die, let it be not like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursed lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave
And for their thousand blows deal one deathblow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!
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