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Brown Lung and Modern Atrocities

November 30, 2009

Brown Lung disease or Byssinosis, similar to the Black Lung so prevalent in the coal mines, was a common affliction of the cotton mill worker. The disease manifested itself after a lifetime in the mill where floating cotton fluff from the constantly working machines was inhaled, and after continual exposure eventually led to the narrowing of the lung airways. Workers would wheeze, cough, and experience a constant shortens of breath, which would seem to ease over the weekend away from the mill, but would then be redoubled upon return. The mills pretended that the disease did not exist, and often blamed the symptoms on asthma. As sad as the past treatment in regards to mill workers is, the most truly horrifying thing is that it is still an issue today. In the 1970s in a North Carolina cotton mill, a worker reported that, “The company knows of this trouble, but they don’t even want you to talk about it.” (Kahn). Still, over a century later, mills fail to properly care for their workers. While no Brown Lung songs are readily apparent, there is a Black Lung song by Hazel Dickens that speaks to the same troubles facing textile workers. This disease was one of the most feared because it was so completely disabling. A sick worker was not a fast worker, and due to the lack of any sort of medical plan, and a general consensus from the mill leaders that the affliction was fictitious, there was really no way to recover.

Black lung, black lung, you’re just biding your time.
Soon all this suffering I’ll leave behind,
But I can’t help but wonder what God had in mind
To send such a devil to claim this soul of mine.

He went to the bossman but he closed the door.
Oh, it seems you’re not wanted when you’re sick and you’re poor.
You’re not even covered in their medical plan
And your life depends on the favors of man.

Down in the poor house on starvation’s plan,
Where pride is a stranger and doomed is a man,
His soul full of coal dust till his body’s decayed,
And everyone but black lung’s done turned him away. (Dickens, Classic Labor Songs, track 16)

Despite the progression of the rest of the working world, there are still Southern mills that function in almost the same fashion as they did one hundred years ago. The mill town still exists, and the mill workers are still over worked and under paid.
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