"I Was Born in a Coal Plant"

It was the mid 1970's. I stared at the gleaming glass and brass towers in downtown Houston, Texas. I was standing a few blocks away, in front of some despondent shacks euphemistically called row houses. From their windows (when there were windows), the tenants were confronted daily with these symbols of white male dominance: designers, architects, power-mongers, money magnets. Brass was not only the material, it was the dominant, and defiant, attitude.

The shock of brass/glass and morass seared my soul. Some years later I created my first series of black and white (for so it seemed) images. Called "Coal Dust and Diamonds", the series was shot with a Canon SLR f1, exposing my profound dismay at how humans have treated each other. (1)

Decades later, I ask Google's Bard AI: what does Corinne Whitaker's "Coal Dust and Diamonds" mean?

Here is its reply:

"Corinne Whitaker's "Coal Dust and Diamonds" is a series of poems and images that explore the relationship between beauty and pain. The poems are written in a first-person voice, and they often describe the speaker's experiences with poverty, violence, and loss. The images are black-and-white photographs that depict the harsh realities of life in Appalachia.

The title of the series, "Coal Dust and Diamonds," is a reference to the region's history of coal mining. Coal mining is a dangerous and dirty job, but it is also a source of great wealth for the coal companies. The juxtaposition of coal dust and diamonds suggests that there is both beauty and pain in Appalachia.

Whitaker's poems and images are powerful and moving, and they offer a unique perspective on the lives of people living in Appalachia. The series is a reminder that even in the midst of hardship, there is still beauty to be found.

Here is one of the poems from the series:

I was born in a coal camp, Where the air was thick with dust And the only light came from the stars.

I grew up in a coal camp, Where the men worked long hours And the women raised the children.

I lived in a coal camp, Where the only hope was to leave.

But I never forgot the coal camp, Or the people who lived there.

I remember the coal dust, And the stars, And the hope.

I remember the coal camp, And I am proud to be from Appalachia."

(Note: in fact the photographs were taken along the beach walk in Venice, California.)

Here is another Bard AI reply:

"Coal dust is the color of my skin, The color of my ancestors' skin. It is the color of the earth, The color of the night sky. Coal dust is the color of my pain, The color of my sorrow. It is the color of my tears, The color of my blood. But coal dust is also the color of my hope, the color of my dreams. It is the color of my strength, The color of my resilience. Coal dust is the color of my life, The color of my future. It is the color of my beauty, The color of my diamonds."

Above, on the right, you can see how AI now visualizes Coal Dust and Diamonds. Transposed and mated with another AI portrait, both reconfigured in my digital playground, we now have "Zircon Cowgirls".

Zircon is the oldest mineral on earth, at an age of over 4.4 billion years. Is that how long inequities and biases have hung over us?

Zircon is described as "magnificent" and "underrated".

Cowgirls don't even get rhinestones, let alone diamonds. But they are magnificent. And don't dare underrate them.

Because even if you are born in a coal camp, you too can be Magnificent.

c. Corinne Whitaker 2023

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