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John Henry/John Henry Syndrome/John Henryism

Success is most often achieved by those who don't know that failure is inevitable-Coco Chanel

Beautiful People!! Let's Go!!

John Henry was a little baby, sitting on the his papa's knee

He picked up a hammer and little piece of steel

Said "Hammer's gonna be the death of me, Lord, Lord

Hammer's gonna be the death of me"

The captain said to John Henry

"Gonna bring that steam drill 'round

Gonna bring that sterm drill out on the job

Gonna whop that steel on down, Lord, Lord

Gonna whop that steel on down"

John Henry told his captain

"A man ain't nothing but a man

But before I let your steam drill beat me down

I'd die with a hammer in my hand, Lord, Lord

I'd die with a hammer in my hand"

John Henry said to his shaker

"Shaker, why don't you sing?

I'm throwin' thirty pounds from my hips on down

Just listen to that cold steel ring, Lord, Lord

Just listen to that cold steel ring"

John Henry said to his shaker

"Shaker, you'd better pray

'Cause if I miss that little piece of steel

Tomorrow be your buryin' day, Lord, Lord

Tomorrow be your buryin' day"

The shaker said to John Henry

"I think this mountain's cavin' in!"

John Henry said to his shaker, "Man

That ain't nothin' but my hammer suckin' wind! Lord, Lord

That ain't nothin' but my hammer suckin' wind!"

Now the man that invented the steam drill

Thought he was mighty fine

But John Henry made fifteen feet

The steam drill only made nine, Lord, Lord

The steam drill only made nine

John Henry hammered in the mountains

His hammer was striking fire

But he worked so hard, he broke his poor heart

He laid down his hammer and he died, Lord, Lord

He laid down his hammer and he died

As a child, this was my exposure to John Henry; I imagined a larger than life giant of a black man to, epic superhero proportion each time I heard this song. For most of my life, I have always thought of John Henry as well-known folklore; little did I know that there was an actual John Henry, and he would be representative of many of our black men today.

How so?

First, the backstory. John Henry is considered one of the more famous American folklore. He was a former slave who trailblazed the American frontier in the 19th century. The legend was, John Henry was a man of massive physical power who brandished a sledgehammer to make a path for America's widening railroads. He was also a man with amazing determination. When the railroad overseer threatened to replace the workers with a brand new hammer that was steam-driven, John Henry challenged the owner's machine to a test of strength. He won and died due to exhaustion.

This is the story many of us know of John Henry. However, there is another John Henry who was not that well known. Though he and the folklore here share the same maladaptive obstinacy that killed the folk hero, in real life, John Henry Martin fled a poverty-stricken sharecropper's life through raw perseverance, he taught himself to read and write, and with attitude and hard work, he secured a farm on his own by the time he was 40, only to die in his 50's as a result of hypertension, a peptic ulcer, and arthritis.

My friend Mark, when discussing the death of his father at the age of 62, referred to his dad as having John Henry syndrome or John Henryism (a term created in the 1980s)-a strong-headed, willed, never backing down or giving up attitude towards life and its trials; with the coping style and attitude that ironically seems to end up in all types of disease and pathology among the poor.

In the eyes of social theory, John Henry was a man struggling to get a leg up in a cruel and unequal society. The effort of going head to head with the "machine" on a daily basis, exacerbated over a lifetime leads to stressors so corrosive that physically, bodies change, causing black men to age rapidly, incur many health issues (hence, John Henryism), and eventually die younger than almost any U.S. demographic group.

Mark's father was one of those individuals who was everything to everyone; he had a gregarious personality and when his wife passed away in the midst of their children's adolescence, he had to raise his 3 sons as a single parent. Mark's father worked in construction; he worked long hours and took on odd jobs where available, in order to care for his sons. He carried the stressors of his efforts in his kidneys, heart, and blood vessels, and at 6'5 and close to 100 pounds overweight, his body welcomed diabetes and hypertension. Years later he would die of a heart attack.

As I reflected on Mark's father, and this idea of John Henryism or syndrome, It seems that hard work and reliance were the only way that black people (men in particular) could attain real freedom and this physical exertion that is tied into racism that most, if not all black men face could cause serious repercussions in the form of severe health issues that may lead to an early death. John Henryism is not just the product of serious psychological stress; it is the product of both the severity of stress and the prolonged serious effort from coping with the turmoil of racism-this combination of the two creates it.

It’s a harsh fact of life that the poor get sicker, and die sooner than the rest of us. There are many possible reasons for this cruel disparity, ranging from stress and despair and risky lifestyle to dysfunctional homes and violent neighborhoods and more—far too many intertwined factors to ameliorate easily. As a result, health psychologists have in recent years turned their attention to the outliers—the poor people who nevertheless live long and healthy lives. Why do these people not succumb to all the forces, social and physical, working against them? What are they doing right?

One thing they are doing right is avoiding John Henryism. In fact, they display a constellation of traits that add up to the opposite of John Henryism. These traits are part of a protective coping style called “shifting.” They appear to buffer the poor from the pathological processes—like inflammation and high blood pressure—that leads over time to disease and death.

Many empirical studies have documented the power of psychological shifting, which involves regularly reappraising one’s circumstances as a way of regulating emotion. It means accepting life as it is, but adjusting to its travails by reframing them in positive ways. This kind of self-regulation probably works for the poor because it’s a good fit with the threatening circumstances they encounter all the time. Indeed, studies have shown that those who make brave and determined efforts to control their difficult circumstances—the John Henrys of the world—do not end up feeling empowered; indeed the opposite. Such willfulness takes a physiological toll: John Henrys have higher blood pressure and run a higher risk of hypertension than do people who are accepting and adaptive.

Shifting is not enough in itself to trump the pathologies of poverty. The healthy outliers also display a group of traits called “persisting.” Persisting may sound like John Henryism, but it’s not, and the distinction is important. John Henryism is a stubborn persistence against impossible odds; it’s a failure to recognize what’s beyond personal control. Healthy persisting means coping with adversity by finding meaning in one’s circumstances, and remaining optimistic about the future. This habitual search for meaning allows the down-and-out to stay hopeful—and physically healthy. In one study, poor subjects who reported having a higher purpose in life also showed lower levels of inflammation, a pathological process linked to heart disease. There was no such link in more well-to-do subjects.

Shifting and persisting are most effective in combination; poor people who both rethink their troubles and hold on to their hopes—these people benefit more than those who practice one coping strategy or the other. This “shift and persist” strategy fits with the real-life constraints on the lives of the poor, who often lack the resources to attack their problems head-on. Many studies support this view: In one, for example, people who grew up in poverty, but who used both coping strategies as adults, had the lowest physiological risk for disease. In another study, asthmatic children who had a shift-and-persist approach to life has less asthmatic inflammation and impairment; they missed few days of school and used their inhalers much less often.

So why do some poor people adopt a shift-and-persist strategy, while others do not? Where do these traits come from? Studies show that it has everything to do with role models, especially early in life. Positive role models allow poor children to believe that other people can be trustworthy and reliable, and this belief, in turn, shapes the way kids think about their stressful lives. Role models also model effective emotional regulation and optimism about the future; those with supportive and inspiring role models were more likely to use adaptive coping styles—and they had less inflammation and lower cholesterol, meaning less risk for heart disease.

Society’s ultimate goal should work to eliminate poverty, and the stresses that are sickening and killing our most unfortunate. Until that happens, it’s plausible that interventions could be used to instill shift-and-persist traits in more of the disadvantaged, especially black and brown children, and in doing so improve their health prospects now. Symbolically, that means inventing a more accepting, adaptive, and hopeful folk hero to displace the stubbornly unheroic, and self-destructive, John Henry.


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