88. John Henry

I have always wondered why John Henry is a folk hero.

Maybe it’s just a folk song. Maybe it isn’t supposed to make sense. I never worry about the fact that Stewball “never drank water, he only drank wine”; I do have a tendency to overthink things.

But let’s look at the facts. John Henry is big, strong, uneducated and very black. Symbolically black, even. As a ”little bitty baby” he picks up a hammer and accepts his fate. He works himself to death for white folks, while they stand around and bet against him. Then his wife takes over when he’s dead, and the story goes on unchanged.

Sounds pretty damned Jim Crow to me.

A technical point here, so it all makes sense. As a “steel drivin’ man”, John Henry is not spiking down rails to ties. He is digging tunnels. He is swinging a doublejack, a two handed medium weight sledge hammer. He is hitting a star drill, which is a steel rod about a yard long ending in a hardened cross bit. Every time John Henry hits the drill, another inch of rock is pulverized in the bottom of a hole. Between each stroke, his assistant turns the drill an eighth of a turn.

Men with John Henry’s job spent their days drilling holes in the face of a tunnel. Those holes were then filled with black powder or dynamite, depending on the era, and blasted. Then the drill men moved back in to do it all over again.

Imagine working in near darkness, covered with sweat and stone dust, breathing in the fumes from the last blast, damp and cold in winter, damp and hot in summer. Tough for John Henry; terrifying for his assistant, holding the drill steady, turning it only in that moment when the hammer is drawn back, and knowing that if John Henry ever misses, he’s dog meat.

It gets worse.

It is useful to those in power to have a large population of the powerless and hungry. Slaves fit that bill very well; so do new immigrants. Today we have the working poor, who are kept humble by the myth that if you can’t make it in America, it’s your own fault. You aren’t working hard enough (see post 5.).

Immediately after the Civil War, white southerners found a way to get back some of their power and some of their slaves. They simply arrested and imprisoned newly freed blacks, then rented them out. They invented the chain gang. If you are trying to find historical reasons why blacks fill our prisons and why our police are so often corrupt, chances are pretty good your research will lead you to those events.

What does this have to do with John Henry? In searching for the man behind the legend, writer Scott Reynolds Nelson’s* discoveries suggest that John Henry was one of these convict-slaves.

John Henry was a man who could not break his chains, but was still a man for all that. His status as a black hero makes sense.

Still . . ., if I were borrowing all this to make a story, I would rewrite it so that John Henry used his hammer to brain the overseer. But, of course, the real John Henry could never do that, and today’s black community would not accept such a cheap answer, or such an easy road to freedom. It would not match up with their own experiences.

History is usually uglier than anything we novelists can invent.

*Scott Reynolds Nelson. Steel Drivin’ Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend.

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