Monthly Archives: February 2018

467. Steel Drivin’ Man

So we come to the end of another Black History Month. I have said some new things, and repeated some posts that could not be said better. This is one of those repeats; it originally appeared as 88. John Henry, January 28, 2016.

The battle goes on, not just for “blacks” (who aren’t fully black) and “whites” (who aren’t fully white), gays, Latinos . . . the list goes on. If life permits, I’ll be back next year, beating the same drum. I won’t be here forever, but when I’m gone, you will still be here. It will be up to you then.

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.Labor Day).

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.

Symphony 98


“Mrs. Herrera, the way Jesse act’s in class . . . “


“It’s probably just the way he remembers his father acting during those last two years. It’s up to you to talk to the counselor and stop him before he destroys himself.”

“I can’t.”

“Mrs. Herrera, you managed to tell me.”


“Please. For Jesus’ sake.”

He could barely hear her as she said, “I’ll try.”

# # #

Neil was still thinking about the Herreras when Lisa Cobb came to him before school the next morning and asked, “Did you read my paper?”

After the Stockton incident, Neil had told each student to write about what made him feel most threatened. He said, “Sorry, Lisa, I was so busy last night that I didn’t correct anything. I’ll get to them tonight.”

“Oh,” she said, “I was just worried because I didn’t write what you asked for. I don’t have anything that makes me feel threatened, so I made up a story about a girl who did. Is that all right?”

Neil smiled. “Isn’t there anything you are afraid of? The dark; tight places; Freddie Kruger?”

Lisa said, “No, nothing,” but she couldn’t look at Neil when she said it.

# # #

That night Neil read Lisa’s story first. It said:

There was a girl named Julie who lived alone with her mother. They were just like best friends, and every time Julie’s mother went shopping or to a ball game or did anything fun, she always took Julie with her.

Then one day a stranger came to Julie’s house. Julie’s mother let him in and fed him because he seemed to be hungry. Then he went away, but he came back, and later he came back again. Every time he came back, Julie begged her mother not too let him in, but she said he was all right and “A nice guy!” and she would always let him in. But Julie didn’t like the way he looked at her.

Then one day the guy said “I like it here. I don’t think I’ll go home” So he stayed all night in the kitchen while Julie lay awake and wondered what he was doing. That night she thought she heard him walking around outside her bedroom but in the morning he was gone and she was glad.

Now she and her mother are all right and Julie is happy again, sort of, but she wonders if he will come back and if he does will her mother let him in again.

Julie didn’t like him cause he yelled at her a lot.

Neil set the story aside. It was profoundly disturbing. Many of the images came right out of prime time television, but Lisa had invested those images with a personal energy that was like a cry for help. He was further troubled by knowing that he had had this feeling before in connection with Lisa, but he could not remember when. more tomorrow

Symphony 97

“So Jesus has always lived here.”

“Always. Always in the same room. Before he was born, Miguel and I set it up as a nursery, and when he was five we redecorated it for him.”

In the quiet house, an old fashioned clock chimed eleven times. Neil could see the ghost of Miguel Herrera walking about behind his wife’s eyes, but the picture would not come clear. Not yet.

“Miguel must have liked having a son, to go to that much trouble.”

“He loved him,” Mrs. Herrera said, and the ghost became more cloudy still. She meant it. Right or wrong, she believed what she said, so what was the truth? “He couldn’t wait to go to the nursery when he got home. He loved that boy more than anything.”

Neil sat in silent confusion. He remembered her words in Bill Campbell’s office and they were at odds with what she was saying now. She had said,  All Jesus remembers of his father is how he punished him. I don’t want Jesus to remember me that way.

Neil quoted those words to her.

“That was later,” she said. “That was after Miguel got sick.”

“Was he an alcoholic?”

“No, never!”

“What did your husband die from?”


Neil finally got a glimmer of understanding. He asked, “Was it a brain tumor?”

Mrs. Herrera nodded.

“And did his behavior change after he got sick?”

She nodded again. Then she suddenly grabbed Neil’s arm as if she had betrayed her husband’s memory and whispered hoarsely, “But it wasn’t his fault!”

Neil took her hand in his and said, “No, Mrs. Herrera, I’m sure it wasn’t his fault. A man who has a something growing inside his head will sometimes do strange things. Things that aren’t like the person he really is.”

In Neil’s imagination, the whole pitiful scene was clear. Miguel Herrera, upstanding, honorable, hard working, had established himself in business first, then had married a woman some years younger than himself. He had moved her directly into the home he had provided for her and there she bore him a child. A child he had loved and cherished. It would have been a just reward for labor and self-sacrifice. And then fate, through disease, had torn it all away from him. 

It was not enough for Miguel Herrera simply to die. The malignancy inside his head had twisted his mind, and in the frustration at the coming end to all he had planned, he had struck out at the ones he loved most.

Neil’s voice almost failed him as he asked, “How long was your husband — very ill?”

“Nearly two years.”

“How old was Jesus when his father died?”


“So Jesus’s father was — not acting like himself — from the time Jesse was five until he was seven; and then he died.”

She nodded mutely.

“Mrs. Herrera, you have to understand what this means. Those two years are probably the only memories that Jesse has of his father.”

Mrs. Herrera rolled her head up to stare Neil in the face.  She whispered, “Don’t you think I know that!”

“You can’t let him go on like this.”

“I’ve told him what his father was really like. He just won’t listen.”

“Have you told your counselor what you just told me?”


“You must. You have to. If you don’t, he can’t help you. You have to let him know about Jesse and his father or there is no use in going to him.” more tomorrow

466. Nothing But White

The first African slaves arrived in America in 1619. That’s 399 years ago. If we count twenty-five years as a generation, that’s 16 generations.

Now, lets look at you and your ancestors. Chances are, they haven’t been in America for 16 generations. In fact, this being the internet, chances are you aren’t even in America, so let me explain.

Here in America, whether you are white or black is a big deal.

If you are from India, or Indonesia, or the Philippines, or just about any place else in the world, you are likely to have your own racial and ethnic issues. Your tangle may be different from our tangle, but it’s probably just as tangled.

Being black or white in America isn’t as big a deal as when I was a kid, but it’s still big. And that is true even though there is probably no American black who is actually, fully, and truly black. Don’t take my word for it. Here is what Langston Hughes, negro poet,  said in his autobiography:

You see, unfortunately, I am not black. There are lots of different kinds of blood in our family. 

Being white in America is a big deal too, in the other direction. And that is true even though very few whites are actually, fully, and truly white. Don’t take my word for it. In 1895, speaking against defining whiteness in the new South Carolina constitution, Congressman George Tillman said:

It is a scientific fact that there is not one full-blooded Caucasian on the floor of this convention. Every member has in him a certain mixture of… colored blood…It would be a cruel injustice and the source of endless litigation, of scandal, horror, feud, and bloodshed to undertake to annul or forbid marriage for a remote, perhaps obsolete trace of Negro blood.

A generation later, several southern states did define race, declaring that one black ancestor, however distant, was enough to turn a white man black. It was a sad day for those perceived to be black, and a bad day for truth.

Back to your ancestors. You had two parents (we’re speaking biologically here) and they had four parents and they had eight parents . . .; up the line 16 generations, that’s just under 33,000 ancestors sending their DNA down the line.

Can that be right? Let’s look. The first generation is you, alone, and for the rest we will need a chart.

generation     number of ancestors

               2                     2
               3                     4
               4                     8
               5                    16
               6                    32
               7                    64
               8                  128
               9                  256
               10                512
               11                1024
               12                2048
               13                4096
               14                8192
               15                16384
               16                32768

You have 32,768 great . . . great grand parents. If you are a “white” person in America, what are the chances that not one of them was out of Africa?

If you are just of the plane from rural Norway with ancestors going back unbroken into antiquity, as soon as you have a child with an American who has been here, that child’s number becomes 16384. You can run scenarios to lower the number, but it will never drop below BIG.

All right, let’s say you are a member of the Aryan Nation, and your father and his father were Klansmen all the way back to Appomattox Courthouse. You only marry white girls, and only natural blondes at that. What are the chances that her thirteenth great grandmother wasn’t partly black and passing for white?

You don’t think so? Your ancestors knew better back in the 1800s.

Let’s go at this from the other direction. Suppose one black woman was made pregnant by her master in the first generation. How many of her descendants would carry at least a trace of African DNA? All of them. How many would that be?

Historically, women bore many children, and many of them died while young. Let’s say that the average woman had four children who lived long enough to have children of their own. That original black woman would have one billion, seventy three million, seven hundred forty one thousand, eight hundred twenty four descendants.

You don’t believe me? Get out your calculator. No, better make it a spreadsheet. You don’t think I did that math with pencil and paper, do you?

What are the chances than none of those children passed for white, and begat a line of offspring who are convinced that they are actually, fully, and truly white?

Let me put it another way —

Donald Trump is partly black. David Duke is partly black. Steve Bannon is partly black. You’re partly black. I’m partly black.

And my relatives just disowned me. That’s mighty white of them!

Symphony 96

She motioned him to the sofa and sat in an armchair facing him. He asked, “Is Jesus around?”

“He was already in bed when you called. Do you need him? I would rather let him sleep.”

“No, just the opposite. I was hoping we could talk freely without worrying about whether or not he could hear us.”

“His bedroom is at the back of the house and his door is closed. He’ll never know you were here, unless I tell him.”

It was almost as if she wanted to make sure that Jesse never knew Neil had come into their house. There was no doubt something to be learned from that, but Neil had not come to attend to subtleties. He was here for crude facts.

“Mrs. Herrera, I told you what Jesus did today. His behavior was more than thoughtless or mischievous. The boy is full of hatred. If I am going to help him, I have to understand why. If I can’t, there is no use in having him come back to my class.”

It seemed that Mrs. Herrera had spent the time since he called rallying her resources. She asked sharply, “How did Jesus get home from school? Nobody called me.”

“He walked.”

“He walked! You mean you just sent him away without . . .”

“Oh, shut up!” Neil shouted, then cut back the volume immediately. His outburst stopped them both. He had not realized how close to the edge he was. She burst into tears. “Mrs. Herrera,” he continued, “you have to stop dancing around the problem. How Jesus got home isn’t important now. He has a real problem and if you can’t solve it while he is eleven, how are you going to handle him when he is sixteen?”

Mrs. Herrera wiped her face and slid back in her chair, as if to get as far from Neil as she could.

And, with the cold clarity of inspiration, he knew what had been happening.

To test his sudden understanding, he stood up and moved abruptly toward her. She cowered back into her chair. He stepped back and said, “So that is how it was?”

“I don’t know what you mean?”

“You know exactly what I mean, Mrs. Herrera. I’ve seen that reaction twice before, on Jesus. Either you beat him, or his father used to beat him and he never got over it. You just told me which.”

“Miguel never beat anybody!”



“Then why did you cringe? Why does Jesse cringe?”

“It’s you, that’s why.”

“No,” Neil replied softly, “it isn’t me. I won’t take the blame for this. No one else cringes from me.”

He sat down again and waited for Mrs. Herrera to regain her composure. Then he said, “Tell me about your husband.”

“Miguel didn’t beat me.”

Suddenly, Neil was struck by the falseness of his position. He had no business here cross-examining this woman. If she was a battered wife caught up in a pattern of denial, that was simply none of his business. And how could he be so sure that he had hit the right answer. He was no psychologist.

Yet, now that he had forced himself upon her in the name of saving Jesse from himself, he was committed to stay the course.

“Just tell me about him. How long were you married?”

“Eight years.”

“Did you live here, in this house?”

“Yes.” Her voice was still suspicious, but as she began to talk, she could not stop herself. “We moved here right after we were married. Miguel was ten years older than me, and he had already established himself in real estate before we got married. That’s how he found this house. He looked for one that was a really good deal while he was selling houses to other people. He had bought this one and furnished it before we were married.” more tomorrow

Symphony 95

“Of course, you are right.” Neil gnawed on a knuckle for a moment before continuing, “Still, don’t you ever wonder what might become of the kids you teach?”


“What would it feel like twenty or thirty years from now if one of our kids discovered a cure for a some disease, or won a Nobel Prize — or became a serial killer. Gandhi and Hitler both had parents, and both had teachers. How did they feel, I wonder? Were they proud of what they had done, or were they ashamed? Did they try to hog some of the credit, or shoulder some of the blame?”

Carmen said, “What have you done to bring on this preoccupation with guilt?”

There it was — his opportunity. He would never have a better time to tell her about Alice Hamilton’s false accusations, and get rid of the barrier he had built between them.

She sat, waiting, in faded jeans and a sweater, with her feet tucked up beneath her. Lean and lovely, warm, dark, vibrantly alive, hair a frizzled cloud around her head, and her eyes a brown he could drown in. Waiting.

He asked himself, Do you love her?

He reached out his hand and she took it in hers, running her thumb down his palm. He felt his heart turn over within him at the nearness of her. I have never lain with her, nor even held her naked breasts in my hands, but already I love her more than I loved Lynn, whom I lived with and would have married.

Yet Lynn had betrayed him in his time of need, and he feared to try Carmen’s loyalty for fear that he would lose her too. And so the moment passed.

# # #

Neil drove home and rummaged through his desk until he found Mrs. Herrera’s phone number. She answered on the fifth ring, sounding tired and distracted. He said, “I need to see you tonight.”

“Tonight? You can’t be serious.”

“I have never been more serious. What did Jesse tell you about today?”

“Jesus didn’t tell my anything,” she replied in a sharp, defensive voice.

“He didn’t tell you that I sent him home five minutes after he got there for pretending he was Patrick Purdy and mock-killing half the students on the playground?”

There was silence on the other end for so long that Neil had begun to think Mrs. Herrera had hung up. Finally he heard faint sobs that went on for a long time. Then a very weak voice said, “What can I do?”

“I’m coming over.”

“No! I can’t. I can’t talk to you now.”

“Mrs. Herrera you have only two choices. Talk to me now, and really talk. Don’t give me some run around, but actually tell me what you know about Jesse’s problems. Or start looking for another school tomorrow, because if we can’t get this settled right now, Jesse is not coming back to my room.”

She agreed.

He arrived at her house twenty minutes later. It was larger and in a nicer neighborhood than Neil had expected. Mrs. Herrera would certainly have a hard time paying for such a house on one salary, so it probably dated from before her husband’s death.

She met him at the door and led him into the living room. The furniture was well built and stylish. It had been expensive once, but now it was shabby. It was clean and neat; there were no toys underfoot to give evidence that a child lived there. more Monday

465. Black, White, Aryan, Jew

This is a slightly rewritten republication of a post of the same name from 2016. It is important enough to say again, basically unchanged.

In America, race means black and white. It’s basically a construct. It is a handy visual tool we use so we can tell us from them.

We all partake of the same gene pool, varying only in the amount of various genes we possess. Take the whitest non-albino; put him on one end of the line. Take the blackest black and put him on the other. Assemble the millions of the rest of us and put us in between. There would be no break in the gradation.

Nevertheless, race is still here, so embedded in our national consciousness that the truth of our unity is swamped by the voice in our heads screaming, “I don’t care. Blacks are still blacks, and whites are still whites!”

This kind of confusion about basic reality leads to tragedy, and not only in America. Try this sentence:

In the days of the Third Reich, Germans persecuted Jews.

If this sentence sounds accurate, you are missing a few points. The Jews who were sent to the death camps were largely Germans. I am sure that was no comfort to them, and it isn’t the most salient fact about the situation. But it is important. If we put a wrong label on something, it makes it hard to think clearly about that thing. This process is still going on, as today’s politicians turn complexities into sound bites.

Hitler offered simplified and false solutions to real problems, based on the idea that there was a German race and a Jewish race. Jewish is not a race. It is a religion, and sometimes an ethnic group.

German is not a race. It is a language, and it is shared by several countries other than Germany. Germanism is also an attempt by the late-formed country of Germany to find national unity in a semi-mythical past.

Aryan is not a race. If you say Aryan in today’s world, it will evoke Hitler’s movement to elevate his blonde, blue-eyed “super race” to world supremacy. That super race is a myth made up of equal parts hatred and scientific misunderstanding.

In fact, the term Aryan originates in northern India, 3500 years ago. It refers to the “light skinned” conquerors who drove out or enslaved the dark skinned native population. The word Iranian is a modern variant of the word Aryan. As for the “light skinned” conquerors, think Koothrappali from the Big Bang Theory. The Aryans were light skinned only compared to the people they conquered.

Hitler should be rolling over in his grave at the thought, but he got his information third hand.

It started with Max Muller, an honest German born-scholar who spent his career at Oxford. Linguists of his day discovered the link between the languages of Europe and South Asia, and developed the notion of an Indo-European language family. They believed this family of languages originated in the southwestern steppes of Russia, and was introduced into South Asia through the Aryan invaders. Muller was a strong proponent of Aryan culture, considering it one of the greatest developments of mankind. By Aryan, he meant the culture of India. After others had misrepresented his ideas, he clarified that Aryan culture did not imply an Aryan race. No one listened.

As time passed, proponents of European superiority such as Arthur de Gobineau moved the origin place of the Indo-European language family to northern Europe, confused current notions of race (such as Nordic, Alpine, and Mediterranean) with the linguistic and cultural classification Aryan. They “invented” the Aryan race, which they considered to be light skinned in the European sense, the originators of civilization, and superior to all others.

The caramel skinned invaders of India had been thoroughly whitewashed.

The last member of this trio is Huston Stewart Chamberlain, born in England, raised in France, and ending his life in Germany, converted to German superiority by Wagner’s music. He wrote the Foundations of the Nineteenth Century, in which he saw the history of the world entirely in terms of conflict between the Aryan and Jewish races. It became a bible of Nazism, and Chamberlain became a mentor to Hitler.

Labels like Jew and Aryan matter, just as labels like black and white matter in America. A “Jew” in Nazi Germany might be a Zionist extremist who believed that God chose his people and would smite all his enemies. He might be a modernistic non-believer who had repudiated his Jewish ancestors, read Nietzsche, and listened to Wagner. He might even be some poor schmuck who just got misidentified. It would all be the same in Auschwitz.

The Aryans that Hitler believed in, didn’t exist at all.