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The legend of John Henry takes place in the 1800s. Henry is a Black American railroad worker pitted in a contest of man against machine. His job was to hammer metal rods into rocks to prepare them for explosion. A steam-powered drill had been developed to replace the manual hammering process typically done by railroad workers. Henry accepted a challenge to prove that he could “beat” the machine; as it threatened his livelihood and that of other railroad workers. John Henry beat the machine despite the odds but later died from the stress and exhaustion of overexerting himself. His story has been chronicled in books and films.

Epidemiologist Sherman James coined the term John Henryism to describe adverse health outcomes and disparities experienced by Black Americans due to racial oppression. James initially became interested in studying the possible correlation between adverse health outcomes and racial oppression in the 1970s.   During that time, he encountered a black man named John Henry Martin. His life paralleled John Henry’s in many ways, including sharing the same first and middle name. Martin was a farmer who battled racial oppression and inequities in the rural south of the U.S. during the 20th century. He was born into an impoverished family. His formal education ended after second grade when he began working to help support his family. Martin taught himself to read and write. By the time he was 40 years old, he owned 75 acres of land in North Carolina. Martin worked tirelessly to pay off his farm loan debt within 5 years. Though he accomplished his goal of owning property and paying off his farm loan; the stress significantly impacted his health. By the time he reached his 50’s he had suffered from high blood pressure, arthritis, and peptic ulcer disease. The peptic ulcer disease was so significant 40% of his stomach was surgically removed.

Martin’s story is not unique. Many Black Americans have experienced health-related concerns due to the impact of racial oppression. Recognizing the similarities between John Henry Martin and John Henry led Sherman James to develop the John Henryism Effect. This hypothesis suggests that racial oppression has hidden health impacts that exacerbate over time. It also predicts that individuals facing prolonged inequity, adversity, and/or oppression are often forced to engage in “high effort coping” strategies that may undermine their health outcomes.   

The hypothesis predicts that when people face prolonged adversity – against inequality, financial hardship, and racial discrimination – the “high-effort coping” strategies that actually result in required to thrive will damage their health through stress. A greater likelihood of cardiovascular disease, heart attacks, and other problems follows. In reflecting on the lives of farmer John Henry Martin and railroad worker John Henry, James acknowledged that while success was possible, but “not without struggle and not without price.”   Click here to view a short video on The John Henryism Effect. 

Black Mail Fam, holla back at us! How does the John Henryism Effect resonate with you? Does it bring to mind any thoughts about working twice as hard and being twice as good to achieve half as much due to racial oppression? Let’s talk about it! We want to know what you think!

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