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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.

Continue reading “The John Henryism Effect: Exploring How Racial Oppression Creates Adverse Health Outcomes”