Understanding and avoiding John Henryism

OpenEyessquareHave you ever put 110 percent effort in at work or into a project? Have you ever felt like no matter how hard you worked, it was not enough? Have you ever felt the need to work harder than normal and still not get the credit or respect for your work? Do you think your efforts are affecting your health?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you might be suffering from John Henryism!

Yes, John Henryism! This is a condition of coping behaviors, rooted in traumatic stress, used by African Americans to combat psychosocial and environmental oppression. The classic forms of John Henryism are Black folks who are extremely preoccupied by “success” in areas in which we have historically been isolated, undervalued, or not respected.

One historical example of a Black person who could have had John Henryism is Jackie Robinson. The recent film 42 gave a very bland and neat version of the experience Jackie Robinson went through as he integrated professional baseball.

Mr. Robinson endured horrific acts of terrorism daily just to play professional baseball. He had to endure all this pressure, stress and torment and never show how painful his mistreatment and harm was. Mr. Robinson had to work very hard to maintain

Statue of John Henry outside the town of Talcott, West Virginia
Statue of John Henry outside the town
of Talcott, West Virginia

his “composure.” If composure was lost, Mr. Robinson would have been at risk of losing his life.

Sadly, Mr. Robinson died at the age of 52 of a heart attack due to heart complications and diabetes. These are both conditions typical of John Henryism.

Hypertension is one of the main results of John Henryism. Hypertension also remains one of the most important health problems Blacks face in the United States. Blacks have a higher rate of hypertension by the age of 50 than any other racial group. A high level of hypertension leads to greater risk of stroke and kidney disease.


Who was John Henry?

In the late 1800s, John Henry was a Black male who was known for the remarkable strength and endurance he displayed in his work on railroads and tunnels. Henry was known as a “steel-driving man.”

In West Virginia during the early 1870s, Mr. Henry was put up against a mechanical stream drill for a famous steel-driving contest. This is where we get the concept of “man against machine.” The contest was close. However, Mr. Henry, who swung a nine-pound hammer, won the race in the final seconds versus the machine.

Moments after the contest, Mr. Henry dropped dead from complete physical and mental exhaustion. He literally worked himself to death.


Are we conditioned to have John Henryism?

If we are to be honest, Black folks have been going against the machine (system) for quite some time. As Black folks, the racist society has a dynamic where we feel the need to prove we are better than what is perceived about us socially. This condition stems from the inferiority complex we have developed over time since slavery.

Oftentimes we are hit with messages (memes) that instruct us to participate in John Henryism, such messages as, “When you are Black, you have to work twice as hard” or “Never let them see you sweat.” Even now, younger folks are stay things like, “I am going H.A.M. (Hard as a Mother****)” or “He was in Beast Mode.” These messages suggest that we must take our natural abilities to a hyper level to accomplish normal objectives. This type of belief and understanding can become dangerous to Black folks.

How can we deal with (treat) John Henryism?

Unfortunately, there have been thousands of John Henrys in the Black community. John Henryism does not pertain to just one gender. This condition affects our mental and physical health very drastically.

A proactive approach is the best way to treat this condition. However, many of us are functioning with this condition right now and have been for some time. Here are three options that can help prevent and treat the condition of John Henryism:

1) Develop healthy social support (whether nonprofessional or professional). The company you keep is important. The company you keep will affect how you analyze, understand and handle situations.

2) Take time for yourself. Personal time is a must. Whether it is time to take a walk, exercise, leave from work, or get massages, make time for you to deescalate from unnecessary pressures.

3) Get your physical health checked out. A check-up at least once a year is a must. It is much better to be proactive and know what is going on with your body than to react to problems when it is too late.

Therefore, the next time someone states, “You are going to work yourself to death,” seriously consider your behaviors. What are you doing? What can you do differently? Are you taking the best care of yourself?

Now you know that you do not have to feel like you must “rage against the machine.” Self-care is extremely important. Whether it is the areas of parenting, dating, work or school, make sure you are taking the best possible care of yourself, because it really can mean life or death.


Brandon Jones M.A. is a mental health practitioner. He welcomes reader responses to openeyesopenmind@ymail.com or follow him on twitter@UniversalJones.