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The 172nd Cutter Lecture in Preventive Medicine – To Race with the World: John Henryism and the Health of Black Americans
2021/05/14 @ 4:15 pm - 5:15 pm
The Department of Epidemiology Presents:
To Race with the World: John Henryism and the Health of Black Americans
Sherman A. James, PhD
Susan B. King Distinguished Professor Emeritus
Sanford School of Public Policy
The daunting racial inequities in education, income, housing, and health care borne by Black Americans at the turn of the 20th century led W.E.B. DuBois to assert in his 1903 classic, The Souls of Black Folks: “A people thus handicapped ought not to be asked to race with the world, but rather allowed to give all its time and thought to its own social problems…” But race they did, out of necessity and a determination to exercise agency despite the constraints of a racial caste system now codified in both law and social customs. Few expressions of late 19th century Black folk culture better captured what this “race with the world” would entail than the legend of John Henry – the steel driving man. Challenged to race against a machine in an epic steel-driving contest, the legendary steel-driver – most likely a convict laborer – beat the machine but then dropped dead from exhaustion. Thus, John Henryism refers to “repeated, high-effort coping with difficult social and economic stressors;” and by extension, the John Henryism hypothesis posits that, over time, such high-effort coping accelerates aging of the cardiovascular system, with one key manifestation among Black Americans being an earlier onset in adulthood of high blood pressure. I will discuss the historical and scientific origins of the John Henryism hypothesis; critically review findings from major tests of the hypothesis; outline future research priorities; and conclude with some thoughts on how John Henryism theory can inform social and economic policies that include racial health equity among their objectives.