FEATURES • Spring 2003

 

Sherman James' hypothesis on "John Henryism" states that the psychological stress resulting from persistent social and economic oppression contributes to health problems in African Americans.

By C.B. Adams

Lissen to my story;
'Tis a story true;
'Bout a might man, — John Henry was his name,
An' John Henry was a steel-driver too —
Lawd, — Lawd, —
John Henry was a steel-driver too.

(A construction crew version of the ballad—one of many—about the legend of John Henry, the Steel-Driving Man)

Imagine the small town of Hartsville, South Carolina, in the late 1950s. Population: approximately 5,000. There is a black side of town and a white. That's just the way it was in many Southern towns. Consider the close-knit, working-class black side of town. There is the young Sherman James. His mother finished high school, his father the eighth grade. He loves learning under the tutelage of several strict nuns at the Catholic school he attends. He has almost no unsupervised contact with whites—and that's just the way his parents and the black community want it. He will have no white friends until he is in his 20s. He is immersed in small-town, Southern black culture. Certainly, he has heard about the legend of John Henry, the black railroad worker who outperformed a steam-driven drill.

Starting in the seventh grade, he gets a job working at the local pharmacy. Summers, he works in the morning. As he goes about his chores, he listens in on the conversation of the pharmacist, the dentist, and the physician—all black men of local distinction.

"These three black men had quite a lot of life experience. They were well-educated and had traveled quite a bit. They came together every day over coffee, and they debated just about everything under the sun. It was very educational listening to these men talk about life, science, politics," James says.

During the five years he works at the pharmacy, the men help him see life beyond Hartsville. He wants to be first in his family to earn a college degree, perhaps earn a professional degree, and definitely something in the field of health.

An African proverb says it takes a village to raise a child. In Sherman James' case, an important part of his village was the local black-owned pharmacy.

John Henry had a hammah;
Weighed nigh fo'ty poun';
Eb'ry time John made a strike
He seen his steel go 'bout two inches down,—
Lawd, — Lawd, —
He seen his steel go 'bout two inches down
.

In 1960, at the age of 16, James entered Talladega College, a historically black liberal arts college located 50 miles from Birmingham, Alabama. In 1964, he graduated with a bachelor's degree in psychology. He wasn't sure exactly what he wanted to do next, so he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in February 1965. James stayed stateside during the Vietnam War and made friends with his fellow white officers, one of whom had attended Washington University and spoke highly of the institution. Upon being discharged from the Air Force in 1969, James entered the doctoral program in clinical psychology at Washington University.

Though he began his studies in clinical psychology, he was drawn increasingly to social psychology because of that discipline's stronger emphasis on American race relations. When he read for personal enjoyment, he always chose books about American history and the African-American experience.

"That became my passion," James says. "Growing up in the segregated South, I wanted to understand how American race relations came to be what they were and what the possibilities were for improvement or reconciliation."

In December 1973, James received a Ph.D. in social psychology.

John Henry kissed his hammah;
White Man turned on steam;
Li'l Bill held John Henry's trusty steel,—
'Twas th' biggest race th' worl' had ever seen,—
Lawd, — Lawd, —
Th' biggest race th' worl' had ever seen.

In January 1973, James was contacted by a search committee in the Department of Epidemiology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC). After a two-day visit and interview process, James was offered an assistant professorship; he decided to accept it for two reasons.

"The first was the inspirational manner in which John Cassell (then chairman of epidemiology at UNC) talked about the field of epidemiology, its interdisciplinary character and its historic role in helping control epidemics and thus improve the life chances for people all over the world," James said in the spring 2002 issue of Psychronicle, the Washington University psychology department annual newsletter.

Second, James was ready to return to the South after almost a decade away. The position also provided the opportunity for James, his wife, and two sons to be near family.

"I had also heard that a lot of positive changes were occurring in the South, and I wanted to be a part of those changes," James says.

As the first black faculty member in the School of Public Health, and the fourth overall to be hired by UNC, James joined a distinguished group of public health researchers who were beginning to focus on racial and ethnic health disparities, especially the high death rate among blacks from hypertension, heart disease, and strokes. James' lifelong interest in African-American history, and his formal training in psychology, eventually led him to develop a new theory about how psychological stress resulting from social and economic oppression might contribute to the problem of excess hypertension in African Americans. He called the theory the "John Henryism Hypothesis."

John Henry, O, John Henry!
Blood am runnin' red!
Falls right down with his hammah to th' groun',
Says, "I've beat him to th' bottom but I'm dead,—
Lawd, — Lawd, —
I've beat him to th' bottom but I'm dead."

"John Henry died of either a massive heart attack or stroke, but his death was due to the enormous physical and mental toll that he endured during his struggle against the machine. I think the legend of John Henry is a metaphor of the African-American experience," James says. "It tells of the struggle of black Americans to be a part of mainstream America. It is a struggle that has played out against great odds and against very powerful forces of marginalization that continue to create wear and tear on the bodies and minds of African Americans, especially the poor and working classes."

James' ongoing research seeks to demonstrate how John Henryism, defined as "persistent high-effort coping with difficult and recurring social and economic stressors," contributes to the increased risk of hypertension, and related health problems, in African Americans. Over a 20-year period, he has conducted three large, independent tests of the John Henryism Hypothesis, with each indicating some support for the hypothesis. More studies are needed, James says, especially in large urban areas of the country where many blacks now live. The concept of John Henryism has spawned dozens of other studies, including studies in Europe and sub-Saharan Africa. The John Henryism Scale, which James developed, has been translated into eight languages.

In 1989, after 16 years at UNC, James accepted a professorship at the University of Michigan. He is currently the John P. Kirscht Collegiate Professor of Public Health with joint professorships in the Department of Epidemiology and in the Department of Health Behavior and Health Education. In 1998, he became the founding director of the Center for Research on Ethnicity, Culture, and Health—a forum for basic and applied public health research on the intersections of race, ethnicity, culture, socioeconomic status, and health.

"My career can be characterized as a constant unfolding. I started out being interested primarily in race relations. That unfolded into race relations and health, and the latter has given rise to a more complex set of concerns about social class, race, ethnicity, culture, and health," he says.

John Henry, O, John Henry!
Sing it if yo' can,—
High an' low an' ev'ry where yo' go,—
He died with his hammah in his han',—
Lawd, — Lawd, —
He died with his hammah in his han'.

During his years at UNC, James returned many times to his hometown, Hartsville. The pharmacist, dentist, and physician who were such strong influences on his career were still alive then, and James visited them frequently. He told them of his research and interests. "They were enormously proud of what I had done," James says.

C.B. Adams is a St. Louis-based writer.

 

 

Sherman James, Ph.D. '73, is the John P. Kirscht Collegiate Professor of Public Health in the School of Public Health at the University of Michigan. He is also the founding director of the School's Center for Research on Ethnicity, Culture, and Health. His work on "John Henryism" led to his election to the National Academy of Sciences in 2000.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
At the Center for Research on Ethnicity, Culture, and Health at the University of Michigan, Professor Sherman James works with Debbie Barrington (left), a doctoral student in epidemiology, and Edna Viruell-Fuentes, a doctoral candidate in health behavior/health education.