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Black History Month, day 4

When I was a wee little thing, entranced by tall tales and morbidly drawn to sad endings, I loved the story of John Henry. Then as I grew up, more and more meanings accreted to it. First, “humanity versus machine,” and then, various racial meanings. John Henry was a black hero. What did the story mean as a metaphor for African American experiences? It held so many possibilities: pride in blackness, exploitation of black labor, the triumph of the spirit even when the body doesn’t stand a chance against the machine of racism . . .

I was so excited when I learned that Colson Whitehead had devoted an entire novel to it, since as I wrote yesterday, I’m a fan of his writing. And next month, a man at the congregation I serve, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, will be presenting an Adult Religious Education program called John Henryism and the Health of African Americans.  His name is Dr. Sherman James; he’s a member of the UU church in Little Rock, and he’s among us all year while he is a Fellow at Stanford pursuing his research in social epidemiology. Dr. James proposed the “John Henryism Hypothesis” to describe how “a strong behavioral predisposition to cope actively with psychosocial environmental stressors” is part of the cause of the high rate of hypertension and other stress-related illnesses among African Americans.

Of various moments of racial-awareness awakening, one that has long remained in my memory was reading an article seeking to explain why high blood pressure is so common among African Americans. It earnestly proposed cultural explanations such as the soul food diet, a genetic tendency toward sensitivity to salt, etc., and I read in disbelief as the reporter danced around the elephant in the room. You know how you yell helpful/angry suggestions at the screen sometimes? You can do that with a newspaper too, with the added benefit of being able to shake the pages for emphasis as you shout, “Um, poverty? Racism? Hello?”

So other than the pleasures of having Dr. James as a member (however transitory) of our church just because he’s an interesting and pleasant person, I’m excited about his professional work, and I’m so glad he’s bringing it to an audience here.

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