I don’t have much of my grandfather. In fact, I have next to nothing. It’s not hard to understand why; Solomon “Big Daddy” Harris lived in the rural, segregated town of Bracey, Virginia until 1987 when he passed – a number of years before I was born. Even then, his existence and relation to me have always felt muted. I know his face through one black-and-white portrait that has since been lost, and I know his life through a handful of stories pulled like teeth from my mother. If we have anything in common, I’ve never been told. While he worked in a lumberyard for his entire adult life, I’ve been unable to fix my busted Ikea dresser for months.
Nonetheless, though my grandfather’s life is a stranger to me, his death and legacy are not. To me, they represent a tradition of dauntless perseverance in the face of American injustice, and the costs of that determination. Furthermore, as an aspiring psychologist, the stories of his lived experience exemplify the importance of interconnectedness in African-centered psychology. That is to say, through him, I believe I am able to gain an understanding of the experiences of many.
My grandfather, like too many Black-Americans, passed away due to cardiovascular disease in his middle age, only a few months after retiring. There seems a melancholy poetry in this, as my mother has always described Big Daddy’s life as that of a tireless worker. Although neither my mother nor her six siblings ever heard him say “I love you,” they saw passion in the way he got up every morning at 4am for forty years to provide for his family. They saw affection in the way he drove two hours to another town for groceries, just to boycott the business of a racist shopkeeper that had once scolded my mother as a child. My mother, uncles, and aunts saw the selflessness in the arduous routine that Big Daddy maintained for as long as they could remember. My grandfather was not unique in this respect. He and many other Black Americans adhered to a tradition of John Henry-ism.
John Henry-ism is a psychological coping strategy in which individuals deal with external stressors, like discrimination, through an uncompromising and unyielding work ethic. I believe to understand this history is to understand Big Daddy. The term emerged in the 70s while epidemiologist Sherman James researched the root of America’s pervasive racial health disparities. In his interviews, he came across a Black sharecropper named John Henry Martin. Martin, born to an indigent sharecropping family, controlled over seventy acres of land in North Carolina by the time he crossed paths with James. Despite debilitating poverty and racial oppression, Martin excelled. “I didn’t have no other choice,” Martin responded when James asked how, he had accomplished so much in such trapping circumstances. “Had nobody to help me.”
Martin’s rewards did not come without cost, however. By his fifties, Martin suffered from hypertension as well as ulcer disease. He would die in 1989, two years after my grandfather. For James, Martin’s tale echoed the American folk-hero John Henry, a talented steel-driver who died in a race to outwork a steam-powered hammer. The term John-Henry-ism was created to recognize a powerful resiliency among Black-Americans that challenged popular tropes of African laziness, and that grew specifically in response to a racist society. While America is quick to praise a narrative of determination, the circumstances that demand such lifelong exertion are often glossed over.
James linked this tireless work ethic to the increased rate of cardiovascular disease among Black Americans and he spawned a field of research to understand these effects. James and other researchers explored the John Henry-ism hypothesis and found its effects to be pronounced depending on socioeconomic status and environment. For many rural Americans, and a disproportionate number of Black Americans, the national bootstrap mythos came with a high price. James found that John Henry-ism was significantly related to high blood pressure in rural Black Americans of low socioeconomic status.
In the decade after his study, others attempted to test the John-Henry-ism hypothesis in other groups and returned with null findings. Jackson and Campbell in 1994 noted, however, that this absence of conclusive evidence was likely related to another of James’ findings. Though John Henry-ism was associated with high blood pressure in people of lower socioeconomic status, it was protective in those of higher socioeconomic status. Jackson and Campbell theorized that those of higher socioeconomic status, with more access to education and pro-social resources, would likely not suffer the effects of John Henry-ism. In fact, with proper support, this kind of discipline and hard work could represent a desirable trait.
It is important to note, however, while resilience in the presence of external stressors can have positive outcomes, not all stress is beneficial. Chronic stress, according to psychologist Andrew Baum, is any emotional experience accompanied by extended periods of biochemical, physical, and behavioral change. Researchers have found chronic stress to significantly impact blood pressure and mental health symptoms of depression and anxiety. For all of us, regardless of our coping strategies, self-care remains vital. Even “Big Daddy” Harris had his own methods of care: indeed, his spirit came alive on the weekends, when he climbed the stairs to play the organ and sing with his family. These hours of bliss gave him the vitality to start his week all over again.
My grandfather provided his family more than just food and shelter; he served as a model of work ethic that they emulated into their adulthood. In the three decades since his passing, my mother, now an experienced social worker, has followed in her father’s tradition while making use of both therapeutic and medical resources that became more readily available to her as she moved into another socioeconomic class. Now, as she approaches the age of her father when he passed, she is more cognizant of his legacy than ever. As a social worker, she does her part to connect others to those resources, regardless of class. As a student of clinical psychology, I hope to do the same through therapy and advocating for mental health awareness.
The tradition of John Henry-ism is a reminder of the dauntlessness of Black Americans in spite of ubiquitous oppression. It is also a reminder of the physical and psychological burden with which an untold number of Black men and women walked until their last breath. It is important to exalt their legacy while doing our best to create a context for our spirits to flourish. Although chronic stress and cardiovascular disease are still problems for Black Americans, the appropriate resources to help have become more accessible since the days of John Henry and my grandfather. Connecting to therapists and doctors, as well as opening a regular dialogue regarding mental and physical health can help to alleviate the impact of lifelong stressors. Just as important is to combat racial oppression with that same unyielding and uncompromising energy. While there is still so much I will never know about “Big Daddy” Harris, I honor his memory through commitment to my own work, and through taking care of myself in ways he never could.
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