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How John Henryism Affects Black Americans

Success at the expense of health.

Key points

  • John Henryism, known as high-effort coping, is a folk tale that remains true for many Black Americans.
  • Black Americans should be aware of active coping and its effect on mental and physical health.
  • Early chronic stress affects academic achievement resulting in cascading lifetime challenges.
  • Black Americans have to work twice as hard to achieve success, only to face medical challenges in the end.
Nikolai Ulltang/Pexels, R. Mitchell, used with permission.
Effects of John Henryism
Source: Nikolai Ulltang/Pexels, R. Mitchell, used with permission.

How John Henryism Affects Black Americans

The origin of John Henryism adds to the importance of educating Black Americans on the seriousness of high-effort coping. John Henryism is named after John Henry, a formerly enslaved person, possibly born in Tennessee, known throughout the late 19th century for his exceptional physical strength and endurance (Flaskerud, 2012).

John Henry worked as a steel driver (i.e., hammering and chiseling rock in the construction of railroads). He became the most significant steel driver of his time, expanding railroads from the east coast of the United States to the west (Flaskerud, 2012). As the railroad industry progressed and attempted to replace a primarily Black steel-driving crew with a steam-powered hammer, John Henry stepped up to save the workers by challenging the mechanical device to a race (Flaskerud, 2012).

The legend goes that during the early 1870s, at the entrance of Big Bend Tunnel in West Virginia (Johnson, 1930), John Henry beat the steel-driving machine in a close race with several powerful strikes from his nine-pound hammer in the closing seconds (James, 1994). Unfortunately, John Henry died from complete exhaustion in victory with his hammer in his hand (Flaskerud, 2012).

Active Coping

John Henryism (JH), also known as high effort (active) coping, is a thinking pattern regarding one's ability to meet the overwhelming demands of their environment (psychosocial stressors) through hard work and determination, which can result in cardiovascular risk (James, 1994).

Early JH studies found a significant association between JH, low socioeconomic status, and hypertension (James, 1994). Bennett et al. (2002) examined the association between JH, elevated job demands, and awakening cortisol secretion; They suggested that Black Americans had transitioned from exposure to chronic stress to a state of sustained negative affect (e.g., burnout) due to prolonged engagement with occupational stress).

John Henryism has a cultural and economic component that accounts for routine exposure to psychosocial stressors (e.g., chronic financial strain, job insecurity, subtle/blatant social insults linked to race). Experienced primarily by Black Americans, JH requires Black people to use considerable energy to manage psychological stress that often results in adverse medical and mental health outcomes (James, 1994; Angner et al., 2011; Hudson et al., 2016; Kiecolt & Hughes, 2009). Although JH research links heart health and mood, few studies have explored JH's effect on cognition in Black Americans.

Chronic Stress on Cognition

Cognition, simply put, is a process of acquiring knowledge that can be altered when exposed to acute stress and neurologically impaired when exposed to chronic or prolonged stress. The impact of chronic stress on cognition has been extensively described throughout the literature to include reductions in reward salience, effort valuation, deficits in decision-making (Kukel'ova et al.), and hippocampal and amygdala dysfunction (Han et al., 2017).

In most cases, Black Americans are exposed to chronic stress prenatally and postnatal, increasing the likelihood of school-age developmental delays, such as deficits in intellectual functions that have cascading effects regarding increased psychosocial stressors throughout the lifespan. However, stress and cognition studies often include more Caucasians than their underrepresented counterparts.

Physiological Responses to Stress

The behavioral and physiological responses to stress encompass several interlocking neural components such as (a) the limbic system, which controls the processing of emotions and memory, (b) the autonomic nervous system, which is responsible for calming (parasympathetic division) and arousal (sympathetic division) in response to stress, and (c) the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical axis which is a neuroendocrine system that plays a significant role in basal homeostasis and the body's response to stress (Ulrich-Lai & Herman, 2009).

Suppose we focus primarily on cognition in Black Americans who are often subjected to lifetime psychosocial stressors. In that case, we must highlight the hippocampus, part of the limbic system involved in explicit memory and the transfer of information from short-term to long-term memory (Kolb et al., 2016). Since memory is a significant aspect of intelligence, could chronic stress endured prior to school-age affect early academic achievement resulting in cascading effects such as low confidence, perceived school behavioral problems, and ultimately early school discontinuation?

Periods of prolonged stress and possibly the response to that chronic stress, such as high-effort coping, can be attributed to dendritic atrophy of inhibitory brain regions like the hippocampus (Vyas et al., 2002).

John Henryism and Black Americans

Black Americans typically utilize active coping as a consistent means to reduce the adverse outcomes linked to racism; however, this up-tempo coping style can contribute to poor cognitive impairment over time. Nearly half of all Americans (46 percent) say there is "a lot" of discrimination against Black people (Daniller, 2021), particularly Black men, who reportedly experience prejudice and racial profiling by law enforcement nearly twice as much as their female counterparts (Anderson, 2019).

Equality in America is a dream that may never come to fruition, so minority groups, specifically Black Americans, will continue to be less happy and less healthy due to chronic stress experienced through racial inequalities. Active coping has been a preferred way for Black Americans to respond to that stress.

Sacrificing Health for Success

Some Black Americans choose not to entertain a system that continues to betray them. So, while drowning in the grief of feeling like a second-class citizen, some Black Americans adopt negative coping strategies such as cognitive, affective, and behavioral responses to stress (Flaskerud, 2012). However, Black Americans that choose success regardless of their circumstances tend to develop more of a behavioral style of coping used to deal with prolonged exposure to psychosocial and environmental stressors related to racism that are equally detrimental to physiological health outcomes (Johnson et al., 2020; Zahodne, Kraal, et al., 2019; King, 2005).

This behavioral coping style in the Black American culture is known as John Henryism. It is an attitude that individuals can accomplish anything if they are just determined enough or work hard enough (Flaskerud, 2012). Unfortunately, success for Black Americans often comes at the expense of their health due to consistent psychosocial stressors like the story and legend of John Henry.


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