On a July morning in 2009, 25-year-old Foxconn employee Sun Danyong leapt from the twelfth floor of an apartment building. Sun texted his girlfriend the night before, referring vaguely to some trouble he was in. ‘Don’t tell my family. Don’t contact me,’ he implored her. Sun told her he had been harassed and beaten by Foxconn security personnel. His alleged crime was that of stealing a prototype for the iPhone 4G. Despite reaching out to friends by text and chat messages about what had happened, and how he had been threatened, he chose to put an end to the conflict by taking his own life. He is said to have reassured an old college friend, ‘Thinking that I won’t be bullied tomorrow, won’t have to be the scapegoat, I feel much better.’
Evan Osnos, blogging for the New Yorker, called Sun a ‘bitter symbol of China’s industrial age.’ Though recognition of his name has faded by now, the affixation of his story to a larger cause intertwines his death with China’s national narrative. For this reason, among others, I associate him with the American folk hero John Henry, a railroad worker and former slave of extraordinary strength. Henry challenged a steam drill to prove the worth of human labour; he won, but his heart failed shortly after. Like Sun, who graduated from China’s Harbin School of Technology, John Henry excelled in his field; like Sun, his death was directly linked to his relationship with machinery and his workplace identity.
Unlike Sun, though, Henry’s death is not traditionally defined, mythologically speaking, as pyrrhic. The legend of John Henry is built upon the idea that, in beating the steam-powered hammer only to exhaust his own body, Henry made a sacrifice of great value, one that has inspired generations. To die with a hammer in one’s hand is an image used to represent virtue and integrity; the line ‘This hammer killed John Henry but it won’t kill me’ from Mississippi John Hurt’s ‘Spike Driver Blues’ indicates that Henry’s death could inspire others in similar situations to survive. With Sun’s death, on the other hand, the symbolic value is less straightforward—firstly, because it has not had over a century’s worth of songs and poems to endow it with meaning. Secondly, because it is real-life and not myth, Sun’s life story is blunter and sadder; it was not designed, like Henry’s story eventually was, to contain a gleanable message.
In 1981, folk music scholar Norm Cohen wrote in a short essay, ‘Today, everyone knows about John Henry.’ Thirty-four years later, I’m no longer sure that is the case. When I first took interest in researching and writing about John Henry, many friends asked me who that was. His story, it seems, is no longer ubiquitous as it once was; though most recognised the story after a brief explanation, his name no longer carries the cultural cache that it must have had once to spawn so many retellings. Cohen, in ’81, speculated that Henry’s legend might one day fade: ‘Perhaps one distant day, when society has learned to adapt the advantages of the technological revolution to the benefit of all of its members rather than just some, then people will say of John Henry, “What a futile and senseless gesture, to oppose the very machine that would one day emancipate him from his demeaning labors.”‘ Arthur C. Clarke, co-author of the screenplay for 2001: A Space Odyssey and author of the eponymous novel, writing in an essay titled ‘Are You Thinking Machines?’ went so far as to say, ‘Today, we should regard a man who challenged a steam drill as merely crazy—not heroic.’
Coincidentally, though, the decade surrounding 2001 has witnessed a handful of John Henry cameos in pop culture and the surrounding fringe. How, then, do these works of film, music, and prose conceptualise John Henry? Do they, as Clarke and Cohen imagined, originate in a world that has outgrown the ideological framework of the original story? Strangely, Clarke and Cohen’s speculations heap hypothetical blame onto Henry for being provoked by the threat of the steam drill, as if, given proper knowledge and foresight, only a fool would stake his life on the fear of obsolescence. This seems pedantic, though—neither John Henry’s nor Sun Danyong’s death should be pinned upon a failure to imagine a more optimistic alternative than the one that seemed to be bearing down on each of them. Rather, the tipping point in both cases has more to do with dynamics of labour, class, power, and (in the case of the original story) race. These systemic factors seem to matter more in each new interpretation of the John Henry story than the role of technology itself.
In 2000, Disney featured John Henry as a protagonist of its more recent direct-to-video American Legends installments, rollicking through the exposition of the tale in a breakneck nine minutes. The short was intended for theatrical release in conjunction with a re-release of 1946’s Song of the South, Disney’s live-action/animated film featuring Uncle Remus and Br’er Rabbit, which is considered by many ‘one of Hollywood’s most resiliently offensive racist texts.’ Maya Angelou, who has a quote featured in the John Henry short, was one of many voices protesting the re-release, which was eventually called off. The short, by comparison to Song of the South, is progressive for Disney. The script, written by black film writer Shirley Pierce, dabbles in relatively few visual or linguistic stereotypes and implies, however subtly, that forms of slavery and subjugation can be perpetuated by labour systems: ‘If they steal our dreams, they put a chain around our souls,’ says Henry as he steps up to race the steam drill. James Earl Jones, in his introduction, calls Henry a ‘towering example of leadership and determination,’ and indeed he proves to be a populist hero, stepping up to defend the rights and honour of labourers and former slaves.
Both Jones and the film itself stand stolidly behind Henry’s sacrifice as a nobly impassioned one, but much of the rhetoric setting this up is unsettling at a second glance. (This is a Disney cartoon, after all.) The attention paid to his physical size and strength verges on lurid and exploitative, particularly in the tunnel scene, where he is reduced to a set of gleaming eyes and the sheen of pitch-black muscle. Jones traces Henry’s bravery and heroism to his willingness to put ‘his own flesh and blood against the gears and wheels of a modern machine’ and to ‘lay down his life for his dream.’ Polly, his wife, tells her child that he died, so to speak, with a smile because of what he’d done; Jones closes out the film by praising the ‘indomitable American spirit.’ For the most part, in spite of the mention of land promised to workers only if they can achieve semi-unrealistic milestones and the unannounced introduction of the steam drill, the actual labour being done for Chesapeake & Ohio Railway is not portrayed as exploitative, oppressive, or arduous in any way; industriousness seems to be equated with the indomitability of which Jones speaks, regardless of whether it serves the labourer as equally as the laboured-for. The spirit of the film, as of the original story, implies that the end validates the means. What makes 2000’s John Henry especially unnerving is that, in nine minutes, there can hardly be any sense of woundedness or mourning; the bitter herb, so to speak, gets shunted. This is partially due to license taken with the narrative—in the original legend, there is nothing so concrete as land given to the other labourers in the aftermath of the contest—but I would argue that it is also rooted in certain aspects of the legend itself.
If Disney’s John Henry attempts to condense and expedite the legend, folk singer Gillian Welch dissects the story and parcels out its motifs in pieces, repurposing them for various allegories. ‘Elvis Presley Blues’, on Welch’s 2001 album Time (The Revelator), is based musically on one of many John Henry ‘variations’—most versions of the John Henry ballad share a similar melodic structure but different harmonic progressions. But to what end? In a Billboard interview from August of 2001, Welch draws parallels between Henry and Presley: ‘I had all these mythical figures in my head and kept recombining different scenarios—the Titanic, Abe Lincoln. Elvis Presley. John Henry,’ Welch says. The song links ‘Elvis the tragic hero with John Henry, who was luckier in that he didn’t have to live through his obsolescence.’ As much as I love most of Welch’s work, the equation of Presley and Henry strikes me as ironic at best—irresponsibly so. To go ahead and mix metaphors flagrantly, one could call Presley, as an icon, the steam drill of cultural appropriation that swooped in to overshadow and obscure the roots and innovations of rhythm and blues and rock and roll within the black musical community. To superimpose the legacy of Henry, whose identity as a black man has always figured significantly into the meaning of his story, onto Presley feels very wrong. While Presley may have succumbed to certain self-destructive behaviours as a result of societal pressures, they are not of the same dimension or balance of power: He is not John Henry.
Interesting, though, is the notion that, in Welch’s ‘retelling’, it is Henry’s good fortune to have died for rather than to have lived through his obsolescence. Dignity, in this case, is associated with taking action, whatever the consequences, as opposed to taking a chance on the accumulative or degenerative properties of time. This brings to mind a recurring feature of the John Henry story—the impulse to equate labour with purpose, functionality with identity, and loss thereof with sterility or stagnation, particularly when the ability to invoke or revoke functionality belongs to someone other than oneself.
This fall, in the thick of my research, I noticed myself feeling more and more uneasy about exactly how it seems we are supposed to feel about Henry’s story if we follow the narrative cues of many of these recurring motifs. Around the same time, I came across the work of Sheldon Scott, a performance artist based in Washington, D.C., who had just performed a body of work under the title ‘Folk’Lore’ at the Emerge Art Fair. Scott, who spent his first few years out of college as a practising therapist, focuses much of his work on the types of subliminal conditioning that we glean from folklore and how these in turn shape social conceptualisations and treatment of blackness. ‘A Man Ain’t Nothing But A Man’, the segment of the installation that revolves around John Henry, is a searing indictment of the mythology for its glorification of the exhaustion of black male bodies and its affirmation of the virulently persistent notion that black lives are expendable.
The hour-long performance consists of Scott, dressed in a black suit and tie and flanked by two female singers also wearing black, driving thirty antique railroad nails into a concrete block using an heirloom sledgehammer that belonged to his great grand-uncle. His suit is connected to the rock by rope and chain, so that as he drives in the nails, the rope and chain become wrapped and wound around the nails, and by the end of the process, he has to extract himself from his clothing, which he called his ‘exoskeleton’ in our interview. Scott’s use of the John Henry narrative implicates it directly in the perpetuation of negative stereotypes about the black male body. The idea of the superhuman black man falls into line with societal fears based not on a person’s actual demeanor or intention but on his imagined potential—not what he is doing, but what he ‘could do’. Pinpointing John Henry as one of few mainstream black folklore heroes, Scott illustrates the toxicity of defining Henry’s value in physical terms, which indicates that his identity and worth are equal only to what can be extracted from his body. The moral of this story, Scott argues, is not resilience but the reminder that society defines black bodies as both dangerous and disposable. Further, Henry is goaded into challenging something that is understood to be unbeatable by systems that define his trajectory for him, rather than allowing him the liberty to set his own.
Viewed from this angle, we can understand John Henry’s death to be just as pyrrhic as Sun Danyong’s. The line that Scott singles out—’a man ain’t nothing but a man’—brings to mind the complications of associating work with identity in a country with a historical foundation of income inequality, labour exploitation, and institutional racism. Henry’s nine-pound hammer and Sun’s phantom iPhone 4G prototype are analogous, double-edged symbols. They are objects that represent great skill, craft, and intelligence on the part of their wielders and designers, but they belong just as much to the economies and corporations whose interests they exist to serve and build. As Scott emphasises, Henry is convinced to work himself to death voluntarily; a line in the Johnny Cash version of the ballad goes, ‘I can do anything you’ll hire me to.’ ‘Henry died,’ says Scott, ‘for what I consider to be a very commercial transaction,’ the winner of which is, in reality, not Henry at all but the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway, spearheaded by wealthy and ruthless industrialist C.P. Huntington, which would likely have viewed him and his strength as merely an implement of entrepreneurial progress. Similarly, Sun’s death can be traced to a value system that prioritises a constant drip-feed of material and technological advancement over sustainable labour practices, time after time. Dying for one’s right to make a living, and to prove one’s worth within a system that denies or antagonises it, is something that should always be seen as hard to swallow.
Aptly, a similar perspective on John Henry’s legacy was brought to academic light back in 1992 by Sherman James, an epidemiologist and public health researcher. James, who shares Scott’s inclination toward social psychology, also saw the legend of John Henry as a ‘metaphor for the African-American experience’. ‘It is a struggle,’ he explained in an interview from 2003, ‘that has played out against great odds and against very powerful forces of marginalisation that continue to create wear and tear on the bodies and minds of African Americans, especially the poor and working classes.’ John Henryism, he hypothesised, is a coping mechanism in which people, when faced with socioeconomic stresses such as racial or class-based discrimination, respond by expending effort to extremes, resulting in increased risk to physical health. James suggests that this could be partially responsible for disproportionately high rates of hypertension and high blood pressure in black American communities.
‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live,’ Joan Didion famously wrote in ‘The White Album’. The internalisation of narrative, however, can deny life just as effectively as affirm it. In my interview with Scott, he spoke of the social taxes levied against black bodies without their input or consent. The net result is the pernicious attitude of expendability that plays out in mythologies (new and old) and real life alike and which, oddly, seems to go hand in hand with the concept of super-humanity, especially when that concept is extolled by bastions of established authority. Whether it means an undue physical toll on living bodies or an increasing number of lives that are cut short unjustly, there is a real danger to the subtext of the John Henry narrative. For Scott, the project took on added urgency when he realised how it could be linked to the tragic deaths in 2014 and 2012 of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Trayvon Martin, among other victims of targeted racialised violence. Brown, too, was depicted by officer Darren Wilson as possessing superhuman strength in Wilson’s attempt to defend his murder of an unarmed teenager. ‘We end up believing in these conditions and accepting them. It’s subliminal,’ says Scott. The more that society ‘subscribes to those ideas, that’s where we lose our true freedom, which is connected to setting our own standards for what our bodies can and should be doing.’
To date, details surrounding the disappearance of the prototype and Foxconn’s treatment of Sun Danyong remain murky. Although the company denies beating or threatening him and maintains that they never found the phone, at least one security officer was suspended and compensation was paid to Sun’s family. But the particulars, whatever they are, do not change the fact that, for Sun as well as for Henry, the tools and goals of production took ultimate precedence over personhood. In the end, if we are to look towards a new folklore, one that affirms our lives and civil liberties, the line that most bears repeating is this: ‘This hammer killed John Henry, but it won’t kill me, no it won’t kill me.’