John "No.497" Henry

Many Americans know the legends of John Henry that have filtered through our cultural consciousness since the mid-19th century. Popularized through folk songs, John Henry came to represent the triumph of man over machine during the industrial era. Tales of his physical strength and “can do” attitude epitomized the exceptional qualities of the American spirit. Written songs and stories eventually took over the long oral tradition recounting John Henry’s exploits, eventually finding their way to animated children’s stories and comic books.

Historian Scott Reynolds Nelson traced the historical roots of John Henry to the cemetery of the Richmond Penitentiary in Virginia where he discovered on the prison roster not a towering, muscle-bound man, but a young black convict. Short and slim, Nelson speculates that it was precisely Henry’s diminutive stature that made him a valuable asset to the railroad companies participating in our nation's early convict-lease system. The arc of his swing was just high enough to fit into the cramped tunnels in which the prisoners were conscripted to work. Following his death, the initial work songs that memorialized John Henry offering a rhythm to other convicts as they labored along with a warning: “Don’t work yourself to death!”

How can the disparities between the mythologized and historical John Henry help us to reconcile the systemic violence of our carceral system? How does the shifting narrative around the legendary railroad hero reveal our own susceptibility to unscrutinized, rhetorical heroism? How can we counter the appropriation of the cultures, bodies and voices of marginalized communities to legitimize their own suffering? These questions are an initial point of departure for a project that traces the historical disparities in criminal convictions, development of the penal code and prison work system, and function of myth as an all consuming, fact-legitimizing force in American culture.