Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.
- President Dwight D. Eisenhower

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

John Henry

It's Black History Month. Do you know the story of John Henry? According to American Folklore, John Henry was born in the mid 1800s, with a hammer in his hand. A free man, he worked with a mostly black crew of steel-drivers, skilled laborers who hewed out the mountains and laid the tracks for the railroads. One day, the owner of the construction company bought a steam powered drill in order to make John Henry's crew redundant. John Henry, in a desperate bid to save the jobs of his crew, challenged the drill to a race. John Henry poured every ounce of his being into winning that race, and he did. As soon as the race was over, Henry put his hammer down, collapsed, and died.

Henry's tale is an allegory about the dehumanizing effects of modernization. A highly skilled and loyal workforce ultimately lost their livelihood due to untempered interests of efficiency and production.

Why am I telling you this story? Well, Michigan is a labor state, and right now, labor is making concessions to be competitive with the transplanted auto workers. I dunno, maybe I just like the story...

2 comments:

Kimber said...

I don't know where you learned all that mumbo jombo from, but fact is John Henry is a They Might Be Giants Album and that's a fact jack!

cassdawn said...

so, i've decided not to get too deeply embroiled in this conversation because . . . well, for a number of reasons. but i can't help but point out three things that really strike me about this john henry allegory -

first - the technology that brought about the steam powered drill also brought about automobiles - the thing currently under discussion (in subtext)

second - to ignore the humanizing effects of modernization is . . . folly. and that is an understatement.

third and MOST striking - john henry and his crew were as you said mostly black. and since not all were free men and/or because free black men were unusual they were willing to accept poorer work conditions and poorer pay. plus the bias at the time was that black people were physically designed for manual labor much more so than whites. and thus they were sought after for cheap hard labor. and in the mid1800s many white men felt that these were 'transplanted' workers 'stealing' the jobs of 'americans'.