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John Henryism: Why Ambitious Black Men Die Young?30:29
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This statue of John Henry stands above the Big Bend tunnel in Talcott, W.V., on the C&O railroad where many believe the man vs. machine competition originally took place. (Creative Commons)
This statue of John Henry stands above the Big Bend tunnel in Talcott, W.V., on the C&O railroad where many believe the man vs. machine competition originally took place. (Creative Commons)

Ron Howell enjoyed his 40th college reunion at Yale. But after reconnecting with old friends, he ventured over to a computer sitting outside the registration room. On it, he read a list of fellow classmates who had passed away.

"It was haunting," Howell wrote in an article for the Yale Alumni magazine. "I scrolled up and down it, stopping at one remembered Afro-headed Yalie and another. There was a total of about 80 names on the list, more than half a dozen the names of black men, as I recall."

Later, Howell discovered that while African-Americans made up three percent of the class of 1970, African-Americans accounted for more than 10 percent of the deaths.

Howell began a deeper exploration. Why were his classmates dying? It's not news that black American males die earlier than others. But, Howell wrote, "much of that difference can be ascribed to poverty, violent crime, and inequitable access to health care."

What, then, accounts for the deaths of black men of higher socioeconomic status?

"Are the black men who went to Yale and similar institutions — who represented the first significant presence of African-Americans on Ivy League campuses — now experiencing inequality in death, as their forebears did in life?" Howell asked.

The answer may be yes.

A phenomenon know as "John Henryism" may help to explain some of these numbers. Commonly referred to as a disposition or personality trait, John Henryism is more of a coping strategy than anything else. The concept is named after John Henry, the "steel-driving" African-American laborer of folklore who defeated a mechanical steam drill. While he did ultimately win the contest, Henry collapsed and died after the competition.

Today, John Henryism explains the unique person-environment interaction in which high-achieving individuals with "aggressive tenacity" may unconsciously sacrifice their health in the process.

While John Henryism is often used to explain the premature deaths of African-Americans, new research has tested the concept in other populations including women fighting breast cancer, those diagnosed with certain diseases, and caucasians.

Guests:

This segment aired on May 24, 2011.

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