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Carroll Pursell, "A Hammer in Their Hands".
Publisher: Massachusetts Institute of Technology | ISBN: 0262169253 | 2005 edition | PDF | 417 Pages | 2.32 MB

John Henry is America’s best-known and most beloved African-American folk hero. I have chosen a phrase from the ballad of his life for the title of this book to emphasize the long experience that black people have had with technology in America, but also the ambiguity of that experience. In one sense John Henry exemplifies the familiar trope of the sheer physicality of the black male—all brawn and no brain—that Colson Whitehead calls in his wonderful novel John Henry Days ‘‘an ideal of black masculinity in a castrating country.’’1 At the same time, however, steel driving was a precise and delicate operation, demanding a high level of skill from both the driver and the shaker who held the bit. Whitehead vividly describes what could happen if either worker made a mistake: a new, young, and inexperienced shaker assigned to Henry didn’t perfectly make the ‘‘two quick shakes and a twist’’ that were required, and ‘‘the first blow shattered half the bones in the boy’s hand and the second shattered the other half. There was no way he could stop his hammer from coming down a second time. He was swinging his next blow before the first struck the bit.’’

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