From John Henry to James Evans: Black men married to hard labor in the white American imagination
James, like John, lived married to labor and died of his affections.
by Donnie MoreIand
I find myself humming the theme of Good Times, quite a bit. It’s calming, in the way only Black Baptist Church Choirs can be calming. In fact, I find all of it pretty calming—Good Times, that is—because it’s so unequivocally Black, that it feels a part of my cultural genome.
Now, I must admit that I find Norman Lear, Eric Monte, and Mike Evans’ 1974 comedic commentary on the financially disenfranchised metropolitan nuclear Black family to be awfully discomposing. Post Brown v. Board of Education filmic depictions of the Black and impoverished have often aroused the white imagination, wherein the Black emotional life is relegated to the obtuse representations of either pain, or pleasure, as the white voyeur eroticizes, more so perverts, the Ghetto experience.
Good Times is that. But at it’s best, it’s almost spiritual in its familial familiarity. We know Thelma. We know Florida. And if you’ve a Black father born between 1946 to 1980, you know James Evans Sr. The hard-nosed, lewd and often terrifying, but equally caring, and sparsely tender “head of the home.” He is the father that Eddy Levert so emphatically romanticizes in the 1975 record, Family Reunion.
John Amos’ performance as James is such a mosaic of the lives of so many Black men, in our collective memory, that he occupies our thoughts as a figure of immortality—in the Black cultural cannon. But let’s never forget that James Evans Sr. died. In the first episode of the fourth season, which aired in 1976, it was revealed that the character had died in an automobile accident.
The death of James Evans Sr. is a sobering, more bruising, statement on the fragility of the Black paternal body. About Black male-ness and its devout kinship with laboring, very much until death, as the apparatus which sustains the vitality, and functions of the nuclear and Black family. But this equation has done nothing but gnaw on the roots of Black familial, and communal, interpersonality.
Yet, the legacy of this character’s death has become evidentiary to some testament vis-à-vis the properness of the Black male laborer, in sacrifice—something achingly historical. And, as we know, in unraveling the making of Post-Slavery Subjects, to renegotiate the rules of our condition we must first open the mouths of our dead—even as they exist in song.
From John to James
It’s important to note that James Evans Sr., as a construction of fiction, belongs to a heritage of Post-Slavery portraits of Black Male-ness in search of America’s corroboration of the evidence of just that—the existence of our Male-ness. These characterizations have always existed in proximity to American Industry. From the auction block to the train tracks, we are made men—even in its most limited projection—only by our potentiality with a tool.
This is noted in the illustrations of us, as composed for, and by, American Folklore i.e, The Ballad of John Henry. If a John Henry were alive, and not a misappropriated figure of slavery freedom ballads, he would have been, as noted by scholar Scott Reynolds Nelson in Steel Drivin’ Man: The Untold Story of An American Legend, an imprisoned member of a chain-gang, as many Black men were. He would have been a part of a racially pivoted Post-Reconstruction convict leasing system and would have died, as many Black men did, from inhumane working conditions, physical abuse and malnutrition.
According to Nelson, maltreated bodies of dead Black track layers were often hoisted up, metaphorically, to 1) scholastically proposition the myth of the impenetrable, everlastingly laborious Black worker of the Redeemed South and for 2) misappropriation and fetishization by the Communist Party for the purposes of recruitment and morale.
Nelson also tells of how late nineteenth century folklorists appropriated, and eroticized, Black tracklaying/prison ballads, specifically one mentioning the name John Henry, for the explicit purpose of reinforcing plantation mythos. He writes, “Sociologists Howard Odum and Guy Johnson, smitten with the image of a powerful black man in the tracklaying versions of the song, saw ‘John Henry’ not as a cautionary tale but as the song of the hero… John Henry became the man whose hammer started large scale mining in West Virginia, as well as the man who died as Reconstruction was ending: a Moses who gave the South the Promised Land of the West, but could not live to see it.”
In the 1930’s, there was a reactionary response to the appropriated images of the cruelties befallen Black men laying track in the works of the Communist Party. According to Nelson, The Communist Party “attacked segregation, disfranchisement, the convict lease system, and debt peonage. And these radicals heard in ‘John Henry’ what previous folklorists did not: an indictment of black life in the American South. Why else would John Henry be hammering? Because blacks did all the work and got nothing for it, not to vote, not housing, not freedom from debt.”
Nelson goes on to further explain that, in response to these and other observed political injustices, Communist organizers and artists such as Hugo Gellert saw an opportunity to reappropriate the image of John Henry, in efforts of galvanizing support from Black, and white, male workers throughout Depression-era Metropolitan cities. He continues, “For Gellert, the balloon-muscled John Henry represented the dangerous and revolutionary potential of the male side of America’s working class. John Henry was plastered on radical posters for political rallies on the Lower East Side of New York. Workers like them were shown holding back the power of police and Nazis and ushering in a worker’s state.”
The Communist Party may have adopted a relationship with Black workers, predicated on the access to and protection of human rights but at the cost of further spoiling the image of Black male-ness as something culturally restrictive—belonging solely to the political dimensions of American productivity. No matter the white hands sculpting the faces of John Henry, the intent remained tied to labor. Hard labor. And as a prominent caricature of post-slavery masculinities, we begin to draw a clearer picture of how Black men arrived to have defined ourselves by production.
This was intensified by how ethnic notions of Black masculinities were often tethered to the polar opposite images to include the Jigaboo, Coon, Uncle Tom, and other racist portraits which conflated Black male-ness with unending idleness, joviality—traits which eroded the Black male search for Post-Slavery dignities and saw many perform in the shadow of John Henry to defend themselves from white supremacist insult.
The Matter is Life
Much like John Henry, James Evans Sr.’s death is as much the fault of his creation as a Post Slavery Subject as it is his driving a motor vehicle while exhausted after repeating work shifts, despite the hightened risk of injury. James, like John, lived married to labor and died of his affections.
There is nothing honorable about the passing of James Evans Sr., as what is left of our bodies after death is not legend, but loss. What was lost to the Evans family is the same unnoted, but for which we understand, for the Henry’s—potential. Less their potentiality with a tool, more their potential for proper presentations of spousal-dom and fatherhood—that which cannot be reconciled in death.
Donnie Denkins Moreland Jr is a Minnesota based youth violence prevention educator and writer. Donnie holds a Master’s Degree, in Film Studies, from National University and a Bachelor’s Degree, in Sociology, from Prairie View A&M University. Donnie has contributed to Black Youth Project, A Gathering of the Tribes and Sage Group Publishing.