October 31, 2004

John Henry/Remus/TarBaby/Why the Negro is BlacK

Go here to see pictures of the legendary Big Ben Tunnel where John Henry supposedly took on a steam powered drill. On this site, it says that John Henry did win the race with the drill; however, from the readings the opposite seems true.
Also, according to this site, John Henry did exsist. This postcard represents what he might have looked like. To see these pictures, really helped to put a more human spin on the tale.

"Now John Henry was a mighty man, yes sir. He was born a slave in the 1840's but was freed after the war. He went to work as a steel-driver for the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad, don't ya know. And John Henry was the strongest, the most powerful man working the rails.

"John Henry, he would spend his day's drilling holes by hitting thick steel spikes into rocks with his faithful shaker crouching close to the hole, turning the drill after each mighty blow. There was no one who could match him, though many tried.

"Well, the new railroad was moving along right quick, thanks in now little part to the mighty John Henry. But looming right smack in its path was a mighty enemy - the Big Bend Mountain. Now the big bosses at the C&O Railroad decided that they couldn't go around the mile and a quarter thick mountain. No sir, the men of the C&O were going to go through it - drilling right into the heart of the mountain.

"A thousand men would lose their lives before the great enemy was conquered. It took three long years, and before it was done the ground outside the mountain was filled with makeshift, sandy graves. The new tunnels were filled with smoke and dust. Ya couldn't see no how and could hardly breathe. But John Henry, he worked tirelessly, drilling with a 14 pound hammer, and going 10 to 12 feet in one workday. No one else could match him."

To read this story, as retold by Schlosser, was interesting because he gave a different weight for the hammer, as did the songs we read. This just goes to show how by passing things down through oral tradition, the account is likely to change. Sort of like, gossip. How reputable is the source? However, I did enjoy this tale a because it named the RR company, and that, alone, makes it seem like a more reputable source. Though by the end of the tale, the teller changes the name of the railroad company. Once again, how reputable are these folklores?

If you like this tale, then go here to read more like it.

Under the analysis section on this page, it said,
"The tale also establishes the pattern in which the stories are told--by an elderly former slave to the young grandson of his former master. It is significant the Harris' storyteller be an elderly former slave. In this way, Uncle Remus provides a direct link to a past and culture that is quickly slipping away. For Harris, an advocate of preserving the Southern liteary heritage in the wake of the encroaching industrial expansion of the New South, the decision to commit the oral slave tradition to written form was a self-conscious attempt to solidf and preserve an endangered remnant of the old plantation culture. Moreover, the recording of these tales by Harris through the stories of Uncle Remus was a step toward the diversifcation of Southern literature. During the Reconstruction era, there was little African-American writing in the national level, and still less on the regional and local levels. Thus, the stories of Uncle Remus filled a tremendous void in acknowledging the culture of the African-American slaves, as well as the plantation culture Harris wanted to preserve."This really doesn't explain the meaning of this story; and I don't really understand the story. I think because of the different dialect we are reading it in, it is really confusing. I am inviting you, readers, to explain this story to me. I couldn't figure it out, at all. If I could HEAR it, I think that could help. Why don't we do dramatic interpretations of these stories?

On this site, you can watch the video clip of the story.

This is the final story in the Remus collection. It reminded me of the Native American stories because it discussed why the Chinese people had straight, instead of textured hair. That was something that I could follow from the story. This sort of reminded me of a creation myth, but creation isn't the right word: change would be better. Everyone started out black, dipped themselves in a pool, and then, emerged a different shade. If you read this commentary, it mentions that some people might have viewed Remus as, "a happy darky without any conceptions of the realities of the world around him." This is something I must disagree with; Remus was just continuing a traditional that he had been taught. He was just passing on what he knew. Being able to teach someone something that one knows, makes a person feel important.

These stories serve as entertain for a community of the past; they also function as moral tales. According to this site, there are four important questions/areas the reader must address when reading something that is meant to be heard:

Questions on the nature of history, through the question, who is qualified to tell the oral tradition?
Discussion of truth, and how we may determine it in the oral tradition.
Statements on the nature of time: present, past, future, and eternity.
Ideas on the value of history.

I hope the next time we examine oral tratition, we can actually hear the stories. It is hard to understand them by just reading them. Additionally, our class has such a great guild of dramatists; reading these wouldn't be a problem, and it would be so entertaining!

Posted by KatieAikins at October 31, 2004 3:37 PM


I really agreed with you that these short stories would have had more meaning if they were presented by other classmates. I believe that I would have gotten more information from these if they were presented in such a fashion.

I was wondering if you were given a chance to pick your favorite reading from these stories what would you think you would pick? I believe out of all the stories that "Why the Negro is Black" was my favorite. I think that I was so intrested in the story because the concept was so strange to me. This was simply how the different races came about. I was wondering though if you actually had one that had more impact on you or not. I really value your opinion and would be interested in hearing it. Hope to hear from you soon!

Melissa Hagg

Posted by: Melissa Hagg at November 1, 2004 1:23 PM

I really like the idea of presenting these stories orally in class. Like the poetry slam, it would be something different, but could really help everyone. It's hard to read Uncle Remus, but if someone read it to me, I'd probably "get it" more. Maybe you should make this suggestion to Dr. Jerz! :)

Posted by: Katie Lambert at November 1, 2004 2:35 PM


I do realize how the text was difficult to read. I really didn't understand it as well. But, I do understand the main point of the story, which is how the rabbit hates the fox, and in a way it is saying how whites hated the African-Americans.

Do you think this Br'er Rabbit can be compared to any other animal or event to give out the same message in the story?

I think it doesn't have to be the same story. It can change over the years depending on the generations of how children grew up. You can give out the same message, but telling it in a different way.


Posted by: NabilaUddin at November 1, 2004 5:07 PM


I, too, liked "Why the Negro is Black" the best because I could understand it. Also, the songs of John Henry weren't that bad. We will have to discuss this further in class :)

Katie Lambert-

It seems like you like to act. You are going to make a wonderful teacher someday.

Nabila -

I tend to agree with you on this; it doesn't have to be the same story. It can change over the years. Perhaps that is the beauty in folklore.


Posted by: Katie Aikins at November 2, 2004 4:10 PM


I agree with you that the stories of John Henry were not that bad in terms of context. However, I would like to know more why do you think that these two stories were your favorite. Why did they serve to hold such an importance with you? Or didn't they hold a purpose and were just the story that you could actually stand to read.. Hope to hear back from ya!!


Posted by: Melissa Hagg at November 3, 2004 10:01 AM

Melissa -

The "Why the Negro is Black" is a matter of my ability to understand it as compared to my inability to understand the other stories.

The John Henry songs.... I could just picture men working and singing and working harder. There is something about that type of work that is so majestic and something to be respected. For some reason, it reminded me of people from my grandfather's generation. That is a time period that produced people I really respect. On a more personal note, I like to think of people, especially my grandfather, as a diamond in the midst of rhinestones. He always jokes that he is a dinosaur and a dying breed; I hope that there are people in our generation that work equally as hard.

Sorry for this soapbox.


Posted by: Katie Aikins at November 3, 2004 8:08 PM


I completely agree with you and I do not think you were giving me a soapbox. It is true about our generation though in that there needs to be as equal amount of hard workers as were in the old days before we had the technology we do today. It almost seems as though with the technology we have somewhat lost the passion of working hard and earning the prize at the end. This is not always true but it does hold true for the majority of the times that you are looking at. What do you think? Do you think that we have lost our abilities to work as hard because of this technology? Is it making things too easy on us? Let me know what you are thinking!!!

Melissa Hagg

Posted by: Melissa Hagg at November 11, 2004 12:21 PM