Whistling Vivaldi

John Henry Symbol Icon

John Henry was a legendary African American folk hero. The historical accuracy of his life (and whether he existed at all) is debatable, but according to legend he was a railway worker renowned for his ability to drive spikes into railroad tracks, and he died after winning a race against a mechanized spike-driving machine. For Claude Steele, John Henry’s hard, but ultimately self-destructive work ethic is a symbol for the “over-effort” often seen among highly talented, ambitious members of underrepresented groups—for example, black students at elite universities. In Steele’s view, these people often push themselves too hard, determined to make up for centuries of prejudice, and as a result damage their own chances for success and happiness.

John Henry Quotes in Whistling Vivaldi

The Whistling Vivaldi quotes below all refer to the symbol of John Henry. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Identity, Stereotyping, and Identity Threats Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the W. W. Norton & Company edition of Whistling Vivaldi published in 2011.
Chapter 7 Quotes

John Henryism sounds like the attitude of people who show stereotype threat effects—people who are identified with, and care a lot about succeeding in, an area where their group is negatively stereotyped.

Related Characters: Claude Steele (speaker)
Related Symbols: John Henry
Page Number: 130
Explanation and Analysis:
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John Henry Symbol Timeline in Whistling Vivaldi

The timeline below shows where the symbol John Henry appears in Whistling Vivaldi. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 7
Identity, Stereotyping, and Identity Threats Theme Icon
Experimentation and the Scientific Method Theme Icon
Autonomy and Freedom Theme Icon
...high rates of hypertension in the black community. James interviewed a black hypertension victim named John Henry Martin. Martin had grown up brutally poor and had gradually worked his way to success,... (full context)