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AIN'T NOTHING BUT A MAN: MY QUEST TO FIND THE REAL JOHN HENRY

Page history last edited by RichiesPicks 10 years, 7 months ago

4 April 2008 AIN'T NOTHING BUT A MAN: MY QUEST TO FIND THE REAL JOHN HENRY by Scott Reynolds Nelson with Marc Aronson, National Geographic, January 2008, 64p. ISBN: 978-1-4263-0000-4

 

"One way for local whites to take the strut out of a black man's step was to put him in prison...Southerners who had just lost a war managed to convince courts to put hundreds of black men in prison, including black soldiers." -- from AIN'T NOTHING BUT A MAN

 

"But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people...then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait."

-- the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., from "Letter from Birmingham Jail"

 

Over the past 24 hours, I've been watching television news shows marking the fortieth anniversary of the assassination of MLK. I've seen in-depth features that examine the known facts and present snippets of conversations with those who were there at the time of the tragic events of 1968 Memphis.

 

What is the real truth concerning the FBI's, the Mafia's, or the Klan's role in the assassination of Reverend King? Will there one day be new evidence unearthed when someone leaves behind a deathbed confession? Will someone's private papers reveal unimagined and startling revelations? Might one of today's adolescents grow up to employ the Freedom of Information Act in a way that significantly enlightens us about events from the days of my own childhood?

 

History is a mystery, a swirling jigsaw puzzle, which is repeatedly being reworked and reinterpreted. Anyone who has done research -- whether a simple Google search or a rigorous extended process employing database searches, examinations of primary source materials, and interviews -- will readily appreciate the detective work of Professor Scott Reynolds Nelson, author of AIN'T NOTHING BUT A MAN: MY QUEST TO FIND THE REAL JOHN HENRY.

 

"Studying history may seem to be about filling up with knowledge -- like a car pulling into a gas station. Once you have a full tank, you are done. But it is just the opposite. The more you know about the past, the more questions you ask. Once you have a handle on what others have found, you can see the gaps, the spaces, the places that have not been covered. This is exactly what happened to me, for even before I ever thought about John Henry, I discovered that some 40,000 men, the largest railroad workforce in the South, were hardly mentioned in the history books. Why? I set out to learn more about those men. That was the big mystery I was trying to solve."

 

Professor Nelson eventually set his sights on also determining whether a real man amongst those 40,000 inspired the many generations of songs and stories about John Henry, the guy who supposedly outdid a steam drill with the hammer in his hand and then died. And in recounting a research process spanning many years -- a process of exploration, investigation, and interpretation -- along with revealing the fruits of that quest, Professor Nelson illustrates how our knowledge of history is the result of historians working long and hard to ferret out and make sense of clues about events from years ago. We learn from him that luck and inspiration, as well as determination, can play a role in what the world comes to know about the truth of the past.

 

"If I was right, and the song was talking about the Virginia Penitentiary, why was John Henry in prison? Why would he have been buried in the sand? And how did that connect to the C&O and steam drills and a contest of man against machine? Every question I asked led to more questions."

 

Through his work to shed light on these mysteries, Professor Nelson uncovered details of railroad construction and maintenance, historical tunnel excavation techniques, the development of and purpose for work songs, and even the possible genesis of the term "rock and roll."

 

In tracking down information on Nineteenth Century railroad workers and an imprisoned black man named John Henry -- a man who had been rented out by a warden during Reconstruction as part of a work crew -- Professor Nelson has provided readers an exceptional and fascinating look at how historians create the written record of the past.

 

Richie Partington, MLIS

Richie's Picks http://richiespicks.com

Moderator, http://groups.yahoo.com/group/middle_school_lit/

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