The Real John Henry and Michael Vick

One in thirty-one adult US citizens is either in prison, parole or on probation. This is absolutely fucking crazy. Some of my colleagues back in Brooklyn are doing amazing work with prisoners, in juvenile detention centers, even doing storytime on Riker’s Island. But, as was pointed out in an excellent training session we had- Everyone who works with the public works with prisoners and their families. That’s where we’re at as a nation.

This book is a quick thriller about one historian’s discovery of the real John Henry, mythologized in the song. He was a freed slave, imprisoned for ten years on trumped up charges in Reconstruction Virginia. To satisfy the need for laborers for grueling work on the railroad, prisoners were provided at one quarter the going wage. They died by the hundreds of black lung and were buried in hidden graves on the grounds of the penitentiary. Some survived and they spread the song and the story of John Henry (and how the system screwed him.) I had never thought before about the history of the disproportionate number of African Americans imprisoned that started once they were freed.

What does this have to do with Michael Vick? (Former quarterback of the Atlanta Falcons, now in disgrace) Well, he’s a black man who’s been to prison. What does his story tell us about our culture? Football has some disturbing parallels to dog fighting itself, the way it uses up its athletes, leaving them physically wrecked and with brain damage if they play too long in the league. How do you think the media would be talking about this if he had been convicted of hurting his wife? The media is debating whether he should be allowed to play again, as if it were something that pundits could decide. I’m very curious to see where he ends up playing and how it’s spun.

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Author: Emily

Writer/ Librarian

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