WORDS & ART: RICH GUTIERREZ
Is he glowing or is he on fire? In the midst of passions, you praise the descending plane. Bring us the spark, the flame, and the light.
To consider myself an artist or a writer I always felt an expectation of output. Coming from being told I was a fuck up and having relentless amounts of shame and discouragement rained upon me, I felt to be something worthy of praise or encouragement that I would need to be a vessel for those who had the same experiences. To bring a close to emptiness you have to expand inside; you need to hustle harder till you feel you’ve done enough. I felt pressured to always produce.The tricky part is you never feel like you’ve done enough. It’s Friday night and you have time to rest, but you also have time to get shit done. I am finishing my coursework on UX Design. I just took a break to do a 15-minute Spanish test on an app, after I send out emails to possible commissioned jobs, and then I begin work on a website for a group of friends planning a festival. I walk my dog, I write and read a bit, and then I try my best to contact my friends and make myself available to them in whatever way they need.
A year ago, I began a piece about the vicious cycles in my life surrounding my work ethic. I hit a wall and this fragmented essay sat in my journal until I began to read “Citizen: An American Lyric” by Claudia Rankine. I skimmed past a part where she speaks of John Henryism. John Henry is the protagonist of the folk tale where a black man worked resolutely in competition with a steam powered machine. Although he “won,” John Henry died as a result of this battle; his heart just simply gave out with his tool in hand. The story of John Henry has historically been used in many cultural passages. This character is a symbol of strength and the staying power of exploitation. It is the symbol of the inborn ‘heart’ and soul of marginalized people pressed firmly against the wickedness of the machine. Above it all, hanging like fruit, is the disaffection and defiance that comes with having black pride. He willfully destroyed himself in solidarity with all that struggle to be seen as second-class still. This need to prove his worth in the eyes of the industry upholds rules marginalized people still adhere to in order to gain respect in mainstream culture today. We can’t “win” if we’re consistently attempting to work through oppressive and often impassable tests just to bear the weight of capitalism, a system in which we were exempt from upon its inception. Nevertheless, stories like these, true or not, somehow enable a future, they leave breadcrumbs of past existences, a legacy of struggle.
In Rankine’s book, she speaks of John Henryism. Returning home after an uncomfortable and exhausting exchange in a car with a racist colleague, Rankine reflects:
“Sitting there staring at the closed garage door you are reminded that a friend once told you there exists a medical term — John Henryism — for people exposed to stresses stemming from racism. They achieve themselves to death trying to dodge the build up of erasure. Sherman James, the researcher who came up with the term, claimed the physiological costs were high. You hope by sitting in silence you are bucking the trend…”
The effects of John Henryism are strongest in the poor and those whose skin is dipped in the sun.
Rankine describes John Henryism as a coping strategy for prolonged exposure to stresses; this could easily be rephrased as generational trauma stemming from social discrimination.
“Naw, I’ve just had too much coffee.” This is a common excuse I make for my long string of theories thrown into conversations. Me, verbally jumping lily pads. Hypomania, something I believe I’ve inherited from my mom, can inspire destructive habits, but it can also generate a surge of creative hyperfocused work. It’s not something I despise, just something I’ve learned to accept. My mom asks me if I am medicating because she’s afraid I will be like her. This is something we see differently because I am proud to be anything like her, but she sees her mind often as her biggest downfall. Last week I had a long list of tasks to take care of. I went out for a bike ride to sell some clothes and I stopped in and talked with a friend for a bit. They mentioned how some xerox machines have selective color settings. Mid-conversation I stopped listening and stared past them. I couldn’t stop thinking of possibilities. Immediately after, I left and rode straight to the shop with selective color xerox machines. I spent $40 and 4 hours cutting, copying, and experimenting with the settings. I left the shop and was 2 hours late for an event, but I had 4 complete pieces of work that I framed the next day and sold.
This morning an older man was lost and searching for direction. His sister tried to kill herself at work, he told me, and he couldn’t find the hospital. He told me he had prayed for her every day 3 times a day because she had only one more year left before retirement. He begged me for help and after I drew a map on his left forearm, he said to me, “someday someone will help you.” I said, “I hope.”
If our identities are defined by our friction with the rest of the world, then what’s that say about those of us who are stuck in these endless cycles of achieving? Are we only defined by our output or what’s killing us? I couldn’t stop thinking about this man’s sister as he left and how much she was like my aunt, who has been frightened of being on the list of people being ‘let go’ from AT&T ever since it was known as Pacific Bell. So shook about her 30+ years of service possibly being in vain. Every year since I was little I’d hear her processing the stresses of possible layoffs, just the proximity to it made me stressed. I thought of my dad who, post-double hip surgery, is being forced to retire early, but is holding out as long as he can because it may not be enough to support him the rest of his life. On a drive to Walmart, he told me he lied to his doctor so he could return to work, but he can hardly stand without a cane. He is banking on the phantom checks from disability, injury settlements, and retirement. He feels indebted to his job and winces through every motion at work. He’s starting to realize that the world sees anyone who isn’t white, able-bodied, young, ‘healthy’, thin, mentally stable as disposable. Another way in which capitalism plagues him and me by association. I try to remind him he owes them nothing and himself everything. He nods and tells me about all the ways he’s going to spend his money and get out of debt and live happily on a ranch as we pass through the 10-mile radius that he has been entrapped by his whole adult life. They compare their lives to others who have “made it.” What is making it? It is make-believe: a story told to those from whom the machine can make the most profit. Never compare crowns.
Cultural agitators are important to combat trauma experienced by black and brown folks, and it’s crucial for black and brown folks to represent themselves.
At times it feels like we’ve been set up. We have. Planned obsolescence, we jump so high that there is no possible way to land safely; a limited useful life. Cultural agitators are important to combat trauma experienced by black and brown folks, and it’s crucial for black and brown folks to represent themselves. It seems as though this kind of relationship to work is both a necessity and a tragedy. I believe in the work that’s been done in this manner, I find it beautiful. It’s a morbid pattern that the things I find most beautiful are drenched in tragedy.
I think often about how some of us are built primarily for output. When my heart pounds hard during holes in my calendar I know it’s a sign to slow down, but I fear that if I stop spinning I’ll break. These feverish thought revolutions are what keep me in motion, keep me aware. My mind is full of mirrors and distorted likenesses. I don’t want to stop and allow the gears to gum up and crack. What a shame that would be to allow for the questioning to stop, for self-reflection to end, and for all this output to cease.
When James Baldwin spoke about The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity and How It Illuminates the Universal Experience of What It Means to Be Human, he said, “Most people live in almost total darkness… people, millions of people whom you will never see, who don’t know you, never will know you, people who may try to kill you in the morning, live in a darkness which — if you have that funny terrible thing which every artist can recognize and no artist can define — you are responsible to those people to lighten, and it does not matter what happens to you. You are being used in the way a crab is useful, the way sand certainly has some function. It is impersonal. This force which you didn’t ask for, and this destiny which you must accept, is also your responsibility. And if you survive it, if you don’t cheat, if you don’t lie, it is not only, you know, your glory, your achievement, it is almost our only hope.” He goes on to say, “You can only have it by letting it go. You can only take if you are prepared to give, and giving is not an investment. It is not a day at the bargain counter. It is a total risk of everything, of you and who you think you are, who you think you’d like to be, where you think you’d like to go — everything, and this forever, forever.”
Some of us create output nonstop at rates that are detrimental to our bodies and mind. Our minds stretch and burst and reform over and over until they surrender, arms up and retreating in exhaustion. If we are lucky something beautiful comes out of it, but to allow yourself all that turmoil is a worldly necessity. You have to agree to it in some sense because you believe something/anything can be created in that nasty web of shit.
My grandmother hasn’t stopped moving since she could wiggle her toes. Her focus has always been selfless love, which I don’t always understand, but admire. I envy the focus, although I know it’s probably so she can focus on anyone but herself. I can’t watch her or my mom in a room just buzzing around like bees, wings humming a tune of desperate value. I am the same, that soft sting that split into a wound reaching all the stars that we scurry under. Watch me create things that reflect pieces I want to go away, watch me bleed out all of me good and bad.
A lot of days I feel like a fool for choosing and having chosen to exist, but there are small things in the glint of people’s eyes that sometimes make these sacrifices seem so apparently needed and I submit to a very recognizable feeling that is buried way down below. The feeling of belonging.
Creativity can hold buried in itself habits that our friends and family might not have the capacity for. To them, our flying will appear as manic symptoms: all the loose associations and flights of ideas that we find to be the things that keep us earthbound. I feel a great amount of accusatory thoughts, which may not even be real. I could very well be making it up. It’s probably in my head and I accept that. For myself, I’ve found that being understanding, kind, and encouraging, but not completely altering myself and my life for someone with these traits is a good rule of thumb.
When we look at our families littered with ailments like alcoholism, drug abuse, high blood pressure, and mental health issues, it’s easy to see that John Henryism has been passed down and its name has just changed a few times. And, as the times change and we change, endlessly fighting erasure through art, music, learning. People with destructive creative drives often suffer from Hypomania, meaning literally “under mania”. It is a mood state characterized by persistent unrestrained behavior and inescapable euphoria while creating. If learning by our mistakes is a true statement then these people are learning much quicker, they make many mistakes, and they make them often and fast. Although hypomanic behavior often generates productivity and excitement, it can be burdensome and exhausting.
The amount we owe to cultural agitators is insurmountable. We cannot continue to move forward without acknowledging this and questioning how to create more sustainable ways in which cultural agitators can create.
How can we combat this need to destroy ourselves in order to save ourselves? I am willing to give many sacrifices to ensure there are black and brown folks in the future, but I am not in the market to martyr my life for it without any choice. The amount we owe to cultural agitators is insurmountable. We cannot continue to move forward without acknowledging this and questioning how to create more sustainable ways in which cultural agitators can create. I grew up with generations of parents who lived by the doctrine ”just play the game” or “grin and bear it.” I adopted this idea as my own and I don’t necessarily hate it all the time. I’m a stubborn fighter sometimes to a fault, but it isn’t always that palpable. This conjures up mixed feelings of worth and isolation. I claim constant validation that I am independent, strong, and that I can handle my shit. I can’t most days. Some see my work ethic as something to be admired, but damn, the effects of this type of ethic can be detrimental to my whole self.
“It kind of goes against the common assumption, but many people who are inclined to hypomanic or manic symptoms have an underlying resilience,” says Kay Redfield Jamison, a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University. “They may get trashed by their peers, laid low, but they respond very strongly.”
John Henryism is an example of creators who work themselves into pieces. We become fragmented in search of self-actualization and freedom. In search of strength we look beyond our own, we emerge as both problem and answer. As MF DOOM puts it, “One who is well skilled in destruction as well as building.” Social oppression has done a number on us, but we must not refuse to grow. By bringing awareness and showing consistent support within our communities, we can overcome these dominant paradigms.