In 1975 Charles White provided a drawn rendering of the legendary folk hero, John Henry, for the cover of John Oliver Killens' book A Man Ain't Nothing But a Man: The Adventures of John Henry. The book was published by Little, Brown, Boston, 1975. John Henry, the American super hero who was said to have engaged in a victorious struggle with a new-fangled steam drill, a struggle in which though victorious, cost John Henry his life.
The book was a colorful retelling of the story of John Henry, who was said to have worked as a steel-driving man — a man tasked with hammering a steel drill into rock to make holes for explosives to blast the rock, in constructing a railroad tunnel. According to legend, John Henry's prowess as a steel-driver was measured in a race against a steam-powered hammer, a race that he won only to die in victory, with hammer in hand as his heart gave out. The story of John Henry is told in a classic folk song, which exists in many versions, and has been the subject of numerous stories, plays, books, and novels. This work by John Oliver Killens was one such work.
For his drawing, White rendered John Henry as a giant of man, full of determination, quiet confidence, strength and resolve. There was something of the heavyweight boxer about White's depiction. Here was a man of destiny, who when called on, would, with efficiency, get the job done and bring down an adversary, at any cost. Arms folded, bare-chested, relaxed, pensive, this was truly a magnificent rendering of John Henry. Within his drawing, White utilised the distinctive partially obscured snatches of text that were such a feature of his work, for a period. There was in White's drawing, an evocation of the sledgehammer, looming large over the formidable physique of this historic folk hero.
The book jacket informed the reader that John Oliver Killens was "currently writer-in-residence at Howard University." The blurb continued, "Mr Killens writes of John Henry: "Ahead of his time, John Henry saw before most men that man must control the machine or ultimately become its slave. This is the ultimate meaning of his life which he gave in the struggle against the machine."
The credit on the jacket merely stated Jacket painting by Charles White.
Incidentally, John Oliver Killens authored a text on his friend, Charles White, for The Georgia Review, Summer 1986, Vol. 40, No. 2 (Summer 1986), pp. 449-454
His text opened as follows:
CHARLES WILBERT WHITE knew that black was beautiful long before the glorious and turbulent sixties, when so many of us black folks thought that Black Beauty was a horse put together for children in a Hollywood fantasy. Charles seemed always to have known that we blacks were a great people and that we were strong and were survivors. Had he not chosen the pencil and brush, he might have taken to the pulpit. If you were ever engaged in a friendly argument with him, you would know he could preach fire and brimstone. And his sermon always had to do with liberation.
He was a valued friend of mine, one whose work as an artist inspired my own work as a novelist. I always thought he might have made a great writer; he writes in a white heat of anger with his brush and pencil, and every work of art he ever rendered seems to have been taken from the texts of major black prophets such as Frederick Douglass: “If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet deprecate agitations, are men [and I would add women] who want the crops without plowing the ground. They want the rain without the thunder and the lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”