Updated: Aug 30
Editor’s Note: Our series of reflections on Addicts Who Survived continues today with Eric Schneider discussing Teddy’s narrative, posted yesterday.
How did heroin become a drug used largely by African Americans after World War Two, when it had been a primarily white drug in the previous decades? What were the social settings that nurtured this new wave of heroin use? How did young people, primarily males, become the postwar generation of heroin sellers and users? David Courtwright locates the transition from white to black heroin use in the Great Migration, the movement of African American southerners into northern cities, where a primarily rural people encountered not only problems of social dislocation but also a racism as overt and virulent as the one they left behind. But urban life was also different, and while hemmed in by a color line that shaped residence, education, and employment, African Americans were freer to act within these bounded spaces. Here African Americans developed a language and a style of cultural resistance, an infra politics of daily life, a zoot-suited, bebop-inflected assertion of self that emerged most clearly in the social settings of entertainment and vice districts that police effectively zoned into black residential neighborhoods. Illicit off-the-books economic activity mingled with outright criminality and ordinary working class street life, and the drug use of gamblers, pimps, prostitutes and hustlers inevitably seeped into daily life. How do we understand the process by which heroin use spread? There are some autobiographies, most notably Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land, that testify to the spread of heroin within teenage peer groups. Investigations by reporters,
Heroin and history–what’s your source?
local police or the Federal Bureau of Narcotics tracked down the sources of the new upsurge in heroin use that had caught them completely by surprise after the heroin drought during World War Two. Court records reveal the outlines of trafficking schemes as heroin made its way from city to city, and Congressional, state and municipal hearings featured heroin users who explained before television audiences how they got “hooked.” These records, while useful, all have limitations. Autobiographies are artfully designed and can rarely be taken at face value, prosecutorial records are focused on proving a particular version of events, and investigators in public hearings prepare their witnesses and agree on the presentation of a narrative. Of course oral histories also suffer from limitations, especially selective memory, and depend on the knowledge and the rapport established by the interviewer, but they provide first-person insight into the circumstances and the choices made by ordinary individuals whose experiences might otherwise be lost. Addicts Who Survived is the best collection of interviews with opiate users that I know.
Teddy’s narrative in particular illustrates the links among underground economies that provide one answer to the question of how young people got involved in heroin. Teddy explained that kids on the block “knew everything: we knew who took numbers, where the whiskey was.” The underground economy provided employment opportunities, sometimes the only ones around, for adolescents who were an inexpensive and ready labor force. Teddy found a job as an occasional bottler and as a lookout for a bootlegger and pimp on his block. His employer also provided customers, some whites but many black musicians, showgirls and hustlers, with heroin and cocaine. As Teddy explained, “I started with dope around fourteen, but I wasn’t actually using it. I was handling it.” Teddy’s employment supplied him with both the opportunity to try heroin and the drug knowledge needed to understand its effects and to interpret them as pleasurable enough to try it again. Hustling seemed like a better option than being a “square,” working what the hep cats called a “slave” or a “yoke” (a dead end job), and heroin was the hep cat’s drug. It was part of being cool, of being in the know, of being part of a street elite: “Back then I thought it was the hippest thing in the world to be somebody that shot dope, or drank whiskey, or smoked reefer, rather than to be with somebody who had a job.”
Why did heroin have such an appeal to a generation of youths coming of age in the early postwar years? Teddy’s narrative, and those of others in Addicts Who Survived, allow us to answer the question. Eric C. Schneider