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,
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
Joe Spillane is Professor of History at the University of Florida. He has authored Cocaine: From Medical Marvel to Modern Menace in the United States (Johns Hopkins Press, 2000) and co-edited Federal Drug Control: The Evolution of Policy and Practice (Haworth Press, 2004). More recently, he authored Coxsackie: The Life and Death of Prison Reform (Johns Hopkins Press, 2014). His current drug-related research agenda includes: the history and development of drug abuse liability assessment; reflections on the nature of drug epidemics; and examinations of drug war “harms” in historical context.