Editor’s Note: This week, we welcome Cookie Woolner to the roundtable on Howard Becker’s Becoming a Marihuana User. Woolner recently completed her Ph.D. in history and women’s studies at the University of Michigan and is currently serving as a postdoctoral fellow in African American Studies at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio. You can follow her work on her personal website and twitter.
Howie Becker’s pioneering study, Becoming a Marihuana User, emerged from the mid-century Chicago jazz scene. The relationship it chronicled between drug use and music subculture is a long one, which has been more dangerous for some than for others. In our current moment, many of the young black men whose lives have been taken too soon by the police are often demonized as weed-smoking, hip hop-loving thugs – that is to say, they brought their deaths upon themselves. The association of marijuana use with African American music and culture may be a stereotype, but it has real effects.
Ironically, when one digs into the history of marijuana and its connection to the jazz world in the early 20th century, it appears white men were primarily responsible for introducing black musicians and Harlemites to weed (or in the parlance of their day, gage, tea, muggles or reefer, among many other names). Italian-American Leon Roppolo, the clarinetist for the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, was said to have introduced marijuana to the Chicago jazz scene, in particular to Jewish saxophonist Mezz Mezzrow, who later became weed dealer to Louis Armstrong and much of Harlem. “Mezz” became another nickname for pot, according to the saxophonist, who also considered himself an “honorary Negro.”
Notably, Mezzrow’s autobiography, Really the Blues – which is so peppered with terminology from jazz and African American cultures that it includes a lengthy glossary – exemplifies Becker’s theory of how one becomes a marijuana user (or in 1930s slang, a viper). Becker argues that one must learn “how to be high” and is usually coached into weed usage through friends who are already active users. The first time Mezzrow smoked, he didn’t feel a thing, and was reprimanded. “You ain’t even smokin’ it right,” he was told. “You got to hold that muggle so that it barely touches your lips, see, then draw in air around it. Say tfff, tfff, only breathe in when you say it. Then don’t blow it out right away, you got to give the stuff a chance.”
After receiving this instruction and finishing his first joint correctly, Mezzrow returned to his bandstand. He recalled that “the first thing I noticed was I began to hear my saxophone as though it was inside my head…then I began to feel the vibrations of the reed much more pronounced against my lip, and my head buzzed like a loudspeaker…I felt I could go on playing for years without running out of ideas and energy…The people were going crazy over the subtle changes in our playing.” Mezz argued that “tea puts a musician in a real masterly sphere, and that’s why so many jazzmen have used it.”
Despite Mezz’s positive experiences with the drug, 1930s critics increasingly associated weed with black musical subcultures and pathological behavior. A 1938 health column in the black newspaper the New York Amsterdam News noted that marijuana “was probably first introduced here in the United States by traveling musicians who found that the use of this drug enabled them to play hotter music and to stand greater physical strains over short periods of time.” However, “little did they realize” that “there was great danger” that smoking weed would result in behavior “criminal rather than musical.” Another journalist in the black press at this time declared, “entertainers swear [pot] is necessary to get the most out of a song, hot jazz chorus, or fast dance step but eventually the viper will go crazy, become blind or die from its ill effects.” And a 1938 New Yorker journalist writing about Harlem “tea houses” claimed “federal agents had told me that vipers are always dangerous; that an overdose of marijuana generates savage and sadistic traits likely to reach a climax in axe and icepick murders.”
So by the end of the 1930s, marijuana was firmly associated with jazz, African American culture, violence, criminality, death, and insanity. Further, during hearings on marijuana law in this decade, claims were made about pot’s ability to cause men of color to become violent and solicit sex from white women. This “Reefer Madness” imagery formed the backdrop for the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, which effectively banned weed’s use and sale. Becoming a Marihuana User’s resistance to this history is notable: the only reference in the book to violence is to the “violent thirst” that smoking can bring on, now often referred to as “cotton mouth.” Through discussing “use” rather than “abuse,” and disassociating the drug from violence or pathology, Becker sought to push the national conversation about marijuana into a more objective, dispassionate realm.
Many decades later, marijuana is still often associated with African American culture, now through rap music. Hip-hop culture was conflated with violence during so-called gangsta rap’s emergence in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, but the artists most associated with weed use, like Snoop Dogg and Wiz Khalifa, tend to create mellow music whose nuances are enhanced through getting high. The preferred style of smoking, the blunt, was created by New York City youth as an economical and communal way to smoke their weed inside of cigar wrappers. If in mid-century Chicago most jazz-loving marijuana users were initiated into their drug use via friends or acquaintances, hip-hop songs such as Redman’s “How to Roll a Blunt” explain to outsiders how to take part in practices such as blunt rolling and smoking without personal knowledge or connections.
Becoming a Marihuana User was pioneering for approaching its subject without moral judgment during an era when the drug was firmly associated with deviance. As pot now slowly becomes legal again in the U.S., what will become of the stigma that has long burdened its users? Although hip hop’s mainstream popularity has influenced marijuana’s wide use today by young people of all races and social classes, Michelle Alexander has pointed to the troublesome ways that pot’s new legalization affects people of different races unevenly. Just as people of color have disproportionately been affected by “the war on drugs” in the U.S., it is now primarily white entrepreneurs who are benefiting from the legalization of marijuana.
Not only does pot remain consistent across jazz and hip-hop cultures, then, but so does the hypocrisy of American life, in which whites have the privilege to take part in “deviant” behaviors without being inscribed as such, while many young African Americans – including those who do not use drugs – are nonetheless assumed to do so.