Notes on the Culture
Long sidelined, these narratives are ascendant in the culture, and offer an elastic yet demanding view of what it might take for Americans — and their nation — to heal.
To accompany this essay, T asked two Black artists to create original works. Above is David Leggett’s “Untitled” (2021), of which he says, “I wanted to create a feeling of treading water as a metaphor for recovery. The figures are resilient despite the chaos surrounding them.”Credit…Courtesy of the artist
David Leggett and
FOR ALL THAT was emotionally sobering about the last year, it was literally sobering, too. Many Americans, drinking more than ever during Covid-19 lockdowns and with plenty of time to reflect on it, began to wonder if alcohol was more hindrance than help. The question had been popularized by the sober-curious movement, based on a term coined by the British author Ruby Warrington, and supported by online recovery programs such as Tempest, founded in 2014. But it became especially acute as the incoherent national response to the Covid-19 pandemic conspired with a failing health care system to prove once again that the state could not be trusted to ensure its citizens’ wellness. This was particularly true, the reanimated Black Lives Matter movement announced, when those citizens were brown or Black.
How do we square the knowledge that wellness is determined by vast historical forces with the personal, one-day-at-a-time imperatives of sobriety? And what does any one individual’s recovery have to do with that of the group? These questions have of late crystallized in narratives of Black addiction. Not only do these stories tend to be more cognizant of the wider world than their white counterparts’ but they are shaped by a Black storytelling tradition that links individual well-being with that of the group. Paradoxically, it is by recasting the group in intimate, interpersonal terms that these works speak most powerfully to broader processes of social change.
The canon of addiction literature has shifted over the years, from the messy sensationalism of William S. Burroughs’s “Junky” (1953) and Elizabeth Wurtzel’s “Prozac Nation” (1994) to sincere accounts of recovery such as Caroline Knapp’s “Drinking: A Love Story” (1996) and Mary Karr’s “LIT” (2009), to, more recently, a spate of cheerful self-help books that reflect the personalization of wellness amid a public health care crisis, such as Warrington’s “Sober Curious” (2018), Catherine Gray’s “The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober” (2017) and Laura McKowen’s “We Are the Luckiest” (2020). But for all its permutations, this body of work remains overwhelmingly white. Even a compendium like Leslie Jamison’s affecting memoir-cum-literary history, “The Recovering” (2018), a series of case studies in addiction and artistry, includes only one Black female icon, Billie Holiday. The book’s archival gaps are produced by a culture that, as Jamison acknowledges, treats white addicts as victims of disease while framing Black addicts as threats. The white drunk is often hailed as an amusing, even legendary figure, whereas the intoxicated person of color is one misstep away from jail. “One day, I’m gonna quit,” says Andra Day’s Billie Holiday of her heroin habit in Lee Daniels’s 2021 film, “The United States vs. Billie Holiday.” “Maybe go to one of those hospitals, you know, like Judy Garland.” The irony is as heavy-handed as the rest of the film: We know that the singer will instead be hounded by the feds, set up and arrested on her deathbed.
The unlikelihood that a Black woman drug addict will be met with forbearance and care is also the open secret of last year’s pre-eminent recovery narrative: the Netflix midcentury period drama “The Queen’s Gambit.” The Black character Jolene (Moses Ingram) takes the same orphanage-dispensed pills that young, white, addicted chess genius Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy) does; but Jolene cannot succumb to addiction and still do what the series needs her to do: return, years later, with big dreams, a nice car and enough cash to fund her broke friend’s trip to the world championship in the Soviet Union. In short, race often determines who lives long enough to recover, and to tell the tale — particularly a tale as complex as addiction, which defies the tastes of a white marketplace obsessed with Black death, on the one hand, and Black transcendence, on the other.
DESPITE THIS DICHOTOMY, several stories of Black addiction have emerged in recent years. Novels such as Mitchell S. Jackson’s “The Residue Years” (2013) and Angela Flournoy’s “The Turner House” (2015) and memoirs like Kiese Laymon’s “Heavy” (2018), Gregory Pardlo’s “Air Traffic” (2018), Rebecca Carroll’s “Surviving the White Gaze” (2021) and Brian Broome’s “Punch Me Up to the Gods” (2021) all address addiction and, in doing so, dovetail with a larger conversation about Black wellness conducted through podcasts (Deana Barnes’s “Black and Sober,” Nzinga Harrison’s “In Recovery”), popular science (the Columbia professor Carl Hart’s provocative 2021 book, “Drug Use for Grown-Ups”) and film (Sam Levinson’s 2021 chamber drama, “Malcolm & Marie”). Still, the most extended, complex treatment of Black sobriety is to be found on television, where several shows feature Black characters living in recovery: Viola Davis’s Annalise Keating on “How to Get Away With Murder” (2014-20); Bianca Lawson’s Darla Sutton on “Queen Sugar” (now in its sixth season); Ron Cephas Jones’s William on “This Is Us” (returning for season six in January); Zendaya’s Rue and Colman Domingo’s Ali on “Euphoria” (the second season of which is in production).
While the reach of these characters’ stories might be limited by class — Darla, Rue and Annalise either grew up with or make lots of money — these shows offer an important cultural intervention just by telling nuanced stories of Black people in recovery. Lawson, who plays a recovering drug addict on “Queen Sugar,” tells me women often approach her in grocery stores or airports, thanking her for representing their lives. The shows — which have some precedent in the ways both “Roc” (1991-94) and “The Wire” (2002-08) portrayed Black men in the 1990s and 2000s — provide a potent antidote to the junkie stereotype endemic to U.S. film and TV, as well as to the exploitative spectacle of the endlessly running (since 2005) reality show “Intervention.”
But it would be a mistake to read these works solely as correctives to the white media landscape. More noteworthy is how they conduct an internal conversation (among themselves, so to speak) about the relationship between both Black individual and collective wellness. Even when contemporary works resist that alignment — refusing to make Black characters symbols of Black achievement or failure (“We can just be Black,” Domingo tells me) — they are not producing a fantasy of unfettered individuality; they are instead replacing an abstract sense of Black mission with Black intimacy. And by linking recovery with intimacy — especially through inventive memoirs and the serial, long-term form of TV — these narratives reveal the messy, uncertain mutual work on which social transformation, like personal recovery, depends.
CHANEY ALLEN, IN her little-known 1978 memoir, “I’m Black and I’m Sober” (“the first autobiography written by a Black alcoholic woman,” as she describes it in an author’s note), tells how hearing James Brown’s anthemic “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” in 1968, while in the throes of addiction, makes her feel like “a disgrace to [her] people … I’m Black and I’m drunk! I don’t feel proud,” she writes. She recovers, and her book ends with an all-caps declaration of the title sentiment. But first, she joins a long line of Black thinkers, from Frederick Douglass to Malcolm X, who describe intoxication as a tool of oppression: “Alcohol was used to control and keep our foreparents in their place,” Allen writes. “They couldn’t make escape plans or any other helpful decisions while drunk, and the slave master knew this.” Those freed from the influence of mind-altering drugs are more able to see the world for what it is and band together to change it.
To see one’s own recovery as part of a larger story of Black resistance is undeniably empowering, but there are reasons to be wary of this generalization. For one, it stings of ableism — the notion that only healthy people are legitimate political actors — but it also threatens to denigrate those who didn’t recover, or even survive. That many people don’t experience recovery as a permanent state, much less a victory, is an argument the filmmaker Sam Levinson makes through his depiction of Rue on “Euphoria.” Zendaya’s Rue (a role for which the actress won an Emmy) is a queer, suburban 17-year-old Gen Zer born to a Black mom and white dad three days after 9/11. As a child, she is prescribed drugs, presumably for anxiety; she later takes her dad’s oxycodone when he is dying of cancer, and subsequently gets hooked on illegal euphoriants. Into this world, Domingo’s Ali — a 54-year-old recovering crack addict who has been in recovery for nearly 20 years — arrives like a messenger from the Black nationalist past. In an episode that aired last December, in which the two talk for an hour at a diner on Christmas Eve, Ali initially encourages Rue to get well by referencing Malcolm X’s recovery from addiction, in defiance of “drugs that were given to your ancestors to keep them inebriated, inoculated, enslaved; drugs that stripped them of their ability to not just be free but to imagine a world in which they were free.” Rue looks at him, unimpressed. “So what now?” Ali asks. “I don’t know,” Rue says, definitely weary and probably high. “Maybe I’ll … start a revolution like Malcolm X or something.” It’s not that revolution seems impossible because she lives for drugs; it’s that she lives for drugs because the system has told her she needs them to survive, and the world seems irrevocably messed up. And if a charismatic leader like Malcolm X wasn’t able to remedy that, how can she?
Rue may not be able to get well — much less to harness her recovery to an abstract sense of Black destiny. But the show invites viewers to root for her, not because of what her recovery might mean for the group but because of what it would mean for her mother, her sister and Ali. After all, she helps him, too: Midway through their conversation, he goes out to the parking lot to smoke a cigarette and call his estranged daughter. “He gets a little strength from [Rue],” Domingo suggests, and from serving, if not exactly as her father figure, as a trusted mentor and friend.
Ava DuVernay’s “Queen Sugar” presents an even more sustained attempt to separate recovery from Black representation in its portrayal of Darla. For the first four seasons, Darla glows with effort as she weathers the challenges of recovery, as well as the constant drama surrounding her future in-laws’ Louisiana sugar farm. Lawson tells me the character reminded her of Black women in her life who had “not only overcome [addiction] and survived but really thrived.” While the racial stakes of this story are clear to Lawson herself, for most of the series, Darla remains distinct from other characters on the show whose Blackness informs their sense of public mission (Nova the best-selling memoirist; Charley the politician and business owner) in that she seldom talks about being Black, let alone about staying sober for the race. However, like Rue, she does want to get better for other Black people: her boyfriend (whom she marries in season five) Ralph Angel (played by Kofi Siriboe) and her young son, Blue (Ethan Hutchison). She also needs the family’s help: In season four, she is financially stable, three years sober and “working [the A.A.] steps” when a series of personal crises drive her to relapse. When she emerges, drunk, from a bar, Ralph Angel’s Aunt Vi (Tina Lifford) takes her home and sits her down at the kitchen table, where the two share stories of sexual violation that help alleviate Darla’s shame. This kind of exchange — what Domingo calls “a conscious, mindful choice … to say, ‘I’m in there with you’” — is crucial to Darla’s recovery, which the first four seasons depict not as a forward march but as a series of heartfelt gestures. She later thanks Aunt Vi by presenting her with her 30-day sobriety chip.
In season five, which aired earlier this year, Darla’s addiction narrative recedes from the story line, while her Blackness comes to the fore. Galvanized by the 2020 police killing of George Floyd, in one episode, she wears a “Black Moms Matter” T-shirt; in another, she describes “the pressure, the tokenism” she felt as a Black student at a predominantly white private school. These moments might, of course, reflect the heightened race consciousness provoked by that summer of pandemic and protest; but the fact that Darla doesn’t mention A.A. meetings or steps all season points to the challenge the show faces, going forward, of reconciling her Blackness and her recovery — especially given that, thus far, it has allowed her to recover not as a “Black Mom” (with the representational pressure that might entail) but as a Black woman who is doing her best.
LAYMON’S “HEAVY” FOREGROUNDS both Blackness and recovery, while also expanding the range of addictions Black people can recover from. Here, disordered eating and gambling, afflictions often associated, however mistakenly, with economically privileged white people, are shown to be equally relevant to Black life and worthy of Black storytelling. Like the television shows, Laymon grounds his recovery from these addictions in intimate Black encounters. But he also scales those encounters up into a vision of social change.
“Heavy,” while addressed to Laymon’s mother, has its sights on a broader horizon, as well: It’s subtitled “An American Memoir.” Throughout the book, Laymon details the lies he and his mother have told each other — lies he suppressed through restrictive eating, excessive exercise and gambling. But the truth-telling doesn’t cure him. Instead, he follows the lead of rappers like MC Lyte and Scarface, who, in his understanding, depicted addiction and recovery “not as sites but as cycles.” Where Allen’s memoir concludes with her glorious sobriety, Laymon gives us the win only to reverse it. Toward the end of the book, he and his mother leave a casino together after a cathartic exchange. Laymon explains, “This is what y’all want in these books. ‘Look, it’s over, we’ve had the conversation we’ve been waiting our whole lives to have.’” But then you turn to the next page: “I’m going back up in that [casino], because that is much more how my life has been and will be.” This isn’t defeatist, he says — “it just means that the progress narratives they inscribe on all of our lives weren’t inscribed by people who love our insides.” He refuses to reproduce that kind of success story, that kind of “American memoir,” and risk shaming readers whose lives don’t conform to that script.
But the false victory is not the only American thing about the book. Laymon is invested in national recovery, too. He issues a vexed prophecy: “We will find churches, synagogues, mosques and porches committed to the love, liberation, memories and imagination of Black children.” Or, he writes, we won’t: Instead, “we will lie like Americans lie. We will die like Americans die.” He links his recovery with that of the broader group through an honest uncertainty — he doesn’t even know if he can get better, never mind what his efforts might mean to the nation at large. But he has to try. As he tells me, “I don’t think that anything better is going to happen in this world unless something better happens in my relationship with my mama.”
Reading and speaking with Laymon, one comes to feel that Malcolm X — a figure who, in the course of his egregiously short life, got sober, converted to Islam and led a movement — is no longer the best icon for the power of Black recovery. What Laymon relays instead is a lesson from ’70s-era Black feminists such as the writer Toni Cade Bambara (whom he cites in the epigraph to “Heavy”), who located the roots of social change in cherished relationships — prioritizing family and community over direct combat with the white world — and Bambara’s contemporary Angela Davis, who reminds us that “freedom is a constant struggle.” This elastic, relational, long-term approach to recovery is suited to a contemporary movement culture defined by a heavy inheritance: the knowledge that the question “if not now, when?” was also asked by some of the brightest and boldest members of prior generations, whose gains in equitable housing, health care, education and voting were not only left unfinished but were often actively reversed. This recognition can be depressing; but it might also serve as a lovingly realistic form of collective self-care. It acknowledges that individuals, like nations, don’t simply recover; they are always in recovery — working vigilantly and vulnerably in the service of a future they might not live to see.
Notes on the Culture