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Is Alcoholics Anonymous Too White?

Dismissing AA as a white-person's movement, many black addicts take a pass on the 12-steps and seek salvation from their church.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons


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Susan was a crack addict and prostitute whose life was saved by Jesus Christ. That’s what she would say when you met her; she had no compunction about sharing details of her sordid past because the Lord cleansed those sins from her.

Christ may have removed the sins but he left much of Susan otherwise unchanged after she got clean; at 35, she looked at least a decade older, her graying hair matched by a haggard expression—all testimony to her many years on the Philadelphia streets. She still had a hot temper and a foul mouth lacing sentences with old addict slang and obscenities when provoked. Her street name—“Light Skin Susan”—came from her high-yellow tone; in North Philly’s black community complexion remains a salient characteristic, leftover from the old days when blacks with light skins were seated in the front pews in church, a symbol of status. But Susan had chosen, or been compelled, to live in a state far removed from status and other social niceties. She retained more than a touch of the profane, putting off many of the church ladies she now worshiped with.

As her social worker, I thought Susan's hard-earned earthiness was devilishly funny, but a coworker—and a North Philly church lady herself—thought that it was high time Susan left the devil alone and started acting her age. She was prone to flirtatiousness that arguably pushed the bounds of Christian propriety. But I found the flirtations mostly harmless, and if Susan got sassy there was usually another church lady around who was quick to chide her.

Susan’s addictions had driven her to crimes more harmful than tricking; she stole cars and even got entangled in a bank heist that went bad. Convicted of armed robbery, she did five years in prison. She was no stranger to jail cells, having been in and out of Bucks County Correctional Facility north of Philadelphia on drug charges over the years. At the time Susan got booked on the bank heist she was living in Bristol, a small town outside Trenton, NJ, across the Delaware River from Philly. Home to poor blacks and working-class whites, outlaw bikers, dealers who cook meth in their kitchens, Bristol is tough stuff for the suburbs.

But Susan fit right in Bristol's roughneck scene. She shared a house with her alcoholic mother who, at the august age of 61, improbably added cocaine to her addictions. When Susan went to jail, her mother got custody of Susan's three children. Grandmom partied for days, openly snorting lines of coke with men half her age in front of the kids. Susan knew that her mother was unfit to have her children, but she didn’t want to roll the dice with the foster care system where she had good reason to fear that they would be mistreated or abused. The children fared only slightly better with Grandmom, who took the extra welfare money from the state and spent it on booze and coke.

When Susan was released from jail—after having simultaneously got religion and kicked crack—she vowed to get her children back. She said the Lord would see it through.


Even with God at her back, her road back to mainstream society was bumpier than she had ever imagined—and they weren't just speed bumps. There are city agencies tasked with “easing the transition” from inside to outside the wire, but in reality most ex-cons are left entirely to their own devices—even when it comes to the bare necessities like finding a job and a place to live. Susan’s felony conviction for armed robbery closed the doors even to low-wage jobs and cheap apartments. The path of least resistance for most offenders hitting the streets fresh from jail and without a dime to their name is, of course, to go right back into the drug market, engaging in the same hustles that landed them behind bars in the first place.

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