African American Agency and (Anti-)Prohibition

Editor’s Note: This post is brought to you by Brendan Payne, a Ph.D. candidate in U.S. History at Baylor University finishing his dissertation, “Cup of Salvation: Race, Religion, and (Anti-)Prohibition in Texas, 1885-1935.” Enjoy!

It is no secret that African Americans have received modest scholarly attention when it comes to alcohol prohibition. Some historians have gone so far as to omit African Americans from a significant role in the issue altogether. In his 2010 book Jesus and Gin, Barry Hankins argued that African Americans “either took a pass or were not allowed to participate” on a white culture war issue such as prohibition due to their social marginalization and legally enforced segregation (p. 170). It is true that African Americans were often barred from full political engagement on the issue, especially during his focus on the 1920s, yet many works on prohibition have managed to incorporate African Americans. Most of these works have treated them as peripheral to the narrative, usually either as victims of a prohibition movement arrayed against them or as followers of reformist whites seeking racial uplift through mutual striving. One recent example of the latter perspective is Robert Wuthnow’s 2015 study of religion and politics in Texas, Rough Country. He described prohibition as a policy “of special interest to white churches” and reduced African American ministers’ support for the reform as reactive to white initiative (p. 171). While some attention on prohibition is better than none, such marginal treatment can have the effect of stripping African Americans in the past of their agency, essentially framing them as pawns in a white man’s (and woman’s) game.

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Points Roundtable, “Becoming a Marihuana User”: Cookie Woolner

Editor’s Note: This week, we welcome Cookie Woolner to the roundtable on Howard Becker’s Becoming a Marihuana UserWoolner 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

Cookie-WoolnerMarijuana, Race, and Music Cultures from Jazz to Hip Hop

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.”

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The Use of Marijuana in the Rastafari Religion

Editor’s Note: This post is brought to you by Andrea Jones, a journalist interested in issues of alcohol and drug addiction in youth.

Rastafari: What comes to mind when you see the word? Jamaica? Dreadlocks? Bob Marley? Chances are one of the first things that comes to mind is marijuana. Culturally entrenched with the Rastafari movement since it began in the 1930s, marijuana – or ganja, as it’s more commonly called by Rastas – is considered sacred and is often referred to as the wisdom weed or holy herb.

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