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The Color and Character of AA

The Color and Character of AA

An early criticism of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) was that its program of recovery was drawn primarily from the collective experiences of white men and thus unsuitable for people of color. Such declarations have since been challenged by surveys within communities of color indicating AA as one of the preferred choices for people seeking help with alcohol problems, recent surveys of AA membership revealing significant (11-15%) representation of non-White ethnic minorities, and studies of treatment linkage to AA indicating that people of color are as likely, or more likely, than Whites to participate in AA following professional treatment. Also of note are the growth of AA meetings within communities of color and the cultural adaptation of AA’s Twelve Step program within these communities. What has until recently been lacking is a definitive history of the racial and ethnic diversification of AA, including first-hand accounts of how the first non-White men and women experienced AA and attracted increasing numbers of people of color to AA’s program of alcoholism recovery. Glenn C.’s just-published Heroes of Early Black AA marks a major step in filling this void.

Glenn C.’s well-researched text documents the founding of the first Black groups in AA in 1945 (St. Louis-AA-1 Group, Chicago-Evans Avenue Group, and Washington D.C.-Washington Colored Group later rechristened The Cosmopolitan Group) and details the experiences of early Black AA members drawn from interviews and taped AA talks with five key figures (Bill Williams, Jimmy Miller, Harold Brown, Dr. James C. Scott, Jr., and John Shaifer). Heroes of Early Black AA closes with the story of Joe McQuany, widely known for his role in the Joe and Charlie Tapes (Big Book Study Guide) that are revered by many within the AA fellowship.

Three qualities distinguish Heroes of Early Black AA. First, it vividly depicts the larger social context within which Black AA groups emerged in the mid-1940s and in which the subsequent racial integration of AA unfolded. Glenn C. skillfully places the racial struggles and the process of racial reconciliation within AA within the larger social context of American society during these same periods. The best and worst of what occurred within AA is contextualized within the best and worst that was occurring in the larger culture. Such context is crucial in understanding both the resistance and the progress in racially integrating AA. Within this contrast, AA is given a mixed grade: “not as good as it ought be, but nevertheless much better than society as a whole.”

Second, the opportunity to hear the voices of these Black men and women who first broke racial barriers within AA is an emotionally moving privilege. Their poignant stories of recovery and the relationships they built across the racial divide within AA are among the great contributions of the book. Particularly striking are the distinct yet shared experiences of people whose backgrounds ranged from physician to tavern matron to con man. Glenn C.’s own understanding of alcoholism and alcoholism recovery within AA permeates this book but does not get in the way of letting his central protagonists tell their own stories.

Third, Heroes of Early Black AA details the process of how local AA meetings went from banning Blacks, limiting their attendance to open meetings, allowing attendance as “observers,” designating certain meetings as “interracial,” to further lowering and then losing such barriers, including the frequent exchange of speakers between predominately White and Black AA groups. That process of change is described as follows:

It was done by attacking the issues at the fundamental spiritual level, and by insisting that spiritual principles of the program had to take preponderance over personalities, and personal likes and dislikes, and politics, and blind cultural taboos. It also took a handful of people, both black and white, who had astonishing courage, and a willingness to speak lovingly, but boldly and honestly, when basic spiritual principles were at stake. (p. 164)

What local AA leaders on both sides of the racial divide proclaimed was that the fear and hostility that divided Black and White AA members had no place in a program like AA.

Most touching were the stories of personal transformation, e.g., an AA member who had once resisted AA meeting attendance by Blacks later attending the funeral of a Black AA member, with tears running down his face as he talked about what the deceased member had meant to his recovery. I have heard it said that the most segregated place and hour in America is Sunday morning church services; today, the most integrated setting in America may well be the AA meetings held the night before in those same churches.

The story of Joe McQuany and his collaborative relationship with Charles Parmley is a perfect point of closure for the larger story told in Heroes of Early Black AA. Here were two men, a Black man and a White man, both AA members in the South, who found common ground in their study of the basic text of Alcoholics Anonymous. Joe was the first Black member of AA in Arkansas and entered AA only a few years after the violent resistance to forced school integration in Little Rock. Joe was first allowed to attend AA meetings with the requirements that he not arrive early or stay late to socialize and not drink any of the coffee. As Joe would say, “Little Rock was no place for a black man to be looking for help in 1962.” But Joe survived such early insults to get help within AA, and his subsequent friendship and study with Charlie resulted in years of collaboration in producing the best know study guide to what has affectionately become known as AA’s Big Book. Glenn C. describes the unique quality that Joe brought to his study of the Big Book.

Joe McQuany developed a style of spirituality which was built, not upon the spirit of fellowship, but upon studying history and telling the stories of courageous historical figures who were cast in the role of pioneers, innovators, and lone wolves who had to make it with minimum help from others—a method especially appropriate for those who were, marginalized, socially excluded, and psychologically isolated within the surrounding culture. (p. 392)

One of the described high points within Joe’s years of service within AA was recounting of a 1977 trip to Lawton, Oklahoma to facilitate one of their Big Book Study meetings. Joe and an ailing Charlie, Black and White friends and collaborators, picked up Tony V., an AA member of Mexican descent, only to arrive at the meeting to find seating in the first row members from the Anadarko Indian Reservation. It had been a long journey (literally and figuratively) but there was realization at that moment that AA had become a coat of many colors. One can imagine Joe smiling in the knowledge that he had been a link in that chain of progress.

Heroes of Early Black AA joins a growing list of texts (e.g., Women Pioneers 1n 12 Step Recovery, Women in Alcoholics Anonymous, The History of Gay People in Alcoholics Anonymous, A History of Agnostics in AA) describing the increased diversity of AA membership and the ever-expanding varieties of AA experience. Glenn C. has made numerous contributions to the study of AA via his published books and articles, oversight of the AA History Lovers online group, creation of the Hindsfoot Foundation, and his mentorship of innumerable people interested in the history of AA. Heroes of Early Black AA is one of his most important and inspiring of these contributions.

William (“Bill”) White
Emeritus Senior Research Consultant at Chestnut Health System
Recovery Historian

Read all of Bill White's Blog Posts on his website here www.williamwhitepapers.com