In Search of Salvation
As Columbia University’s first tenured African American professor in the sciences, groundbreaking neuroscientist Carl Hart has redefined our understanding of addiction. His controversial landmark research goes beyond the hype of the antidrug movement to shed new light on common ideas about race, poverty, and drugs, and to explain why current policies are failing. In High Price, Hart recalls his personal story—and though he escaped neighborhoods that were entrenched in systemic poverty, he has not turned his back on them. But balancing his former street life with his achievements today has not been easy—a struggle he reflects on publicly for the first time here.
Carl Hart is the recipient of the 2014 PEN/E. O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award for a book of literary nonfiction on the subject of the physical or biological sciences published in 2013.
In Search of Salvation
If the society today allows wrongs to go unchallenged, the impression is
created that those wrongs have the approval of the majority.
— Barbara Jordan
GOD is offering Salvation, apply through Jesus Christ,” read a huge billboard on Sunrise Boulevard. Sitting in rush hour traffic, I reflected on where I’d just been. It left me demoralized and definitely in need of some salvation, even though I’m not particularly religious. As part of my research for this book, I was interviewing relatives and old friends in South Florida and had just spent the last hour with my cousin Louie. Growing up, he and I had shared a bed at Big Mama’s; he was the math whiz that I admired. Now he lived in a halfway house just off the Florida Turnpike in Fort Lauderdale, and it had been nearly thirty years since I saw him last.
“What’s up man, you know who I am?” I asked the skinny man standing in front of me. He was wearing a wife-beater T-shirt and oversize blue jeans. The home care attendant had pointed out Louie, who was standing outside speaking with another resident. “Big Jun,” he responded. When we were boys Louie had always called me Lil’ Carl or Junior; now I was Big Jun. I was surprised that he’d even recognized me, because my appearance had changed so much over the past three decades. His had, too. He stood about six feet but weighed, at most, 110 pounds. His face was so emaciated that you could see nearly every bone. The few remaining teeth he had looked like they were on the way out. I was shocked, disturbed, and profoundly sad but showed only that I was happy to see him because I didn’t want to hurt his feelings. Over the years, I had become a master at masking my emotions, although this skill had been seriously tested in the course of writing this book.
We slapped hands, did the bro-hug thing, and without interruption, Louie talked for the next hour. He talked about the various crimes he had committed over the years and the amounts of money he had stolen and stashed. I learned that the police had beaten him up on many occasions and that he believed his insides had been replaced with those from other people. He contemplated whether he had done the right thing by not becoming a police informant, “I didn’t tell nothing. Maybe I should’ve start telling. I did plea guilty and didn’t snitch on nobody. They wouldn’t let me go home since I didn’t give ’em no information. I should’ve turned state on ’em.” Louie’s thoughts were disjointed and difficult to follow. He jumped from one subject to another without a break or transition and paced around the small yard the entire time I was there. His involuntary, repetitive movements were a textbook case of tardive dyskinesia brought on by taking antipsychotic medications for more than two decades. Although the details aren’t clear, family lore has it that he was initially put on these medications in the ER after having a “bad reaction” to an unknown street drug. And when he was sent to prison, they kept him on them in order to keep him obedient and calm—a chemical straitjacket.
In graduate school, I’d learned quite a bit about antipsychotics and what they were used for. These were the drugs used to treat schizophrenia and related illnesses. The simplistic idea is that psychotic behaviors such as those seen in schizophrenia are caused by overactivation of dopamine cells in the brain. Antipsychotic drugs block dopamine receptors and thereby prevent excessive dopamine activity. Behaviorally, these drugs quiet the voices in the heads of schizophrenics and reduce their paranoia and agitation. The problem is that the older generation of these medications, the type that Louie was prescribed, block dopamine receptors so extensively that the brain compensates by increasing the density of dopamine receptors. The brain is now hypersensitive to dopamine, and after years of treatment, the person develops tardive dyskinesia and becomes even more susceptible to psychotic symptoms. In other words, the treatment for psychotic symptoms can actually cause these symptoms. It’s a trap.
With each passing minute, Louie’s voice became background noise and I felt more and more grief and despair. I wondered how this could have happened but already knew the answer, because his story wasn’t unique. I had seen similar scenarios with other male loved ones. Virtually all had been initially caught up in the system via a drug charge while in their teens and early twenties, which began a vicious cycle from which they couldn’t escape. What’s worse is that the cycle wasn’t even new. One hundred years ago, on September 29, 1913, the New York Times printed an article that described how a white mob in Mississippi lynched and shot two black young men, one eighteen and the other twenty, because they were suspected of starting “a reign of terror” under the influence of cocaine. The following day the paper reported that the town’s two thousand black residents had been forced to walk past the bullet-riddled bodies of the two boys to view them; this, the article continued, “had a remarkably quieting effect on the negro population.” I would imagine it did.
Of course, we no longer lynch people for violating drug laws. Today the damage is far less visible and starts more subtly. The educational and vocational skills that sustain people throughout life are usually obtained during young adulthood, from the late teens throughout the twenties. This is a critical period. I, for example, spent most of my young adult years in classrooms and labs learning how to think and write. These skills have allowed me to support my family financially, which gives me a sense of worth and manhood. As a result, I have a stake in this society and do my best to make a contribution to it. It doesn’t matter whether the contribution is in paying taxes or doing public service or takes some other form. The point is that society and I both benefit from me having a stake in it.
In contrast, so many of the black boys with whom I grew up don’t have any stake in our society. They didn’t acquire the necessary skills and didn’t get the needed support during that critical period. Instead they were under the supervision of a system that doesn’t seem to understand or care about the importance of black men being invested in this society. Supporters of this system have an irrational focus on eliminating certain drugs and are preoccupied with those who violate drug laws, especially if they are black. Selective enforcement of drug laws seems to serve as a tool to marginalize black men and keep them in the vicious cycle of incarceration and isolation from mainstream society. I am not arguing that people shouldn’t be sanctioned for legal infractions. There are many cases in which sanctions are appropriate. However, the penalty should not be so severe that the penalized young person is unable to recover and stake a claim in society. In such cases, we all lose. The young person’s loss is obvious. The general public is deprived of the contribution that would have been made if the person were a stakeholder. With no real stake in the larger society, many of my friends and relatives feel they have nothing to lose. And as James Baldwin observed, “The most dangerous creation of any society is the man who has nothing to lose.”
After speaking with my sisters, I could see that we were beginning to lose some of my nephews. They had already started to repeat the incarceration-isolation cycle. What could I tell them? Hell, I don’t even know what to tell my own son Tobias. He has spent time behind bars for a drug violation and doesn’t have a high school diploma; nor does he have an employment track record or any prospects for a legitimate job. I’d recently spoken with him on a previous visit and he caught me up on the current events in his life. I learned more about baby-mama drama than I cared to know. “Man, they always want some shit,” he complained about the difficulties of dealing with the three different mothers of his children. At the same time, he was extremely proud to be a father five times. It was his badge of honor, something that “real” men do, even though he was unemployed. And unless there is some radical change in this society, his chances of getting a legitimate job are extremely bleak because these irrefutable facts remain: he is a black male who has a drug conviction and limited marketable skills. Like Louie, he too is trapped. Don Habibi, my old mentor from the University of North Carolina Wilmington, was fond of saying, “Once you know, you cannot not know.” There was a period in my life when I was unaware of the forces preventing Tobias and people like him from legitimately competing in mainstream society. That time has passed; I have come to understand that the game is fixed against them. That’s why I am frequently disheartened and stressed when asked what to tell someone in Tobias’s position. I recognize that I can’t give up on him or our society. So when we met last, I again encouraged him to get his GED and a legitimate job. I told him about my brother Gary, who had also dropped out of high school and dabbled in cocaine sales, but would eventually graduate college and own a multimillion-dollar company.
I didn’t tell him that Gary had never been convicted of a crime, nor did I tell him that Gary had only one child when he started to turn his life around. That contextualization might have been too daunting. After all, I was trying to convince Tobias, as well as myself, that he too could do it.
Along Gary’s journey, I had given him a copy of Nathan McCall’s Makes Me Wanna Holler. It was the first book that he had ever read cover to cover. He found it inspirational. So I bought Tobias a copy, too, and asked him to read it so we could discuss it. I also got him Bob Marley’s Survival CD, printed out the lyrics, and asked him to listen to it with a particular focus on the track “Ambush in the Night.” I explained that the song poignantly describes how the system is stacked against people like him and how sometimes it’s nice to know that someone else gets it. Still, this felt insufficient for what he faced. It felt like giving a Band-Aid to a gunshot wound victim who is profusely bleeding when everyone knows that a surgeon is needed to remove the bullet so the healing can begin.
A redeeming aspect of writing this book was that it afforded me an opportunity to mend family relationships that had been damaged by years of unspoken words and distance. On several occasions I met separately with MH and Carl and got to know them as people and not just parents. From MH, I’m sure I got my twisted sense of humor. She’d frequently poke fun at her grandchildren: “Malik wants to be thug and don’t know how to be one. He ain’t even man enough to pee straight. He better sit his light-in-the-behind-ass down.” She made me laugh constantly when we got together. Another thing that she did was to help keep me connected to people from my past. “You remember Lil’ Mama?” she’d ask. Invariably, I’d say no. MH would continue: “She told me to tell you hello and to remind you that she saved you from getting many ass-whippings.” “Oh yeah, now I remember her, Lil’ Mama,” I’d reply.
My interactions with Carl were equally rewarding but centered primarily on sports. He wanted to make sure that I continued to support the Miami-based professional teams. “What do you think of those Heat?” I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I’ve never been a Heat supporter. The Miami Heat joined the NBA for the 1988–1989 season, four years after I had left the area. So I never developed an emotional bond with that team as I had with the Dolphins. Nonetheless, it’s clear to me that Carl spurred my interests in athletics, and were it not for athletics, this book probably would have never been written. My participation in high school athletics required that I maintain a minimum GPA, which ensured that I would graduate. Carl and I reminisced about the time when we went to see the Muhammad Ali–George Foreman fight, 1974’s “Rumble in the Jungle,” on closed-circuit television at the convention center. It was a special night; it was our birthday. I also learned that he speaks with Tobias on a regular basis, offering guidance and support, and that he hasn’t had a drink in nearly twenty years.
As I spent time with my parents, I couldn’t help thinking about my own young children and the time that I wasn’t spending with them. Damon was now eighteen and preparing to go off to college and Malakai was six years younger, attending a middle school that charges tuition rates comparable to a college. The environment in which Robin and I are raising them is utterly different from the one in which I was raised. This is a source of anxiety and relief. I sometimes worry that we have pampered them too much. Would they be able to fend for themselves should something happen to Robin and me? My siblings and I joke about how MH made it clear to us that we were on our own very early in life, especially if we got into trouble with the law. One of her favorite lines was “If you go to jail, don’t call me.” MH firmly believes that her child-rearing philosophy is the reason for her children’s success in life. Her children, however, have a different perspective.
Robin and I have been fortunate to shield our children from the traps that face so many other black boys, including Tobias and my nephews. Damon and Malakai don’t seem to have the emotional scars that I carried from my childhood. They are thoughtful and verbally expressive, even when emotional. Both have participated in athletics and the arts since they were very young. Each has already read more books than I had upon completion of my undergraduate studies; for them, an undergraduate education is the minimum expectation. They have traveled throughout the United States and have been to foreign countries. Importantly, they are staking their claim in this society. The thing that pleases me most, however, is that they are happy and cheerful. Much of their free time is spent together playing games, laughing and joking. When watching Damon and Malakai interact, I am often reminded of the time when Louie and I were kids climbing the huge sapodilla tree in Big Mama’s yard. “Don’t go too high,” Louie would say. Because he was older, he felt compelled to look after me and make sure I didn’t step on a weak branch and fall.
After saying good-bye to Louie, I sat in the car and cried, because I felt as though I had failed to look after him as he had done for me when we were kids. Prior to writing this book, I hadn’t cried since I was a child. Now, in the car, a flood of tears poured from my eyes. I thought about all of the other Louies we’ve failed to look after. I thought about all the years that I spent away from my Florida family in order to obtain an education that seems inadequate to help solve the problems they face. The tears continued streaming down as I thought about the tremendous promise that Louie once showed; I felt crushed that we both couldn’t have been scientists. After several minutes, I gathered myself and started the car. Johnny Cash was on the radio singing, “There will be peace in the valley for me, dear Lord I pray … ” And I slowly drove away.
Exerpted from High Price by Carl Hart. Copyright © 2014 by Carl Hart and Maia Szalavitz. All rights reserved.