A long-time African-American member tells his story and encourages others to get involved beyond the group
I grew up in a segregated part of St. Louis, Missouri. I was one of the students who participated in the forced integration of schools. I went to integrated schools from the sixth grade through college. In many of those educational settings, I felt unsafe, unwanted and less-than. As a result, I developed a pattern of social isolation.
When I was in the eighth grade, we moved from the city to the suburbs, where I discovered alcohol. I had found a solution to my living problem, including the racial problems I lived with. Whether with my white or black friends, I discovered a new freedom through alcohol. During the turmoil of the ’60s and ’70s, I became an outspoken student leader committed to changing the social conditions in our country.
After completing a successful college career at Harvard University, alcohol and drugs began to exert a greater impact on my life until I reached a point where alcoholism consumed all my higher aspirations. Caught in a trap I couldn’t spring, I again felt unsafe, unwanted and less-than. I returned to my previous behavior of social isolation. I was angry, and blamed my failures on society. I would always find a way to sabotage my numerous professional opportunities. I couldn’t go to work without a drink, and fell victim to my obsession with alcohol.
After nearly two decades of the rampage of alcoholism in my life, I found myself deteriorating physically and mentally. I had separated from my wife and was living with my mother, the only person still willing to put up with my drinking.
For years, I was in and out of treatment programs and had again reached that point of total demoralization. In my desperation, I asked a Higher Power to help me, which was highly unusual for me, as I considered myself an atheist. Within a week, a gruff AA member and his sponsees brought a meeting to the inner-city mostly African-American treatment facility where I was staying. These men were white. Yet when one of the guys named Gary shared his drinking story, I identified.
On their second visit to the facility, another of the guy’s sponsees, a young white man named Dave, 15 years my junior, walked up to me and asked if I had a sponsor. I said no, and that’s how I ended up becoming the first African-American member of their home group—and Gary’s first sponsee.
When I got out of the facility, I attended the men’s home group. It was in a segregated area of St. Louis where, once again, I felt unsafe. But I was accustomed to places where I felt unsafe. So I kept coming back.
This group, called Back to the Big Book, practiced a strict adherence to the Big Book, and that’s where I got sober. I remember doing my Third Step prayer on my knees in front of this all-white group and realizing at that moment that I would go to any lengths to get sober. More than two-thirds of the people in the room joined me on their knees. When I got up, I felt a part of AA.
In my future visits to the treatment center and other institutions, many more African Americans were attracted to this group’s message, and got sober with them.
I dived into the AA program, as well as my home group. I ultimately became the group’s General Service Representative. Through my exposure to the Traditions, I learned there was more than one legacy, and eventually my home group was transformed into a new group that practiced all three legacies, after a visit by our delegate.
This new group became one of the few integrated AA groups in St. Louis at that time. It still holds that mantle today. Alcoholics still do their Third Step prayer on their knees there and most of the room still joins them. Although the diversity of the meeting is quite different than it was 20 years ago, on my last visit to this group I saw alcoholics of many types meeting to carry the message to the alcoholic who still suffers. As a matter of fact, Carry the Message is the name of that group.
When I attended my first AA assembly, I again saw an all-white gathering. I called my new sponsor, Ed, who was white, alerting him to my dilemma, and his response was, “You’re there.” Ed was immersed in the AA service structure and gently nudged me to stand for service as my life in AA continued to unfold. Yet one of my African-American sponsees who had accompanied me to the assembly has not returned to the General Service structure, convinced it was not for him. Shortly before Ed passed three years ago, he called me from that assembly to notify me that there were nine African Americans attending.
In 2001, I attended an Inner City Forum with my sponsor. I was excited to meet our General Service Office staff, which included African-American staff members and the chairperson of the General Service Board. I couldn’t wait to return to my local AA community and share my experience, strength and hope. You did not see many African Americans involved in AA beyond the group level where I was from. So I became convinced there was more I could do to serve in AA. Today, I live in New York and serve the Fellowship as a staff member at the General Service Office.
My experience is that it’s difficult to have attraction without a presence. My participation in my first home group and first assembly attracted other people like me. The service of African Americans in the General Service structure attracted me. As AA trudges forward, are we allowing all members the opportunity, at all levels of service, to have the presence to attract diversity to our Fellowship?
Race, politics and religion are outside issues that I don’t discuss in AA meetings. But when it comes to Twelfth Step work, all these things become important in how we extend the hand of AA to all who suffer from alcoholism. We want to make sure that race, politics and religion are never barriers to our lifesaving program of AA.
Our cofounder Bill W. stated in the chapter “Working With Others” in the Big Book: “Offer him friendship and fellowship. Tell him that if he wants to get well you will do anything to help.”