Is AA "Too White"?

By Jeff Deeney 01/16/11

Dismissing AA as a white-person's movement, many black addicts take a pass on the 12-steps and seek salvation from their church. That's not always a prescription for success.

The black church is the pillar of North Philly life. Photo via

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.

AA is marginalized in poor black communities because it isn't allied with the all-powerful black church. "Sharing" your dirty laundry is anathema. A North Philly church lady told me, “If you got problems you just go to church on Sunday and scream your head off and then everything’s fine."

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.

Even though she was penniless and homeless, Susan was determined not to follow this path. She had been saved, and had every intention of forever living in the light of the Lord. The sole source of hope in Susan’s life was her church—an African Methodist Episcopal (AME) house of worship in North Philadelphia that she began attending as soon as she got free. The church came through for her at first; after proving her sincerity, she was given a job there—as a janitor paid meager wages to clean the big, old building—and a fellow parishioner rented her a room in his apartment. She held to her belief that the Lord was opening doors for her, even if just a crack.

Susan’s life got more complicated when her eldest daughter, Ashley, showed up on her doorstep, right off the bus from Bristol. When Ashley turned 18 and her welfare money stopped, her grandmother kicked her out of the house. Grandmom told Ashley to go be her mother's burden now, no matter that the girl was six months’ pregnant. Ashley crashed on a couch in Susan’s small room in Northy Philly.

Another complication was that Susan's host sexually harassed Susan from the moment she moved in. He groped her repeatedly while they were alone together in the apartment and tried to crawl into bed with her at night. Not even the presence of Susan’s pregnant daughter asleep in the same room deterred him.

This was the situation when I first met Susan, barely back on her feet a year after leaving prison. I worked at an agency that provided housing for homeless families. Susan came there hoping to find an apartment that would give her a base of stability from which to get her life back together. She told me eagerly about her plan to petition for custody of her children as soon as she had saved enough money to get a bigger place where the family could be reunited. If we didn’t help her, she said, she would have to go to the homeless shelter, where the women smoke crack, her drug of choice. She was desperate not to lose her clean time.

Susan’s case looked tough but she had a lot going for her. In the year she had been out of jail she hadn’t relapsed or reoffended. Her income was nominal but she worked hard for it. Susan’s church believed in her, and in resource-starved African-American communities like North Philly, the power of the AME (and other churches) is almost total.

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Jeff Deeney is a social worker, freelance writer and recovering addict in Philadelphia. He is a contributor to the Atlantic and has written for the Daily Beast, The Nation, and The Marshall Project. Follow Jeff on Twitter.