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Faces of Recovery: African Americans & Substance Use

Updated: Jul 9, 2020

Written by Krupa Patel

What narratives of substance use, treatment, and addictions did you grow up with? Oftentimes, people who are in recovery from substance use experience stigma, shame, and alienation. And due to systemic oppression, people from marginalized communities also may not see themselves reflected in stories of recovery which can have a more negative impact on one’s self-esteem and self-image. To counter the stereotypes about substance use and recovery, we are starting a new series where we highlight advocates, researchers, and people with lived experience of substance use and treatment in the United States within diverse communities. In this commemorative issue, we highlight six well-known African Americans, LGBTQ+ inclusive, who have experienced substance use, recovery, and impacted the world through their life work.

Jada Pinkett Smith (1971-) - Jada Pinkett Smith grew up in an Afro-Caribbean and African American household where her grandmother nurtured her gifts in the arts. An alumni of Baltimore School for the Arts and a close childhood friend of Tupac Shakur, Jada has made a iconic career in the entertainment industry as both an actress, singer, screenwriter, and businesswoman. In 2018, she started Red Table Talk, a web-series where she, her daughter Willow Smith, and her mother, Adrienne Banfield-Norris, invite guest speakers to discuss important issues such as mental health, LGBTQ+ experiences, interracial adoption, sexual assault, and more. Both Adrienne and Jada have been outspoken advocates of recovering from both substance use and mental health, especially through attending individual and family therapy. On her experiences with alcohol and sobriety, Jada has said, “I found myself drinking two bottles of wine on the couch and I said, ‘Jada, I think we’ve got a problem here.’ I had problems with alcohol and I really had to get in contact with the pain, whatever that is, and then I had to get some other tools in how to deal with the pain. From that day on I went cold turkey.” She continues to speak on the power of her sobriety to this day (Kimberlin, 2017).

Malcolm X (1925-1965) - Malcolm X was an African American political leader and Muslim minister who advocated for social justice. He grew up during a very difficult time where systemic divestment in Black communities majorly impacted his family on a deep level. As a child, he witnessed anti-Black violence including the suspected murder of his father by white supremacists and the institutionalization of his mother. In his early life, he was focused on his daily survival and engaged in theft, selling substances, and was very abusive in many of his relationships. He had a very negative reputation in the community and even was called "Satan" as a nickname. He also used substances heavily such as marijuana, opium, ecstasy and amphetamines. After being sent to prison, Malcolm X had access to time and books and ending up learning about Islam, became a Muslim and started speaking on white supremacy, black liberation, and the role Islam played for African Americans. He also became sober during this time period which he accredited through becoming a Muslim and following the tenants, including avoiding alcohol. Throughout his life, he was a man-in-transformation, constantly refining his political visions to a racially inclusive, yet anti-racist humanitarian lens before tragically being murdered at the age of 39. He stands as a person who constantly changed as a person, took accountability for wrongdoings, and sought to evolve to understand people and how to create egalitarian societies free from oppression (White, W., Sanders, M. & Sanders, T., 2006).

Marsha P. Johnson (1945-1992) - Marsha P. Johnson was a young person who began to wear dresses at 5 years old while growing up in New Jersey. She did not grow up in a house that affirmed her gender or sexuality. To escape the loneliness of transphobia and the sexual assault she endured within her family, she moved to New York City with only $15 and a bag of clothes. She soon rose to become a well-known fixture in the drag-queen night scene in the 1960s. Even so, she faced housing insecurity, substance use issues, and difficult mental health struggles. At this time in history, LGBTQ+ people experienced profound levels of violence, and it was during this time that Martha played a major impact in the gay liberation movements. In particular, Martha is known for starting the Stonewall Riots, an uprising from LGBTQ+ people where they defended themselves against violent police who raided the Stonewall Inn, the most popular gay bar in Manhattan at the time. This uprising was so significant because the police played a major role in carrying out the criminalization of LGTBQ+ people. This 6-day period of uprising at Stonewall caused such major earthquakes around the globe that it literally started the first pride and served as a catalyst for enormous LGTBQ+ movement building on a magnitude never before seen in the modern world. (Anderson, 2020).

Lee Daniels (1959-) - Lee Daniels is a director well known for his work in Hollywood. His films, such as Precious, have gone on to be nominated for multiple Academy Awards including many wins. Most recently he earned much acclaim for his role in directing the HBO TV show, Empire. Daniels' early life began far from the glitz and glam of the film industry, growing up in Pennsylvania and later Missouri. As a young man, Lee experienced a lot of physical and emotional abuse from his father, stating that his father tried to “beat [being gay] out of me.” While working his way in the entertainment industry, Daniels also experienced substance use issues and frequently being high. Since then he has been sober and he credits Patti LaBelle for the support, having been quoted, “I called her up one night at three o’clock in the morning. (I was) babbling, babbling, babbling. I was high as a kite (and) she said, ‘Lee, you know Jesus?’” (Wickerson, 2016). As far as his sexuality, Lee has identified as gay as well as sexually fluid. He is the guardian of his niece and nephew, both of whom he adopted with his former partner, casting director Billy Hopkins.

Carl Hart, PhD (1966-) - Dr. Carl Hart is an accomplished professor of neuroscience and psychology at Columbia University. In 2013, he published “High Price: A Neuroscientist's Journey of Self-Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society” where he discusses his life experiences as a Black man, the role of substances in his life, and his path to becoming a scholar of drugs and social policy. As a child and teenager growing up in Miami, Dr. Hart falsely attributed drug use as the primary cause of poverty and crime. Dr. Hart has theorized and conducted a lot of research dispelling the myths of substance use, addiction, crime, and stereotypes attributed to African Americans and the during effects of institutional racism. He is one of the world's most vocal advocates of decriminalizing drugs. His work is highly regarded in both research and substance use public policy and he is frequently sought as a speaker and consultant in conferences on public policy, addiction treatment (Hart, 2020).

Indya Moore (1995 -) - Indya is a non-binary, transgender actor of Haitian, Puerto Rican, and Dominican ancestry who most recently starred as Angel Evangelista in Pose, a TV show about New York City ball culture in the 1980s. Growing up in the Bronx, Indya faced transphobia in her home and left the family at age 14. According to an interview they gave to Elle magazine, they experienced, “[living in] foster homes; a police record; time in prison on Rikers Island on an assault charge from a fight with a boyfriend; a stint in an institution where they were misgendered, taken off their hormones, and given anti-depression medication; and a drug addiction. They escaped to foster care in a group home, only to be placed among LGBTQ boys rather than in an all-girls unit, as they’d begged them to do.” Indya also is a survivor of sex trafficking. The world Indya has grown up in is one where the needs and rights of trans youth are frequently denied and neglected. Despite the odds, Indya began working in the modeling industry and later the acting world where they have continued to advocate for transgender people. In 2019, Time magazine announced Indya Moore as one of the “100 Most Influential People in 2019” for the work they put into empowering the transgender community and the LGBTQ+ community at large (Yuan, 2019).

The Online Museum of African American Addictions, Treatment and Recovery, maintained by social worker and substance use counselor, Mark Sanders, also features many other profiles of African Americans (click to visit). Highlighted virtual exhibits include a section on the Temperance Movement, history of Alcoholics Anonymous, and writing from Black scholars on substance use, including Frederick Douglass.

In the northwest suburbs of Chicago, Kenneth Young Center is a leader in providing treatment and community programming in mental health and substance use. If you are looking for clinical services, please visit the Kenneth Young Center website (click to visit). If you are looking to get involved in the recovery community, visit the CPYD Resource Guide (click to visit) or contact Daryl Pass, Manager of Recovery Support Services at


Anderson, V. C. (2020, February 20). Https:// Retrieved June 29, 2020, from

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Kimberlin, M. (2017). Jada Pinkett Smith: 20-Years Sober and Healing. Retrieved June 29, 2020, from

Pyne, I. (2019). Indya Moore: 6 things to know about the transgender non-binary s. Retrieved June 29, 2020, from

White, W. L., M. S., & T. S. (2006). Addiction in the African American Community: The Recovery Legacies of Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X. Retrieved June 29, 2020, from

Wilkerson, M. (2016, March 8). Https:// Retrieved June 29, 2020, from

Yuan, J. (2019, May 9). Indya Moore Just Wants to Be Free. Retrieved June 29, 2020, from

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