It takes more than good intentions to transform the South. It takes money.
What the hell is a Scalawag?
I was just about a year into sobriety when I was invited to speak at a TEDx event in rural Appalachia, the first of its kind in Corbin, Kentucky.
For nearly 12 months, my life had been a routine—one in which I rarely left a 3-mile radius: house, to recovery meetings, to therapy appointments, to daily chores. Make my bed, feed the cat, wash my lonely coffee cup, only socialize with other people in recovery.
All the days ended the same way, with my self-imposed bedtime and a check-in with my sponsors. Recovery taught me to value monotony over chaos.
Until I received the gift of desperation, I had chosen destructive paths of survival and relief. But I was learning to relish the upsides of being sober. Sobriety gives you the relief of knowing where you parked your car, and how much is in your bank account; you can remember your poems and speeches.
When the opportunity to speak at the TEDx event came, I was ready to do something different, but familiar.
The event would bring together ambitious Appalachian thinkers together around a theme titled "Grounded." The opportunity to perform felt like a symbol of my commitment to recovery. Although I was nervous about the live taping, I felt in control, sober-minded.
As I began preparing, I knew my TEDx performance would feature a character that I've been developing for years to teach people about digital and political literacy: Social Media Senator For The Digital District of West Virginia. (She came to be around the time Donald Trump became President, and as my drinking was becoming a problem. But then again, when you start drinking at 12 years old, that's already a problem.)
For Black people in the throes of addiction, race adds another complex layer to the process of finding help, which can already be a challenge in Appalachia. Here the face of addiction is often white, and so is the story of recovery. But not all heroin addicts are white. And not all those suffering from addiction in Appalachia are dependent on heroin.
Drug dependency for Black Appalachians does not discriminate between alcohol, heroin, meth, opioids, cocaine —but treatment, experiences, and access to recovery sometimes does.
It was apparent from my first recovery meeting that my journey was going to be segregated. I was often the only Black person in recovery meetings.
Black people as a community don't often talk of recovery by way of professional treatment facilities or 12-step programs. "Family problems stay within the family" is familiar rhetoric. Recovery options for most of us are either church or jail.
I know firsthand the shame and stigma imposed on Black folks struggling with addiction. I grew up in the '80s and '90s when the crack epidemic ravaged Black communities and many people who needed options were simply dismissed as "crackheads."
The opioid epidemic of the '00s, however, changed the public face of addiction from Black to white. The tone of policy changed too—"lock up the (drug) criminals" softened to "addiction is a disease." It's the same old same old: white folks get care; Blacks folks go to jail.
My Black family has a hard time seeing my struggles —or those of my relatives sitting in jail with felony drug charges due to addiction—as addiction. But the white side of my family is well-versed in Alcoholics Anonymous and 12-step culture. For them, neither my addiction nor me calling it that came with a surprise. Instead, I was met with encouragement and stories about my white grandfather's entry into the recovery fellowship.
But once I was in the program, finding the tools to work through both addiction and racism simultaneously—combined with the microaggressions I experienced in recovery—felt impossible. I was constantly told I was violating the recovery room rules for talking about episodes of racism, and then praised for speaking so articulately.
Today, the American Medical Association recognizes that racism negatively impacts and exacerbates health inequities among historically marginalized communities. Besides not drinking and using drugs, I also started trauma therapy with a Black therapist who helped me understand how racism impacts my mental health as a Black woman.
But for Black Appalachians who need to hear from someone who has been there and done that, someone who has gotten sober and lived to tell it: I'll tell you. If you don't know anyone else, you know me.
I'll tell you. I was so serious about my recovery that I agreed to not bringing outside issues of race or racism into the recovery space. But I'll also tell you about the many online recovery spaces that are for, by, and to BIPOC people.
I tell you this so that during your recovery meeting you don't have to hold hands with a man who has WHITE POWER tattooed on his face, like I did.
As I was pulled into Corbin to give my talk, I felt some relief and some pride. Maybe I didn't screw my life up as badly as I thought.
Then I noticed something odd. There were no Black people in this town—not at the hotel, gas station, walking down the street, passing cars—except for me and the one cool Black guy with a VIP pass wearing a TEDx volunteer shirt.
As a Black person, I always notice if I am the only Black person in space. Nearly every day of recovery, I was. Today was no different.
At the rehearsal dinner, in a casual, pass the butter kind of way, the reason for Corbin's lack of melanin was revealed.
On October 29, 1919, two men robbed and stabbed A.F. Thompson. I don't know who A.F. Thompson was other than he was a white man. Thompson alleged that his attackers were two Black men, and by Halloween, an enraged and armed white mob, made up of hundreds of Corbin's townspeople, went house-to-house, rounding up Black residents.
The mob marched a group of approximately 200 men, women, and children to the train station and herded them onto cramped railcars to Knoxville.
Signed affidavits said, "They swore at us and said: 'By God, we are going to run all Negroes out of this town tonight.'" They did.
Throughout dinner, I couldn't stop thinking about the town's story. I felt sick thinking of Corbin's terrified Black residents, how they were run out, put on trains like a commodity.
I felt the collective trauma. But in this moment I also remembered that people often deal with the residuals of trauma through substance abuse.
Drugs and alcohol offer an escape from profoundly emotional and intergenerational pain—like being run out of town at night by an angry white mob.
I don't care what some of these programs say; racism is not an outside issue—it's a health crisis. If more recovery spaces recognized this, maybe more Black folks would feel safe coming there for help.
I took a few deep breaths to memorize how good it feels in my body to be sober.
When it was my time to give my TEDx Talk in my pink and purple wig, I quoted June Jordan to ground me: "Like a lot of Black women, I have always had to invent the power my freedom requires."
This was my first performance without any mood and mind-altering substances.
On stage I found myself centered in gratitude for this excellent opportunity to create and deliver a new imaginative image for Appalachia.
Also, it was the first time I tried to be funny. I tried dropping a joke for a reaction. They laughed with me.
I think the June Jordan quote really means that to change your reality, you have to imagine yourself as a thing and move in it. I imagine myself sober, and I move in it.
My performance was like a high of its own. But as I'm well aware of, highs often precipitate debilitating lows.
The next day, I started to feel out of sorts about this seemingly positive experience in a racist town. I also learned that the event's sponsors were tangentially tied back to funding provided by J.D. Vance, who I've been vocal about not supporting. Although he played no role in the production—or even knew it was happening—the mention of a man who has capitalized off stereotypes of the places and people I loved was triggering. Here whiteness was again, showing up unannounced, feeding my trauma and complicating my recovery.
I knew it was time to do a check-in with my sponsor: Routine over chaos. I called my sponsor, and after listening to me vent, they reminded me that I don't have the "dubious luxury of anger."
I could choose to drink in order to drown my embarrassment, my dislike of J.D. Vance, and my sadness for the displaced Black people of Corbin, or I could revel in the nonlinear progress of my own recreative journey.
I chose me.
I know what Ntozake Shange means, "Being alive and being a woman and being colored—and in my case addicted in Appalachia—is a metaphysical dilemma I haven't conquered yet."
But the first step toward recovery—from alcoholism to racism—is admitting the problem.