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Education: Higher Education

Seeking Pleasure, Managing Moods: User’ Experiences with Psychoactive Drugs

Class 2. Urban Hustlers


Historian Eric Schneider examines the intersection of spatial and social geography in American cities to analyze how specific patterns of drug use are encountered and taken up by new social groups. The article “Taking Care of Business: The Heroin Addict’s Life on the Street” by sociologists Edward Preble and John J. Casey has become a classic. It overturned an earlier sociological framing of heroin addicts as passive failures; their account confers agency on heroin users while charting a history of the heroin market in New York City over most of the twentieth century. These historical and anthropological discussions provide a context for interpreting the experiences of Malcolm X and William Burroughs in the years during and immediately after World War II.

Malcolm X, born Malcolm Little, is best known as an exponent of Black Power and the Nation of Islam, a highly disciplined leader, influential writer, and fiery orator. Before he converted to Islam, he inhabited the urban drug scene. While drug use and selling are not the dominant theme of the selected passages of his autobiography (published in 1964), his account of navigating Harlem in the late 1930s and early 1940s brings to life the world in which drug selling became a compelling lure to young black men for whom access to many forms of legitimate work was blocked by racial discrimination. They also set the stage for the growing role of drug markets in such neighborhoods over the course of the 1950s and 1960s.

William Burroughs came to drug use on a very different path. Born to a wealthy Midwestern family, he forsook conventional roles and embraced the underground life, including the use of heroin and other illicit drugs and engagement in sex with other men at a time when homosexuality was deeply stigmatized. Burroughs was an important figure in the emerging “Beat” scene of the 1950s.

Class Resources
  • Burroughs, William S. Junky. Edited and with an Introduction by Oliver Harris. Fiftieth Anniversary Edition. Penguin, 2003 (1953), pp. 34-43 (from “My case...‘I swear I don’t.’”).
  • Casey, John J. and Edward Preble. “Taking Care of Business: The Heroin Addict’s Life on the Street.” International Journal of the Addictions 4 (March 1969): 1-24.
  • Malcolm X. The Autobiography of Malcolm X as Told to Alex Haley. Ballantine Books, 1999 (1964), pp. 99-136.
  • Schneider, Eric C. Smack: Heroin and the American City. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008, Chapters 1 and 2, pp. 1-34.

Discussion Questions
  1. Chart Malcolm X’s progression from menial laborer to drug seller. Compare Daniel Hood and Philadelphia in the 1910s to Malcolm X and New York in the 1940s. What similarities and differences do you note? In what ways is the difference in the two men’s race significant?
  2. Malcolm X recreates the world of his youth, immersing the reader in his direct experiences and perceptions. Occasionally, he comments on that past from his perspective at the time of his writing. What can you infer about how he judged the scenes he moved through and his own actions in that earlier period of his life?
  3. Schneider examines the intersection of social and urban geography to analyze how heroin use moves among specific groups. What relationships does he chart among places where heroin sales and use occur and where diverse groups encounter heroin?
  4. Burroughs was the well-educated son of wealthy and prominent Midwestern parents who, as illustrated in the passages from his semi-autobiographical novel Junky, became familiar with the urban world of heroin use and sales. How does his close-up account of that world resemble or differ from Malcolm X’s account of the New York drug scene in the 1940s? Although one account is fictional and the other is not, how might we compare the way each writer uses detail to construct a particular social world? In what ways does “Taking Care of Business” help us to understand this world?
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