Which Black People Are Allowed To Trip?

Chadwick Boseman as T'Challa in "Black Panther."
Chadwick Boseman as T'Challa in "Black Panther."

Two major films recently broke a social taboo by showing black people openly and joyfully taking psychedelics. So, is it OK for black people to “trip” now? 

In the 2017 film “Girl’s Trip,” and in this year’s “Black Panther,” drug use is in your face. It’s not just weed or rum. Jada Pinkett Smith’s character and her crew swig absinthe. Chadwick Boseman’s Prince T’Challa eats a sacred plant. They. Trip. Hard. How can we accept black psychedelic use after the war on drugs left us scarred by criminalization? One answer is that upper-class privilege inoculates from stereotypes this new imagery of trippin’ black people. It is respectability politics, under the influence.

The Drug Brute

One of our oldest racial myths is that lower-class black people are wild. In Thomas Dixon’s 1905 novel The Clansmen, he wrote of Gus, a black Union soldier who raped a Southern belle: “He stepped closer … his flat nose dilated, his sinister bead-eyes wide apart gleaming ape-like.” Here is the Brute caricature, a dark, lustful male whose terrifying face floated in the white mind. No wonder that in the political debate over drugs, he appeared in a 1914 New York Times report titled “Negro Cocaine Fiends are a New Southern Menace.” It tells of a cop arresting a black man high on cocaine: “The crazed Negro drew a long knife, grappled with the officer and slashed him.” 

I saw Gus’ cinematic descendants in ’90s hood films and in news reports of the Los Angeles riots, and didn’t even know it. He shot Ricky in “Boyz in the Hood.” He was handcuffed on TV as Nancy Reagan sadly watched. He assaulted Yvette in “Baby Boy.” When I was growing up, I sometimes saw him in the mirror.   

The Brute became the Drug Brute. The war on drugs is more than a century old, and has always been racist. It could be Mexicans with weed, Chinese people with opium or black people with cocaine. The lesson was clear: Drugs make dangerous, animalistic “coloreds” even more dangerous. Jail them if they try it. And for white people, the warning was also clear, from 1936’s “Reefer Madness” to the late-’80′s “This is Your Brain on Drugs” ads: Avoid using drugs or you, too, will become an oversexed criminal; you will become effectively “black.”

The Psychedelic Exception

Drugs are bad, bad, bad. Don’t fry your brain. Don’t get hooked, turned out, tricked, looped, addicted or cracked-out. Our speech flows with negative drug imagery. Except for psychedelics. They help you heal or trip, or go on an inner journey to realign your chakras. They reveal your inner child or tell you to follow your bliss.

Since the 1960s counterculture, LSD, mushrooms and MDMA have been separated from narcotics and given a benign, gentler halo. A user isn’t a violent brute or junkie, but is an “explorer.” We see this character in the Grateful Dead’s music or in Carlos Castaneda’s 1968 book The Teachings of Don Juan. We can also see it in American cinema, with films like 1969’s “Easy Rider,” 1984’s “Dune and 2009’s “Taking Woodstock.” Spanning the different genres is the scene of psychedelic exploration.

Yet this archetypal trip scene was off limits to people of color. The first major American film that treated mild psychotropic drug use, marijuana specifically, by people of color was Cheech & Chong’s now-classic 1978 “Up in Smoke.” It circumvented the scary brute caricature by using a stoner comedy style that bordered on buffoonery.

It worked. Mainstream white audiences lapped it up. Decades of “Amos ‘n’ Andy” prepped them to laugh along with 1998’s “Half Baked,” 2001’s “How High” and 2014’s “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle.” These new Asian, Latinx and black stoner comedies didn’t show psychedelic explorers, but bumbling, munchie antics that let white fans laugh at people they didn’t need to fear, but also didn’t need to take seriously.

A Girls’ Trip To Wakanda

“I feel funny,” she slurred, “Y’all feel funny?” Lisa Cooper (a funny Jada Pinkett Smith) stumbled in the club, hallucinating on absinthe. It was the hilarious set piece in 2017’s “Girl Trip.” Her friends roiled in visions and danced. One, played by Queen Latifah, dry-humped a lamp, thinking it was a slick-haired Fabio model. The audience howled.

In this year’s “Black Panther,” Prince T’Challa (a stoic Chad Boseman) drank psychedelic, the heart-shaped herb, sending him into the spirit world, where he met his father, the former king. The theater was in awe.

Millions in the U.S. and around the world saw these movies. Knowingly or not, they also saw the racial integration of a previously all-white psychedelic narrative space. The films did the work of shifting the image of black bodies under the influence from the brute criminal to the bumbling stoner to a freer one of joy, pleasure and exploration. 

The films follow the real-life path of people of color navigating today’s counterculture. Folks are showing up at Afro Punk (an annual head-thrashing weekend of music in Brooklyn), spoken-word events, Afrocentric spiritual retreats and even Burning Man

The price we pay for entry is whitewashing. In real life, tickets to these experimental spaces are too high for the masses. In media, the characters we identify must be economically privileged to render their psychedelic explorations benign. The sistahs of “Girl Trip” are middle class. T’Challa is king. Audiences see them as respectable, which eases racial stigma, but doesn’t erase it.

Yet the kernel of the psychedelic experience is the “oneness” that transcends race and class, a sense of connection with everyone and everything. Whether it’s LSD, mushroom or MDMA, the ego is dissolved, and an openness to memory and fantasy and sensation are possible. It’s a truth missed in the very way these stories are told.

We need more narratives of black psychedelia. We need to see beyond the brute or junkie, the weed buffoon or middle-class hijinks, or even a noble monarch. We need to see psychedelics used by people of color in therapy or at a concert, visiting a historic site or during sex. Maybe a film of black activists on an LSD road trip?

Psychedelic stories are one path into the vast inner space of the black soul. It is a place of abundance and mystery. It’s a trip worth taking.

Nicholas Powers is a poet and associate professor of literature at SUNY Old Westbury. He is the author of 2014’s The Ground Below Zero: 9/11 to Burning Man, New Orleans to Darfur, Haiti to Occupy Wall Street, from Upset Press.