Crafting Freedom

Roach likely came from the cannabis lyrics added to the old Spanish/ Mexican folk song “La Cucaracha,” the cockroach.

1920s and 30s: Harlem Renaissance/ Jazz Age. 1940s: Zoot Suit Riots. 1950s: Beat Generation.

One thing all these have in common is resistance to persecution fueled by cannabis. Both the oppression and the defiance had cannabis at the core. According to the July 29, 2014 “New York Times” article, “Federal Ban on Marijuana Is Rooted in Myth and Xenophobia” and the Steven Watson book “The Harlem Renaissance: Hub of African-American Culture, 1920-1930,” so-called undesirables were put down as violent, lawless, predatory hopheads. That in turn sanctioned the passage of anti-cannabis laws designed to harass those communities. The first head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Harry Anslinger, infamously said, “Reefer makes [people of color] think they’re as good as white men,” reported The Modernism Project. At the same time, cannabis use down the decades was an honored pathway to creativity, just a hint of freedom, and some measure of short-term peace of mind.

Watson’s book makes clear that by the 1920s, Harlem was the major go-to spot for rural African-Americans fleeing the horrors of the South. Industrialized cities all over the Northeast and Midwest received this cultural infusion called the Great Migration. But no place blossomed more than Harlem. Swinging with blues and jazz, poetry and prose, the Harlem Renaissance remains a benchmark in creative brilliance. And what a triumph it was for those whose forebears had been told they were too stupid to learn to read. Though racism was and is all too alive in the North, a place like Harlem could function like a private enclave with its own newspapers, art galleries and many, many nightclubs and speakeasies.

Before The Great Depression pulled out the economic rug in 1929, Harlem was the place to be for black and white New Yorkers in search of great culture or a good time, says Watson. Since this was the era of alcohol prohibition, all forms of mind expansion were illegal. Bootleggers might sell near lethal homemade liquor out of one pocket and cannabis out of the other. While no research may exist to confirm this idea, clearly the safer choice would have been the natural plant over rotgut.

The clearest voices celebrating cannabis right into the 30s were musicians. Cab Calloway celebrated the “Reefer Man;” hear it on the CD “When Hemp Was Hip.” At The Modernism Project, listen to “The Man from Harlem” as Calloway sings, “Come on, sisters, light up on these weeds and get high.” The site also mentions the Buster Bailey Orchestra song “Light Up.” celebrates Ma Rainey, who spoke and sang of reefer until her death in 1937. Here’s Anslinger again, from The Modernism Project, “Most [tokers] are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing, result from marijuana usage.”

In June 1943, Los Angeles was rocked and not by good music. A May 30, 2013 article in the “Los Angeles Daily News” called “Zoot Suit Race Riots” explains that sailors in town waiting to be shipped overseas rioted through the city, invading movie theaters, Mexican neighborhoods, even private homes, searching for youths in stylish zoot suits that flaunted yards of expensive fabric in a time of national austerity (they called themselves pachucos), stripping them and beating them with baseball bats and fists. Fifty-five youths were treated at area hospitals. But the violence actually started the year before in area newspapers that equated Latino youths with violence, crime and cannabis use.

Find a good summary article, “Backgrounder: 100 Year War on Marijuana in California and Its Effects on Today’s Latino Community” at the CalNORML website. California had actually criminalized cannabis use in 1913. Racist news sources throughout the states bordering Mexico blamed Mexicans for introducing the evil weed to white kids. All that talk got superheated in Southern California after a 1942 pachuco party in Sleepy Lagoon in L.A. resulted in a murder. Twelve Latino youths were convicted (later it was overturned) on the flimsiest of evidence, but the story undoubtedly sold plenty of papers. In the summer of ’43, after a year of relentless racist press, the lid blew off in what is known as the Zoot Suit Riots, though Frank O. Sotomayor of the “Los Angeles Times” suggested in an October 25, 1999 article, “perhaps they should be called the “servicemen’s rampage” instead.

By the 1950s, American urban language had fully incorporated slang terms for cannabis – reefer, tea, roach. Roach probably comes from the cannabis lyrics added to the old Spanish/Mexican folk song “La Cucaracha,” the cockroach. “Huffington Post” blog writer Bob Schulman writes in a July 26, 2016 entry that the song became the favorite battle tune of Pancho Villa’s Mexican rebels in the early years of the 20th century and it was at this time that the following lyrics were added, “The cockroach, the cockroach […] now he can’t go traveling/ Because he doesn’t have, because he lacks…marijuana to smoke.”

By the 50s, the white guys known as the Beat writers, disenchanted with the sterile American culture they saw all around them, exuberantly took up cannabis and a slew of other substances to fuel their writing. In a May 7, 2015 article in the “Los Angeles Review of Books,” Loren Glass wrote, “The Beats were the first generation of writers for whom cannabis was central, both to the experiences they recounted and to the prose style in which those experiences were rendered […]”

Jack Kerouac is arguably the most famous of the Beats these days. His book “On the Road” is still widely read and was made into a film not long ago. Glass cites, from a letter Kerouac wrote that was seminal material for the book, “[…] did you ever see such a bomber as our boy Gregor rolled?” Allen Ginsberg, in his poem “Howl,” found at Poetry, wrote of “returning through Laredo with a belt of marijuana for New York,” “Howl” was widely banned as obscene until exonerated in court in 1957. Glass makes the case that the Beats were the bridge between African American and Latino communities and the larger white culture. “Cannabis was central to the [Beats] cross-cultural contacts, not only in Mexico but in the African-American community as well, that informed their countercultural sensibilities[…] Their cultural assimilation of cannabis is a crucial chapter in its passage to mainstream acceptance […]”

We owe a lot to these pioneers, all of them looking for community of their own choosing, dignity and the freedom to express in their own terms “the pursuit of happiness” guaranteed by the U. S. Constitution. May their legacy of courage inspire us all to continue the struggle.

Emerald contributor since July 2015


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