Reading between race lines

Drug counselor draws inspiration from African and Native-American traditions

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Sterling Gonzalez / The Torch
Mark Harris, LCC’s substance abuse recovery program coordinator, explains the benefits of recovery systems like the Wellbriety Movement, the Terms of Resistance, and the Nation of Islam 6-Steps. Harris is the only addiction recovery counselor at a community college in Oregon.

In a conference room on the second floor of Building 1 leans a kora, a 21-stringed instrument played by griots: troubadours, historians, healers and diplomats who travel through West Africa. Mark Harris, a musician, writer, Associated Press Award winner, Black Student Union advisor, Lane Community College instructor and LCC’s substance abuse recovery program coordinator, seeks to carry the healing traditions of griots to Oregon.

“Mr. Harris is an amazing man,” D’Ante Carter, a member of the BSU, said. “He has to deal with people who are disapproving of people of color and he helps them, regardless of whatever agitation they may have towards him…It’s tough to help somebody who doesn’t want your help just because of the way you look.”

“Being a drug counselor is on the front lines,” Harris said, “whether I have skinhead clients or ex-Black Panthers in recovery. We’re all human. We all face some of the same problems. We all have our own racial-trauma, our sexual-trauma, our trauma-trauma.”

Part African-American, part Choctaw, Harris was born in 1954 and raised in San Francisco and Los Angeles, California. His mother taught second, third, and fourth grades. His father, at 89, is still a psychiatrist.

“Dad learned to read at two. I learned to read at four,” he said.

When Harris was seven, he got on the Alice in Wonderland teacup ride at Disneyland and someone dropped a lit cigarette into his hoodie. His parents then had to explain the realities of racism.

“I had to wrap my Romper Room mind around: White people don’t like me? How do you tell? The people next door? No. They’re cool. The people on the playground? No. They’re cool. Well, how do I tell?” Harris said.

The drive to read people, as well as books, motivated Harris to study psychology against the wishes of his psychiatrist father.

“I wanted to understand why people are thinking the way they’re thinking, particularly why they hate us so much,” Harris said.

In the fourth grade, Harris was so far ahead of his class that his teacher asked Harris’ mother to stop teaching him how to read.

“Mom said, ‘Homey don’t play that. We are taking you out of that school and we’re bussing you to Bel Air,’” Harris said.

Harris was the only Black kid in his class. The other kids didn’t assault him with racial slurs because they expected “the stereotype of me to be violent” but they did engage in micro-aggressions like picking Harris last for every ball game, even though he played well.

For three weeks, Harris wished he were White. “Then I realized, wait, there’s nothing wrong with me. It’s them. They’re screwed up.”

Harris became enraged the day after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, when his history teacher said he was glad King got killed “because he was a troublemaker” and his homeroom teacher agreed. “I used to smoke weed because of my rage,” Harris said.

Nonetheless, Harris did not become an addict. “I am the anomaly in this field because I’m not an addict or an alcoholic,” he said, estimating that 80 percent of drug and alcohol counselors are former addicts.

“My main reason for not using is it gets in the way of my art,” Harris said. “It makes me lose focus and it doesn’t really get rid of the anger, so I’d rather use the anger to fuel further exploration.”

Among other things, Harris explores how addictive substances have been used to control people of color and how systems of recovery that take racial and sexual oppression into account, like the Wellbriety movement, the Terms of Resistance and the Nation of Islam 6 Steps, can help all people to unshackle themselves from addiction.

“When I teach an African-American class, I say the reason that White people should take this class is because what was done to us because of race is now being done to you for the money,” Harris said.

“White people are basically going through this opioid crisis that is now being caused by ‘Big Pharma’ and they have no idea what to do. Well, we do, because we faced that,” Harris said.

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