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Death of 'The Wire' Actor Michael K. Williams Is a Symptom of Community Trauma

“Omar comin…”
— The Wire

Emmy-nominated Michael K. Williams, most famously known by his iconic role — shotgun slinging, unapologetically gay, stickup man, Omar Little — on HBO’s “The Wire,” lost his life to an apparent overdose in early September. His portrayal of Robin Hood-esque Omar was arguably one of the greatest performances in television history. Like many in my generation, I’ve watched friends and family members be swallowed alive by crack and opioid addiction and mental health disorders. Unfortunately, Michael K. Williams was not immune to the disease of addiction or its lingering affects. A native of East Flatbush (Brooklyn), New York, Williams was a rare and raw talent. The loss of Williams to an apparent drug overdose sent yet another wave of collective grief throughout the Black community, who have barely recovered from the deaths of Prince, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, DMX, all who lost their lives to addiction during the past decade.

Williams grew up in a community that was devastated by the crack epidemic. Although he was able to bring light and give a voice to the most marginalized of us, even as he struggled, he was unable to escape his lifelong struggle with addiction. The sheer brilliance in his portrayal of Omar Little in “The Wire,” has been referenced across entertainment and pop-culture genres over 20 years after its initial television premiere. The duality and complexity of Omar Little’s character changed our cultural consciousness about how we view Black masculinity. We accepted and didn’t challenge Omar’s sexual orientation, even as some in the Black community continue to wrestle with homophobia nearly 20 years later, as evident by recent visceral reactions to Lil Nas X coming out as gay.

Much like Omar, Williams struggled with lifelong addiction. In the early 2000’s recovery programs weren’t an option and it became hard to see where the line between where Omar and Michael began and ended. Our community was not told that recovery was possible; instead America drew a line in the sand for Black communities and responded through over-policing and by incarcerating Black men in record numbers. Treatment wasn’t viewed as an option. Family members of those struggling with addiction weren’t told to find their own recovery through programs like Nar-Anon. Instead, we silently prayed for and distanced ourselves from the root cause of loved ones struggles, further pushing them into isolation.

In a recent podcast, Williams stated that “Drugs are the symptom of a lot of the problem,” Williams said. “You know, once we put the drugs down, that’s when the work begins because we’ve got to clean up this house, all this garbage.” Barriers to adequate recovery programs continue to exist in communities where addiction is viewed as a choice instead of brain disorder and as a symptom of a larger issue.

As many as two-thirds of all individuals with addictions experienced some form of trauma during their childhood. Williams was not immune to the community violence that surrounded him. In fact, he received the scar on his face after being slashed with a razor blade during a barroom fight on his 25th birthday. Williams was not immune to community violence and abuse. Shortly thereafter, he made his acting debut; his life spiraled further out of control after he rose to prominence on “The Wire.” He fell further into addiction, before discovering a faith-based recovery program which helped him to find years of sobriety.

In surveys of adolescents receiving treatment for substance abuse, more than 70 percent of patients had a history of trauma exposure. Trauma also reshapes our brains, leaving many vulnerable to drug abuse. Money and fame don’t make one immune to relapse nor do they ensure recovery.

As a Black community, we must learn how to embrace our community members struggling through addiction. The opposite of addiction is connection and while setting healthy boundaries and finding our own recovery, we must continue to promote resilience and find our own healthy coping skills in an attempt to help heal the affects of our loved one’s disease. More often than not, substance use disorder is an extension of childhood trauma. In, DMX’s Legacy and the Connection between Childhood Trauma and Addiction, I offer the following: “as a society, we’ve allowed Reagan’s War on Drugs and Clinton’s failed drug policies to create a generation of Black youth who’ve been incarcerated and dismissed, rather than providing them the treatment that they so desperately needed.” This mindset has to shift.

By all accounts, Michael K. Williams was kind and compassionate, a rare and raw talent, who showed up fully for others, even as he struggled to show up for himself.

Image via Michael K. Williams’ Instagram

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