Booze 'n' Butts Inc. Captures Kwanzaa


December 31, 1991|By DERRICK Z. JACKSON

BOSTON — Boston. -- The alcohol industry could not slip PowerMaster past African America. No problem. It captured Kwanzaa.

PowerMaster was G. Heileman's high-alcohol malt liquor that was sold last summer in low-income African-American areas. Like Uptown cigarettes the year before, it was withdrawn after influential African Americans complained of blatant targeting. But those who brag about saving poor black folks from PowerMaster have let Miller beer make a mockery of black culture.

In the October Black Enterprise magazine, there was a Miller ad for holiday cards. One card was for Kwanzaa, which is the week between Christmas and the new year in which people honor the African heritage in the United States. Maulana Karenga, the chairman of black studies at California State University-Long Beach who founded Kwanzaa in 1966, said Kwanzaa is ''a value system.''

A quarter-century later, Miller thinks it is part of that Afrocentric value system. Miller said proceeds from the cards would go to its Thurgood Marshall scholarship fund. The ad says Kwanzaa is a time to ''be proud of who we are.''

I guess we African Americans cannot be proud without a Miller in our hands or lining our pockets. Alcohol and tobacco firms -- Miller is owned by Philip Morris cigarettes -- fund African-American institutions and cultural events at a rate that makes you wonder just who owns our culture.

During black history month last year, Miller had a magazine ad for a family-reunion sweepstakes. Five families received $5,000 for their reunions. The words and images of Martin Luther King Jr. were co-opted by Coors beer and RJR cigarettes. Booze and butts help prop up many groups, including the United Negro College Fund, the Congressional Black Caucus, the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, the Alvin Ailey dancers and the Luther Vandross music tour.

At the same time, tobacco and alcohol kill far more African Americans than crack. African-American men and women have nearly twice the death rate due to alcohol-related chronic liver disease than white Americans. Men between the ages of 30-59 have the highest rates of alcohol abuse. African Americans have higher rates of tobacco-related cancers of the lung, esophagus, larynx and mouth.

African Americans are the dream market for booze and butts. Its addictive products hook low-income, stressed-out African Americans who suffer in silence. The African Americans who could make the most noise about tobacco and alcohol's major contribution to our 60,000 excess annual deaths are bought off. African-American politicians, publishers and corporate professionals dance on the graves of less fortunate people while the likes of Billy Dee Williams and Lou Rawls ham shamelessly for a good brew.

A top example of the black bourgeoisie's weak stand is the November Ebony magazine. On the cover was the healthy basketball star Michael Jordan. Inside was a story called ''The 10 Most Serious Health Problems Threatening Blacks.''

Ebony said ''doctors stress early detection . . . is still the most effective anti-cancer weapon.'' It did not say that stopping smoking is the best weapon against lung cancer. While alcohol abuse is noted for causing cirrhosis, Ebony does not exhort readers not to abuse alcohol.

Small wonder. In this 180-page Ebony, there was an alcohol or tobacco ad every 13 pages.

Kwanzaa celebrates unity, faith, creativity, purpose, collective work, economics and responsibility. It also celebrates Kujichagulia, or self-determination. Until African Americans of influence can find ways to divest from their financial addiction to tobacco and alcohol, there is no true Kujichagulia. Protests against PowerMaster and Uptown cigarettes are hollow.

Another part of the Miller Kwanzaa-card ad says, ''Kwanzaa is a time to renew our spirit and faith in what we can be and realize the promise of our shared hopes and dreams.'' Miller's hope is that African Americans remain silent about the co-opting of Kwanzaa, while its products kill the spirit of a people, too many of whom put their faith in a bottle and a butt instead of in themselves.

?3 Derrick Z. Jackson is a Boston Globe columnist.

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