Making money by any means necessary

February 07, 1995|By Derrick Z. Jackson

"You are not a drug addict accidentally. Why, the white man maneuvers you into drug addiction." -- Malcolm X

A curious new box of cigarettes is on the counter in 20 states. The box is black, with a large, white X. The X is surrounded by a red square. Above the square and the X are green letters that spell MENTHOL.

The X is reminiscent of the X of Spike Lee's movie on Malcolm X. African-Americans use red, black and green to celebrate our heritage. Among their meanings, red is for blood, black is for our faces, and green is for hope.

Not in this case. Try blood pressure, black lungs and hopeless greed. In 1964, Malcolm X said a racially divided America faced a choice between "the ballot or the bullet." Now a cigarette asks us to cast our ballot for the butt. Just in time for Black History Month and the Qubilah Shabazz trial: Malcolm X cigarettes, the Black Revolution in menthol that refreshes by any means necessary.

Let me stop here and be clear that "Malcolm X Cigarettes" is the nickname I applied to the box. The owner of the label said the X only stands for X-tra Menthol. He said it had nothing to do with Malcolm X. More on the maker later. You will be surprised where he is.

Five years ago, R.J. Reynolds tried to sell Uptown cigarettes to African Americans. Health and Human Services Secretary Louis Sullivan called Uptown "slick and sinister." Tobacco-related diseases kill 48,000 African Americans a year, four times the number of African American homicides. African Americans suffer from smoking-related diseases at significantly higher rates than white Americans.

In addition, Uptown was a menthol cigarette. Tobacco companies push menthol on African Americans because menthol masks the harshness of smoke. The most prominent brand on Boston's inner-city billboards are Newport menthols.

Many grass-roots people have protested the aggression of the companies. But the companies, having muzzled large-scale protest by funding African-American organizations, newspapers and magazines, continue to prey on the poor with either glamorous high-priced cigarettes or cheap no-name brands.

X Cigarettes suggest a rock-strong hero -- Afro Marlboro Man? -- with a rock-bottom introductory price of $1.04 a pack, half that of Marlboro. That was the price at a gas station in the South End of Boston.

One reason you probably have not yet heard of the new cigarette is because it is only in a few stores. The other is that it is not being pushed by a tobacco-road giant whose activities are heavily monitored by anti-smoking groups.

The brainchild of X is Chris Duffy, a sales manager at Duffy Distributors in Charlestown, Mass. Mr. Duffy said the X, besides standing for X-tra Menthol, also stands for the Roman numeral 10. He said this was because he had hoped to sell a generic menthol in packs of 10.

He said the 10-pack plan fell through, but he was stuck with the logo. He said there was no intent to target African Americans.

Basically, Mr. Duffy pleaded ignorance. "I'm sorry you feel that way [about the box]," he said. "I'm 28 years old. I don't remember a whole lot about Dr. Martin Luther King. Perhaps if I was older, I would have understood, but it just didn't hit me. I just wanted a package that stood out from most of the others, which use a lot of white as the background color. If we wanted to market around Malcolm X, we would've done it around the time of the movie. The interest level in Malcolm X has gone down, from what I can tell."

I showed the box to several African-American colleagues. None of them believed Mr. Duffy's I-know nothing defense. Large Xs flourished on black caps and T-shirts well after the Malcolm X movie left the theaters. Interest in Malcolm X by all Americans, via books and recent television specials runs deeper than ever. Mr. Duffy's use of the X with the colors red, black and green defy a non-Malcolm, non-African-American explanation. That color combination is rare in the rest of American culture.

Even if one took Mr. Duffy at face value, he is prime evidence as to why black history should not be emphasized for just a month, but rather become incorporated into all public school curriculums.

Cigarettes are insult enough, without an X. A peddler who picks the motif of black liberation, whether by a miracle of subliminal, cross-cultural osmosis, ignorant random chance or a slick and sinister scheme, is seen as exploiting black people.

Derrick Z. Jackson is a Boston Globe columnist.

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