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If you watched Super Bowl LIII in February, you probably saw a commercial for the cognac brand Hennessy. It was narrated by rapper Nas and featured a dramatic retelling of the life of Major Taylor.
But who was Major Taylor? What’s his connection to Hennessy? And why is the brand so popular in the African American community? To answer those questions, we have to explore the last 150 years of American history.
If you're black, you’ve probably heard of Hennessy. For nearly a century, the cognac brand has built a lasting relationship with the African American community.
"I would say my earliest memory would be hearing it in songs, before I could legally drink," says Bianca Holman, a journalist for KLAS 8 in Las Vegas who has reported on the history of Hennessy and Hip-Hop. "It had this mystery around it, like, 'Oh, yeah, this is the thing to drink.’
"And then finally when I got to college — I went to Howard University in Washington D.C. — and I end up going to this party at one of the bigger clubs. You know, this is when Kanye's rise was happening, right? And so, I don't know if you remember the rapper Twista?"
Of course! He’s the fastest man alive.
"I remember it was in 'Slow Jamz,' and he mentioned Hennessy," Holman says.
"Raising the bottle up, like, 'Yesss!' " Holman says.
But to understand how Hennessy became the pop culture phenomenon that it is today, and how any of it relates to a world-renowned cyclist and one of the first-ever African American world champions in any sport, we have to go back.
"Bicycling in the 1890s was the most popular sport in the country — much more popular at the time than baseball, for example," says Michael Kranish, who recently wrote a book on Major Taylor called "The World's Fastest Man."
"At the time, he was a very well-known sports figure," Kranish says. "And a lot of sports writers liked to write about him, because they saw this as not just a sporting contest, but as a young black man who was trying to take on his shoulders to disprove a lot of the racist theories at the time."
Marshall “Major” Taylor got his nickname growing up in Indianapolis during the 1890s. Taylor would perform bicycle tricks while wearing his dad’s old Civil War uniform outside a bike shop owned by a man named Birdie Munger. Taylor would draw big crowds and help Munger sell bikes.
But one day, when Taylor was still a teenager, Munger had a different idea …
"He took Taylor to a race track," Kranish says. "And he was astonished to see how fast Taylor was on the track. Taylor actually came close, unofficially, to beating a world record."
Munger began managing Taylor and started entering him in races across Indianapolis — breaking the color barrier in cycling 50 years before Jackie Robinson would in baseball.
Major Taylor kept winning. And people hated him for it.
"The local YMCA would not allow him to train there because he was black," Kranish says. "The racism got so bad that there was a time in which his manager, Birdie Munger, actually brought a vial of liquid which was supposed to make a black person look white. And, one day, Munger applied this lotion to Taylor. And while it did lighten his skin somewhat, it caused incredible pain. And eventually they had to abandon this idea. But it just underscores how incredibly difficult the times were for Taylor and the incredible odds that he had to overcome."
"And while [the liquid] did lighten his skin somewhat, it caused incredible pain."— Michael Kranish
At the age of 18, Major Taylor turned pro and moved to Worcester, Massachusetts. Worcester had its own problems with racism, but at least Major Taylor was allowed to train at the local YMCA.
In 1896, Munger entered him into the Six Day Race, one of the toughest and most prestigious races in all of cycling.
"The Six Day Race is really an inhumane race," Kranish says. "It would never be allowed today, probably. But at the time, you were basically supposed to race as many miles as you could, in laps around the track, for a six-day period. You could take breaks. You could rest for an hour. But then you lost some of the time to your competition."
Most racers dropped out. Some even died. But Major Taylor kept going.
"Sometimes he would just get an hour or two of sleep," Kranish says. "The first night, perhaps he got as many as six hours. But, oftentimes, it would be an hour here, an hour there. And the newspapers at the time would describe him as doubled over in pain and wincing in agony.
"At one point, they described him 'mindlessly wandering across the track due to lack of sleep' and 'being carried off in a trainer’s arms.' And there was another point at which he told his trainers, 'I cannot go on with safety. For there is a man chasing me around the ring with a knife in his hand.' So you just imagine the exhaustion that he was feeling to have said that."
Major Taylor finished eighth — he biked 1,732 miles — during the 1896 Six Day Race. For perspective, 1896 was the same year that the Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson, making racial segregation constitutional.
Throughout his career, Major Taylor broke over a dozen world records. But, despite his accomplishments, he was often treated with more respect outside of the U.S. In his book, Michael Kranish writes about Major Taylor’s experience living and competing in France.
"In fact, he came to France, in part, because he could be treated more as an equal," Kranish says. "He was venerated by the French cycling press. They published pictures of him. So they really lauded him in a way that Taylor could not be celebrated back home in the United States."
And when Major Taylor won a World Championship in Montreal in 1899 ...
"He said he never felt more American than when the anthem was played for him in Canada," Kranish says. "Because in America, he was often banned or ridiculed for racist reasons. So, when he won the championship, oftentimes he carried an American flag that he had tucked into his jersey. And he would pull it out and wave it in celebration. So he was proud to be an American and wished that America was as proud of him as he was of the country that he came from."
World War II
Major Taylor was celebrated abroad. People in France cared more about his accomplishments than his skin color. It's the same feeling that many black intellectuals, musicians and athletes wrote about in the early 1900s. It’s also the same experience that many African American troops described during World War II when, just like Major Taylor, they traveled thousands of miles across the Atlantic to fight for a country that wouldn’t fight for them.
"When they were deployed, it was a period of independence," says Christine Sismondo, author of “America Walks into a Bar,” a book that traces the relationship between bars, spirits and progressive movements in American history.
"And if you can imagine going from the Jim Crow South into a society where people were actually happy to have you on their side — because of the role you played in the freedom of their country — they would have had much more respect," Sismondo says. "There are a few different stories about the connection between African American soldiers and cognac. And one of them is that, on liberation day, every soldier got a bottle of cognac. Farmers would find their hidden stores of cognac buried underneath the potatoes or whatever, and that they were giving them away."
Since the American Revolution, whiskey has been very popular in the United States — especially in the South. And throughout this time, many companies used racist imagery in their advertising. The U.S. Library of Congress has archived many of these images. They feature caricatures of African Americans. One even features an illiterate text box, with the words, “It’zacly suits dis chile!”
"Almost every whiskey company would have been really trying to sell largely to a white clientele," Sismondo says. "There would have been informal policies to not sell to the African American community. Certainly, the fact that you were using such absolutely culturally offensive stereotypes on the advertising would have reinforced that."
Sismondo says that many African Americans contributed to the Whiskey industry.
And ironically enough ...
"You know, Jack Daniels was named specifically after one person, and he’s sort of posited as this individual genius who came up with charcoal filtration in order to make this really pure whiskey," Sismondo says. "And, you know, there’s probably a bit of truth to that. But charcoal filtration seems to also have had a longer history that extended into slave communities as well."
So when African American troops returned home from Europe reinvigorated with a sense of worldliness and freedom, they opted to drink cognac.
"If you think about the soldiers coming back and having been exposed to different things around the world — and cognac, especially in France and Europe — you're like, 'Oh, wow, if Uncle Charles is bringing this back and drinking this, and he's international, he's traveled, he's a respected person in our family — this must be it,' " Holman says. "So I think those habits began to just trickle on down."
By the 1950s, cognac had become the drink of choice for African Americans. But according to Bianca Holman, cognac companies didn’t yet see the African American community as a viable market.
That’s where Herb Douglas comes in. He won bronze in long jump at the 1948 Summer Olympics. And he was hired to work for Hennessy in the 1960s.
"He's very important because, having that athletic background, many people, even for today, you may think, 'Oh, that person's just gonna stay in athletics,' " Holman says. "But, no. He was able to rise into the ranks of being a Vice President of Urban Marketing for the Hennessy brand during the 1960s."
Here he is, at 92 years old, talking about his career in a Hennessy ad:
Douglas pushed for Hennessy to advertise more in popular African American publications.
"So, if you think about Ebony, Jet — that's what we were reading," Holman says. "That's what was in the barbershops, in the beauty salons, that was what was on your grandmother's coffee table. That's what we were looking at as beacons of light and what was happening in our community."
And Hennessy took Douglas’s advice.
"They were one of the first to really have authentic and genuine advertisements in those publications," Holman says. "Their advertisements weren't these stereotypical caricatures. An ad that sticks out for me is there's this guy standing at the door of his lady friend's house. And it's like, 'Oh, you kind of came over for a cocktail.' And he's holding the bottle of Hennessy. And they're dressed really nice and clean and cut. And it's like, 'Oh, yeah, that could be my postal worker.' Or 'That could be the guy at my church', or something. These people that they had in their ads looked normal and regular and like something that was real to the everyday person."
But it wasn't just these ads that allowed Hennessy to corner the African American market. It was a genuine investment in the community and its leaders. They even were the first-ever corporate sponsor of the NAACP. So it makes sense why Hennessy would want to promote Major Taylor’s story in 2019, 87 years after his death.
But why did Michael Kranish want to write about Major Taylor?
"I really wanted to write this as a piece of history," Kranish says. "What does he tell us about the times? And I see him, because he was so well-documented, as a lens into this era which is so important for understanding American history and in many ways still defines our country when we look at some of the divisions that still exist today. I think his story has even more to teach us than ever before."
More recently, Hennessy has employed Erykah Badu, Nas, and Rihanna as brand ambassadors. And the brand continues to be mentioned by artists and athletes alike.
Major Taylor was the perfect guy to represent the Hennessy brand. But, it’s worth noting that you never would have seen him drinking it.
"Taylor did abstain from alcohol," Kranish says. "But Taylor did also say, at the same time, he was not trying to impose his lifestyle on others."
Michael Kranish’s book is “The World Fastest Man: The Extraordinary Life of Cyclist Major Taylor.”
This segment aired on August 17, 2019.
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