How Hennessy Found a Home in the Black Community
Does the French cognac brand love Black people as much as we love it?
A bottle of Hennessy has appeared throughout every celebratory experience of my young adult life, from family reunions to college acceptances and kickbacks. I’ve dubbed it “the unofficial spirit of Black people” Hennessy, to us, is more than brown liquor or even a symbol of prosperity. It’s a community builder of sorts, sparking friendships on nights of tipsy bonding.
Despite its familiarity and proximity to my culture, though, we have no birthright to the French cognac that stealthily infiltrated Black America. It’s a cultural good produced by the world’s largest producer of French cognac. At the end of the day, we’ve made them rich. But are we in love with a product that doesn’t love us back?
It’s a commonality of the Black experience in America — the creation of cultural traditions on White products. Similar to Popeye’s decision to implement a Black woman as the face of their advertising and marketing campaign, Hennessy hired our culture’s artistic legends such as Josephine Baker and Erykah Badu to be their brand ambassadors to attract Black consumers.
When I asked Fredrick Wherry, professor of sociology at Princeton, about the cognac’s complex duality — it’s both a staple in and an exploiter of Black culture — he presented a dilemma felt by Black consumers: Do you have to only consume something that affirms you?
“There’s the pride of ownership, a sense that Hennessy is actually paying attention and willing to respect us,” Wherry told me. “And whether or not you think those signs of respect are genuine or only intended to generate profit, because there’s been such a big respect gap for African American communities, we’re willing to either to reward some things or to let something slide, by virtue of receiving respect.”
In an era where Black communities were dehumanized in popular media, Hennessy provided needed representation, and built an authentic…