“It’s like how black people love watermelon.”
I said this to a friend who, after stopping at Walgreen’s for Marlboro’s, asked me why black guys like menthols. It was an intentionally absurd answer to a ridiculous question, but I was admittedly curious. Bing-ing “black men menthols” when I got home, I found studies suggesting the higher rate of lung cancer in black men is due, in part, to their preference for menthol cigarettes. How the studies proved black men preferred menthols in the first place wasn’t clear.
I don’t smoke, but if I did I definitely wouldn’t smoke menthols. I hate when a cough drop makes the air in my mouth veer up to my nose, and my breathing tingles. And, right now, I don’t know any black men who smoke. So I can’t ask one, “Why menthol?”
My dad smoked menthols, but didn’t admit he smoked until he quit. Like we didn’t know. As a kid, I saw him lean against the side of the house, hawking spit at the ground with so much force I thought the ground had spit at him first. When it was snowing, he’d close his eyes then open them up real wide, lids reaching for his forehead, as if he was surprised he could still see and hadn’t disappeared. As if, in twirling snow drifts, he could disappear; and, even if he didn’t, and had to return to the house, snow could leech the smoke soaking his uniform that smelled of a cop’s nightshift, and we couldn’t smell fire.
Searching for any reason for the black man’s menthol jones, I ran into a quote from Thomas Mann: “I never can understand how anyone can not smoke — it deprives a man of the best part of life… with a good cigar in his mouth a man is perfectly safe, nothing can touch him — literally.”
And I thought Germans didn’t like anything.
To paraphrase Mann, an oral fixation, which makes a man feel perfectly safe, is the best part of his life. The image of a group of guys gathered around an ashtray, talking smack and sucking their thumbs, immediately comes to mind. If Mann is right, it seems like there must be something comforting not only in the act of smoking and the nicotine buzz, but also, for menthol smokers, in that cold sensation on the palate, cheeks, and tongue.
I can’t remember ever thinking, “I’ve just got to cool down my mouth. Feels so safe. Feels so good.” Does it feel all good and cold if you kiss someone who smokes menthols? I spent my 20s with a man who dipped Copenhagen so much I thought I was in a North Carolina field gnawing on leaves. I didn’t like it, and don’t think I’d like menthol mouth, either.
Remember that phrase in the ’90s? It’s a black thing, you wouldn’t understand. Maybe liking menthols is a black thing I just can’t understand. Maybe it is like black people loving watermelon: a stereotype that’s inexplicably true.
I, myself, don’t actually like watermelon. But I do like belonging to something, even a stereotype. It’s like you’re legit, authentic somehow.
Still, there’s something to be said for nothing but literal and figurative space around you, where no one can touch you, where you can fixate on yourself and need nothing else to make you feel better, or to make you feel cold.