Ujamaa: Cooperative Economics and the Key to Thriving Black Communities
Every day of Kwanzaa provides deep meaning, an opportunity to explore an aspect of our essence that is necessary for us to thrive as individuals and a community. But for some reason, Ujamaa is my favorite. I think that cooperative economics, the start, the growth, and the support of black businesses is key to building wealth, creating jobs, and providing us with an opportunity to “live the American Dream”. When Maulana Karenga developed Kwanzaa in 1966, he recognized that entrepreneurship, with communities of thriving black businesses, was something we were losing.
It wasn’t always this way. Our history of entrepreneurship dates back to the end of the Civil War. The first all-black town of Eatonville, home of Zora Neale Hurston, was established in Florida in 1887, with a mayor, several stores, tradesmen and farms, all owned by black families. There were actually over 400 black communities founded after the Civil War by the start of the 1900’s. The Black Wall Street of Greenwood was founded in Tulsa, OK by a wealthy black landowner who was able to buy 40 acres of land to start a community in 1906. One of the things that made Greenwood different was that it had a bank. We don’t always think of how a bank can change a community. A bank has enough money from investors to make loans so that businesses can be started. A bank has enough money to provide interest for savings and withstand withdrawals. A bank is a cornerstone to the prosperity of a community.
There were other thriving communities with black businesses. The Hayti community, established in Durham, NC in 1869, had a bank, an insurance company and over 200 other thriving businesses. Overton in Miami, FL was founded in 1896 with shops, grocery stores and theaters. The Fourth Avenue District in Birmingham, AL had the Alabama Penny Savings Bank, founded in 1890. Jackson Ward, founded in Richmond, VA was home to Maggie Lena Walker’s St. Luke Penny Savings Bank founded in 1903.
And by the 1970’s all of these communities had been destroyed. It wasn’t just the Tulsa Massacre of 1921 where businesses were looted and burned and citizens slaughtered by angry white mobs. Between 1949-1974, just as we were securing civil rights, massive, federally funded plans of urban renewal were enacted; properties were seized, razed and sold to private developers, displacing over 500,000 black Americans in over 400 cities around the country. Another federal program that crushed black communities was the Interstate system. Once again, lands were seized, razed, and made into highways – right through the middle of black communities, fracturing them.
And then there was the painful price of integration. I remember hearing a story about a man who was so proud to get a job working for a gasoline company. They told him to open a station on a particular block and he was alarmed and spoke up: ‘There’s a small black gas station on the opposite corner. If we open a gas station there, it will run him out of business!” Well, that was the point. And that’s what happened, all across America. Black businesses could not compete with corporations that would slash prices until the small business could not stay, and then raise prices to ensure their own profits.
The phrase “Buy Black” actually started with Carlos Cooks, a Marcus Garvey protégé and Malcolm X influencer in New York, who gave a speech: “Hair Conking: Buy Black” in 1955, advocating physical violence toward those who shopped in white stores! Personally, I like to peg it to the start of the clothing line FUBU – For Us, By Us – started in 1989. FUBU was successful because it was marketed through hip-hop videos, reaching a black community that was eager to buy what they saw the stars wearing. The success of FUBU was also echoed by the success of black record labels. Not just Motown, but Russell Simmons’ Def Jam Recordings started in 1984, Sean Combs’ Bad Boy Records started in 1993, Jay-Z’s Roc-A-Fella Records in 1994 and Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music in 2004.
Since then, “Buy Black” movements have popped up on the Internet and in brick-and-mortar community markets throughout America. Etsy markets black owned businesses, there are black “alternatives to Amazon” such as Miiriya.com, WeBuyBlack.com and buyblackmovement.com, as well as Facebook groups featuring black owned businesses and opportunities to network. The statistics on black owned businesses for 2022 are amazing. According to Bank of America in a Forbes article, there are 3.12 million black-owned businesses in the US – nearly 10% of all African-Americans own a business, generating $206 billion in revenue and employing 3.6 million people. Buying black is touted as the route to accumulated wealth. And yet, black business owners still struggle to acquire capital. An article in The Root suggests that #buyblack cannot be the only strategy. That we cannot model ourselves after other minority communities who may have outside resources, or may have positioned themselves in niche job markets, or have income from tourism. Nor do black people as an entity actually generate enough spending power by ourselves to sustain black businesses alone.
So, where are we really in Ujamaa – cooperative economics? We succeed when we have niche marketing opportunities in the black community which center around entertainment, food and cosmetology. We also succeed when we partner with white investors to form businesses that can attract white patronage. Being a black business is not as powerful as being the best business. So, please buy black. Please support black businesses. But also encourage black businesses to swim with the big fish, compete in the open market, and take advantage of all of America’s spending dollars. To the end goal of acquiring wealth as a community.