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Living Ujamaa—Remembering The Open Market Classroom With Notes on Black Spending

The Kwanzaa Principle of Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics) (http://www.officialkwanzaawebsite.org/index.shtml) is a means of ensuring shared wealth and resources. It values the best forms of African communal living supporting the ideal that genuine prosperity belongs to the people. The underlying theme here is that people should not be exploited and oppressed so that the few may benefit. Ujamaa means that we build our own businesses and institutions with excellence and integrity and we sustain our businesses so that we may better serve our communities. Often when we discuss the principle of Ujamaa historically, we refer to Booker T. Washington, Tuskegee, and the National Negro Business League. Regarding the latter, Washington and Emmitt Scott delivered a speech in 1914 outlining the mission of the business league, using basic numerical data to draw attention to the successes African Americans were experiencing in farming. (http://btwsociety.org/library/speeches/11.php)%5B1%5D We also reference Madame C. J. Walker’s million dollar enterprises in personal services to Black women and the efforts of her biographer A’Lelia Bundles (the  great great granddaughter of Madame C. J. Walker) to preserve her legacy (http://www.madamcjwalker.com/index.html). It is important that we recall the accomplishments of black business men and women of the past. Much good has come from black entrepreneurs, who used the concept of Ujamaa for the benefit of our family, community, and culture. Their example tasks us to consider how we use our resources for the ultimate advancement of the group, rather than our ability to simply amass financial wealth and resources for individual gain. Like Washington, Walker offered training, created jobs, provided services, and donated money to causes that elevated the Black community. Also, a half century later, we should not forget the economic leverage illustrated in the 1960s, and specifically the Montgomery Bus Boycott, forewarning the demise of Jim Crow.

English: Booker T. Washington in 1903. Deutsch...

Ujamaa and the Open Market Classroom

Thirty years ago African “street vendors” were prevalent in many cities, especially in Washington, D.C. For students at Howard University, the street vendors were, in reality, extensions of the Black diaspora and the business tradition of open markets. It was/is a global profession, found everywhere in the world. At Howard the vendors were on campus, often just outside of Douglass Hall, but sufficient distance from the Administration Building. From what we could discern, they almost always had a vendor’s license, and despite the fact that most were viewed as simply making an honest living, they were considered a nuisance for municipal regulation, and the brick and mortar establishments far from Georgia Avenue. For a time, like those vendors well-established on Malcolm X Boulevard in Harlem, New York (at the original African Market) these merchants participated in a bustling, vibrant business. The street vendors on and around Howard University’s campus, perhaps unlike some peddlers, were on a mission. Rain or shine the vendors were generally a reliable class of entrepreneurs. They gave off no sense of any re-sale irregularity. Most importantly, they sold quality materials, hard to find items—mostly comprising culturally specific objects, books, incense, perfume oil, African attire, jewelry—and occasionally food. They directed the students to Hodari Ali’s Pyramid Bookstore and the Blue Nile on Georgia Avenue. They talked about their homeland, usually the West Indies or Africa and constantly challenged students about their knowledge of Black history and culture.

Many seemed more interested in conducting their own Open Market Classroom then making a sale. If students didn’t have money to pay, they would wait until the next time. Often highly developed intellectuals themselves, they challenged students who were culturally dislocated, and ceaselessly engaged students whom showed promise of a “liberated mind.” Unbeknownst to most students, the vendors operated within the hidden or sometimes parallel economies of America, difficult to tax, and unreliable as a constant revenue stream for local districts. In the larger cities, places where blacks, especially men could not gain employment, or some, like their “over-educated” immigrants peers, found small incomes. Within this particular hidden economy, Blacks supported one another in the spirit of Ujamaa. This was before economic globalization; before the complaints from mainstream businesses, before market men and women were removed from urban campuses and “downtown” streets; and before the African Market in Harlem, as we knew it (dynamically exuberant, bustling, African intra-ethnic, African intra-cultural, and international), was closed (and relocated). But prior to all of this, and only citing this specific example, Ujamaa was not only practiced, it was studied and discussed. The Black small businessmen came to Black schools and sold Black products in the Black community, to Black students. They were self-employed, if not gainfully employed, and this segment of the African American community made culturally conscious decisions about where to spend their dollars, and on what. These street vendors, like their counterparts all over the world—Asia, South America and Africa—found their livelihoods eliminated, or if they initially survived witnessed their businesses (which were often so much more) regulated out of existence.

A Note on African-American Spending

There are specific media messages regarding how African Americans spend their money; and an excess of statistical data demonstrating the spending wealth of Blacks. Every year these statistics are discussed citing how much money Blacks spend on frivolous and potentially harmful items. We are also routinely informed about the kinds of items black celebrities’ purchase and how much they spend. The message, within the subtext, is that Blacks waste their vast wealth on unnecessary items and services. The effort supports a well-worn black economic pathology notion in the public domain. It is a carefully guided view of the numbers, but the slant consistently fails to account for the irony that masses of Blacks still grapple with poverty and the average income of African Americans is not above $40,000 per year. Phillip Jackson has suggested that Blacks currently exist in “deep poverty.”[2] These statistics never include information regarding how much blacks spend on transportation (except to highlight automotive sales), housing (30 %), childcare, food—basic support and sustenance items. The data is rarely aligned with statistics from the general U.S. population; does not account for the persistent wealth gap, and hastens to even acknowledge discriminatory barriers. 

The proposed territory is where the highest pe...

African American are likely to spend more for nearly every basic need, especially Blacks who live in predominately Black communities, and this includes (as has been shown in recent years) higher interest rates on consumer loans (credit and banking). According to one report African-Americans possess the ability to spend $913 billion a year (2008, Selig Center for Economic Growth at the University of Georgia) but advertisers are not necessarily interested in targeting the African-American market through advertising because they fail to see race (within the cultural context). They appear currently interested in seeking the Spanish language or Latino market. One estimate suggests that by 2012-2013 the annual monetary wealth available to African Americans will be 1 trillion (not counting the recession). The need to know African American, Latino, and teenage spending patterns is keen. For Blacks, advertisers, marketers, and consumer data-gatherers collect information about how Blacks refer to themselves as a group and have focused on the “urban market” a code word for Blacks. This urban market analysis includes nearly every popular culture nuance, or deviance (no matter how absurd or fleeting), that is then interpreted as “black culture.” Advertisers believe that African Americans have momentous spending power, which is concentrated in urban areas, and it can be collected from the youth through the media vehicles of television, music, radio, internet (especially social networks), and magazines.

Living Ujamaa and the Battle for Black Dollars

Ujamaa means challenging the discourse on cooperative economics and interpretations of black spending and investing patterns in the United States. For every anecdotal “black pathology” report, there are other documents which contradict these ideas. If we are to consider the implications of the 2009 Selig analysis and the 2000 Pew Internet and American Life Project,[3]  African Americans:

1.      Tend to see themselves as a distinct racial and cultural people in spite of messages and debates perennially challenging this;

2.      For the most part, still live in the south with large concentrations of Blacks in the major U.S. cities;

3.      Spend their money in areas of large Black concentration;

4.      Read magazines (news and entertainment) and books. Blacks read Ebony, Jet, Essence, O, The Oprah Magazine, and Black Enterprise. Blacks who read magazines say that reading enhances their mental ability;

5.      Are thought to be most interested in communications (rather than personal care and food which are not in the top 5);

6.      Cause major corporations to spend millions of advertising dollars targeting the Black population;

7.      Influence American culture.

An African American boy outside of Cincinnati,...

The first item is important because it speaks to the challenges blacks have when external forces seek to frame Africanity. Historically blacks have ties to the south and to urban cities. This does not necessarily mean that they spend their money within Black communities. Regarding the issue of literacy, and knowledge acquisition, the opposite of number four is usually presented to describe the African American experience. That Blacks read Black magazines, especially those which were read by their parents and grandparents is not surprising. It is notable that blacks equate the activity with intellectual improvement; and that communications technology is of greater consumer interest. Major corporations have spent advertising dollars on Blacks, interrogating Black culture so as to enable them to craft a winning appeal. That African Americans influence American culture in profound ways is not new; what is interesting is how American culture seeks to select what it deems as representative of Black culture as a whole. Just as important as the act of spending within our communities, Ujamaa tasks us to be mindful of the implications of what we buy and invest in—how does it support the needs and interests of the community?

English: Map of the United States with the Pan...

Blacks have the power to create economic justice; and where necessary demand economic parity for our communities. We can use our resources to elevate our neighborhoods. Some of this data indicates that our expenditures in some cases are already being used, and can be used to support, much higher levels of Ujamaa. This means that businesses and advertisers external to our communities and at cross purposes with the needs of the community, will continue to increase advertisement crusades in order to remove resources, especially capital. Ujamaa, cooperative economics, demands conscious vigilance so that what we do economically resonates with the masses.

by Dr. Katherine Bankole-Medina


[1] Booker T. Washington, Emmitt J. Scott, “National Negro Business League Address,” Convention Hall, Muskogee, OK, August 19, 1914.

[2] Phillip Jackson, “Remembering The Millions The American Dream Left Behind” Wednesday, September 10, 2008, http://www.thenewblackmagazine.com/view.aspx?index=1580; see also Michelle Singletary, “Blacks still lag behind by key measures,” The Boston Globe, February 19, 2006.

[3] Executive Summary of the Multicultural Economy Report, “The Multicultural Economy 2009,” by Jeffrey M. Humphreys in GBEC, Vol. 69, No. 3, The University of Georgia, Third Quarter 2009, Selig Center for Economic Growth (see pp. 2-5, “Buying Power by Race”); “African-Americans and the Internet,” by Tom Spooner, Lee Rainie, Pew Internet & American Life Project, October 22, 2000.


Monique Cohen (with Mihir Bhatt and Pat Horn), Women Street Vendors: The Road to Recognition. New York: Population Council 2000.

John Cross, “Street Vendors, Modernity and Postmodernity: Conflict and Compromise in the Global Economy,” The International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy, V. 20, No. 1/2, 2000, pp. 29-51.

Ama Mazama, Kwanzaa ou la Célébration du Génie Africain, Menaibuc, 2005.