Kwanzaa 2021: Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics)

It is an unfortunate fact of life that we live in a capitalist society. For Black Americans in the United States, this means that one of the fundamental levers of life has been purposefully and aggressively tilted away from us since the days of a promised 40 acres and a mule. Disenfranchisement through discrimination in education policies, discrimination in the workplace, in hiring, in housing, in voting, in the justice system, in creating businesses, and, when all else fails, outright violence and destruction of what we’ve managed to build for ourselves has been a staple of American policy for over 150 years. To be Black in America is to struggle against poverty, poor education, a lack of economic opportunity, and a hostile, unjust system. This is just a fact, no matter how desperately those in power want to pretend otherwise.

Despite these barriers to success, some of us have learned to thrive. Through our ingenuity and resilience, we’ve created entire lanes for ourselves to do the things we love — whether that’s cooking, cutting and styling hair, creating art, making clothes, making music, providing services in our communities no one else will (we see you, humble corner stores in food desert neighborhoods), even ushering in the technological revolution. A century and a half of economic repression has created an entire sub-culture of businessfolks who can get things done in their own way.

That’s a beautiful thing to me. I remember my Mom would make “frozen cups” — simple concoctions of Kool-Aid and sugar stored in our freezer and sold for 25 cents a piece. It often kept us in ramen and school supplies during our tightest stretches. She also ran a babysitting/day-care service out of her home that I’d help with in the summer. Other businesses ran out of homes up and down our block: tax preparation (my first paying job), catering services for neighborhood parties, hair braiding and extensions, sign making, elder care, even grocery store delivery. All of this would be done for whatever the customer could afford in cash or trade, with the understanding that discounts would be reciprocated when there was a need. Looking back on it, I can’t help but be proud of the way these ad-hoc businesses strengthened our community. We were very poor, but we had each other.

The physical neighborhood has become a largely online one, but the principle is still the same. Our Black American kinfolk have created stores for clothing, skin care, mental health, home improvement, entertainment, education, enrichment, and help navigating this hostile system actively invested in keeping us out of power. Despite all of the systemic barriers, we’re finding pockets to gather communities and thrive with what we create for ourselves.

That’s Ujamaa, or cooperative economics, the fourth of our Seven Principles. My favorite definition for it is “local people cooperating with each other to provide for the essentials of living”, and it’s what my childhood neighborhood felt like in Baltimore. Heading back there earlier this month reminded me how much we rely on it still, and how, even all the way out here in California, I can still find ways to help my family with things it might be impossible for them to get otherwise.

The best part of the Ujamaa concept is the focus on helping each other, not the middlemen who provide platforms that can then be exploited and used as vectors for discrimination. The money we spend at Black-owned businesses goes directly into the community — either building wealth for our entrepreneurial kinfolk or helping them spread that wealth with others. More than that, it proves to our racist, capitalist oppressors that we don’t need them to find success of our own. It’s powerful to realize just how much we can do by ourselves, especially in the face of such open hostility.

I know there are a lot of other folks reading this who might belong to other marginalized groups, and Ujamaa can absolutely be applied there too. There are QUILTBAG businesses, businesses by and for those of us dealing with mental health issues, businesses by and for other people of color, small businesses that rely on local customers, or even neighbors providing ad-hoc services as a side hustle. Whenever possible, it’s worth thinking about how you buy what you buy affects the people around you. Can that commission going to Amazon go directly to the independent seller through their website instead? Can that generic item bought through a big box store instead be purchased through an artisan’s store on Etsy? If we have to fool around with capitalism, I’d much rather cultivate a mindset that keeps the people trapped with us in this amoral way of life at the top of mind.

This is becoming a little anti-capitalist, but after seeing just how much the people in power are willing to sacrifice for profit I don’t think anyone could blame me. Capitalism itself is only a system; it’s the people supporting it who make it fair or unjust. One of the ways we can actually improve capitalism, as long as we’re using it, is by making sure we remember it’s a way to help our fellow human beings thrive. By choosing to put our money in the hands of our friends, neighbors, and kinfolk instead of those who only want to hoard resources at the expense of everyone else, we can make the world suck just a little less and strengthen the bonds that form strong communities.

In the end, that’s what Kwanzaa is all about. The running cultural joke is that no one really knows why anyone would celebrate this holiday, and I have to admit it’s taken me a few years of thinking about it to really get it. Human beings are pack animals, but we’ve created a society that aggressively strips away our bonds to keep us lonely, afraid, and resentful. Kwanzaa puts up a framework that allows us to think about (and discuss) what gets us closer to the people we want to be AND what we can do to build the communities we’d like to be a part of. It’s honestly a bit of a bummer that such a necessary thing has been little more than a cultural curiosity for so long.

Happy Kwanzaa, everyone. May we use whatever we have to lift up the people around us.

By the way, if you like what I’m doing here at The Writing Desk and want to throw a little Ujamaa my way, you can always send a few pennies via PayPal or Ko-Fi. Anything would be appreciated!

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