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December 29, 2003

Ujamaa, The Problem Child

Kawanzaa4.gifUjamaa, cooperative economics, has given me trouble since the first time I understood it. That is primarily because I find it lacking as a strategy of liberation. So while I light the candles this evening, I'm not going to engage in any hypocrisy. Fortunately, it's the birthday of the spousal unit, so the festivities continue unabated.

There is, in my mind if not on the minds of everyone in the Kwaku Network, some measure of conflict between Ujamaa, Black Capitalism and Blackface Capitalism. It is a very difficult discussion that I have singly been unable to maintain in any forum, try as I may.

Now I have only been to a few colleges, so I don't have the last word. However, I cannot recall ever having met one black business major declaring that what they intended to do with their degree and first 50 thousand dollars was go (back?) to the ghetto and buy up the local 7-11 franchise. The emphasis is still cool. 70's cool. Integration cool. Corporate America cool. As we speak, it is not a recognizable black thang to invest 20 large into the local fruit stand. Now for the twisted critic, this brings up the dysfunctional culture question. Wrong turn. The fact is, we much prefer the black owned operated and oriented bookstore to the black grocery store. Kellogg's Corn Flakes will suffice, but not McKnowledge. In Eddie Murphy's Coming to America. Everybody laughed at John Amos' McDougals. A black capitalist, but not Ujaama.

I've made peace with the fact that Ujamaa simply doesn't scale. The cooperative economics of the small shopping village, say Leimert Park, is not ever going to work as a strategy for African Americans. As a tactic, maybe. So while I accept it as a value in the Nguzo Saba, I'd have to say that it is not a transcendent value. Aside from that, anyone who has studied Liemert Park knows that cooperative economics didn't work there either. If it did, the large theatre there would be bustling with the entertainment progeny of Marla Gibbs, The Comedy Act Theatre, birthplace of Chris Rock would be rockin' instead of quiet and The World Stage wouldn't have gotten in trouble.

There are successful businesses in Leimert Park and in Fort Greene and in various lovely black cultural & shopping districts. But I daresay cooperative economics is not a part of the business plans they are talking with their bankers.

On the whole, I believe that the appeal of Ujamaa has much to do with nostalgia for the leadership and control black elites had over the average black in the days before racial integration. When the ladies of the Links had more scholarship money for young black highschoolers than General Electric, when your neighborhood black doctor who studied at Meharry made housecalls, when you didn't worry about redlining because Golden State Mutual Life Insurance took care of that for you. Those were the good old days.

But black banks can't compete. I can remember when it was a 'black thang' to not use ATMs because black banks like Founders Savings Bank couldn't afford to join the network. And so people stood patiently in line, for a while. Now the building that was new in the 70s on the corner of Marlton & King Boulevard is now dusty, empty and for lease. Blackfolks wanted low prices more than they wanted black owned banking. Spin that four different ways iteratively substituting 'needed' for 'wanted' in the previous sentence for subtlety's sake. Pick whichever you like, but in the end, the market wins.

In the 'black mecca' of Atlanta, there are black radio stations that advertise as ebonically as they please that black car dealers are having Juneteenth sales on late model automobiles. ("Don't play like you didn't hear it") Of course you're not going to get any guarantee that Toyota was made with black hands, the paper won't be carried by a black finance company and insurance we've already covered. But you will get black customer service and marketing, and that's all good. It crystalized the idea in my head that there are limits to the amount of recourse one needs in a consumer economy. I continue to remind those who tilt at boycott's windmills that black people, by all rights, have no reason whatsoever to wear cotton. What has the cotton industry in America ever done for blackfolks but work us into early graves? Yet nobody seems to mind at all. I'm sure there are some Jews who will never, ever buy a German auto, but I don't think anyone cares about that either.

Some take this with gloom and say that it is yet another feature of our doom that there is no escaping the pervasive immorality of the Man's markets. Except the Man does not control the market and it is amoral. It's the nation of millions that holds you back (and gives you lower prices).

So try as they might, black Marxists may try to paint markets in evil colors, (generally white) but they cannot explain why millions of African Americans have made the economic choices we have, which include abandoning Ujamaa for banking, employment and other roles. Well, they say that we're all brainwashed for eating potato chips instead of 'recycling black dollars', but I'm not going to dignify any black mass hysteria arguments. It's not an explaination.

While I'm on the subject, allow me to remind you that it can be argued forcefully that the greatest enemy of Ujamaa is the Diversity Industrial Complex. Think about it for a moment. Whom are they training to be sensitive to whom? Somebody is getting paid to show Joe Millionaire how to attract the attention and respect of Jamal Ordinary. That's a good thing, but it is not empowerment despite smushy rhetoric to the contrary. It may or may not take a village to raise a child but it definitely takes a crafty capitalist to beat another. So I think that Malcolm, the patron saint of steely-eyed independence would be kicking Ujamaa to the curb and owning shares of General Electric, not painting the corporate hallways in melanin-friendly earthtones and inventing a race-normed Myers-Briggs test. But I digress.

I am convinced that it will be critical masses of African American millionaires who will be the successful conservators of all that Ujamaa might have been were it capable. Black Capitalism will work in niches as big as corners of professional sports. Yeah I admit it, I'm an elitist. Then again everyone celebrates Harriet Tubman but can't name the passengers of the Underground Railroad. Ujamaa will continue for mom and pop whom I'm all behind but don't expect any more from them than I the local Pakastani owned 7-11 to help Pervez Musharraf.

Finally, I'm going to put my boy Fleming on the spot. Is he Ujamaa? Does anybody need a PhD for Ujamaa?

Ujamaa = Howard University Drama Club
Black Capitalism = Rocawear
Blackface Capitalism = Denzel Washington movies.

Blackface Capitalism rules.

Posted by mbowen at December 29, 2003 09:47 PM

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Interesting piece. The link to Rocawear leads to a very interesting group that is doing the online marketing for them. Checking out that group's client list is also interesting and checking out the current "ownership" (through licensing arrangements) of many of the Urban fashion orgs is enlightening.

And I like this particular bit of capitalism: Russell Simmons, who's wife owns BabyPhat, introduced a debit card that allows owners to get a discount on BabyPhat items and helps them to build credit. Because it is prepaid, anyone/everyone qualifies. Simmons gets the money up front and the use of it until the credit card is accessed; there is a small fee for reloading the card with additional dollars; attracts attention to the discount deals of the merchandise; and he keeps all the money that is not "spent" on the card ($100 dollar card and the person makes a $90 dollar purchase and sees nothing for the $10 bucks. Card goes in a drawer, never to be used again. Simmons makes an easy 10% -- which is probably better than the margins on the merchandise. Now that is capitalism!

Posted by: Ward Bell at December 30, 2003 09:46 AM

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