Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics)

Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics) - To build and maintain our own stores, shops and other businesses and to profit from them together.
Fourth of seven Kwanzaa principles (Nguzo Saba)

I recently received an e-mail entitled “Economic Violence.” In this article the author defines “Economic Violence” as “the art and science of using the exchange of money for goods and/or services as an aspect of ethnic warfare, survival and prosperity.” We are supposedly the only group of people whose dollars do not circulate in our community. In some groups every dollar circulates at least seven times and as many as 30 times before it leaves their community. In his argument the writer of “Economic Violence” cites the number of businesses owned by people of other ethnicities that thrive in African American neighbourhoods. Citing examples of other ethnic groups that would not support an African owned store if it was established in their neighbourhood but who own thriving businesses in largely African neighbourhoods, he makes the case for Africans to support businesses that are owned by Africans.

This is not a new concept. This was the mantra of the Honourable Marcus Mosiah Garvey, a Jamaican born African who lived from 17 August 1887 to 10 June 1940. Garvey was a Pan Africanist who recognized that the survival of Africans partially depended on "Self-reliance and economic development." He founded a factories corporation in 1919 with an aim to build and operate factories in the big industrial centres of the United States, Central America, the Caribbean and Africa “to manufacture every marketable commodity." The result of Garvey’s vision for African self reliance and economic development included a chain of grocery stores, a restaurant, a steam laundry, a tailor and dressmaking shop, a millinery store and a publishing house, in New York. The corporation also owned buildings (including the Phyllis Wheatley Hotel) and a trucking company. Garvey’s organization the Universal African Improvement Association (UAIA) identified good business opportunities and worked to interest Africans in developing those ideas, providing executive and technical expertise where necessary. Garvey’s Black Star Line Steamship Corporation was also launched in 1919. Between 1919 and 1925, the Black Star Line and its successor company the Black Cross Navigation and Trading Company, operated four ships which carried passengers and cargo between the USA and Cuba, Haiti, Jamaica, Costa Rica and Panama. This was the most ambitious venture undertaken by the UAIA. Garvey’s ideal of a Pan African economy that could eventually supply black consumers across the globe was successful to some extent. The concept had a vital impact on the United States where it proved to that society that Africans could operate successfully and independently as business people and entrepreneurs. It also gave African Americans across the country the hope that they could prosper in American society. The organization prospered and Garvey encouraged Africans to become producers and distributors of commodities and manufactured goods, not just consumers. This was a threat to the white supremacist culture and Garvey’s life was forfeited in pursuing this idea.

Today the buying power of African Americans is estimated at $800 billion but African Americans do not control their wealth. There are no major banks owned by the community. It is estimated that 80% of their wealth is spent enriching the white community and the remainder enriches other racialised ethnic communities that do not support the African American community. The U.S Census found that approximately 95 cents on every dollar earned by African Americans is spent outside of their community. It is tragic that Africans buy from retailers and vendors with businesses in the African communities, that do not invest any money in or support the infrastructure of the communities in which they do business. Money has been described as the lifeblood of communities. If we accept this premise then the African community is hemorrhaging. The lifeblood is leaking out of our community at an alarming rate. The dollar does not circulate in the community. It comes in and goes right back out. To counter this economic hemorrhage some African American communities have organized “Black Fridays” where everyone in the community is encouraged to “buy Black.” One flyer to encourage this venture states; "Money in a community is like blood in a body. When it circulates it gives strength. If it flows out, it causes death."

The Honourable Marcus Mosiah Garvey understood that an important part of his plan to encourage Africans to become self sufficient economically was to build pride in their African heritage. Garvey demanded that Africans have African heroes and sheroes: "Take down the pictures of White men and women from your walls and elevate your own men and women to that place of honour.” He encouraged his followers to buy dolls that looked like their children and not have their children play with white dolls. ”Mothers! Give your children dolls that look like them to play with and cuddle." He demanded that his followers abandon skin lighteners and hair straighteners. "God made no mistake when he made us Black with kinky hair, take the kinks out of your minds instead of your hair." He felt that it was important that his followers worship images of God and angels that looked like them. The recognition of our history and our heroes and sheroes was extremely important to Garvey. This is recognized in naming of his ships Frederick Douglass and Antonio Maceo as well as the hotel Phyllis Wheatley. His newspaper, published in English, Spanish and French which was widely distributed throughout the African world (across every continent) encouraged race pride.

The state of the economy of Africans in Canada is not much different from that of our brothers and sisters south of the border. We can make a conscious effort to support business owned by Africans to ensure that our money circulates within our community. The reality is that not many African owned businesses exist. We can at least seek out the African owned businesses and avoid spending our money in other people’s businesses where we are disrespected. I have observed the degree of disrespect and hostility to which African people are subjected in some neighbourhood businesses owned by people who are not African. When this happens I refuse to spend my money in those business places. There is a convenience store in my neighbourhood right across from Sherbourne subway station where I encourage people not to spend their money. We need to boycott stores where we observe Africans being disrespected by the staff or owners.

At this time of the year especially, during the Caribana celebrations, every body benefits from our money, talent and labour. The economy of this city benefits tremendously from the money that is generated by Caribana. The hotel industry, banks, taxicab companies, the TTC, grocery stores, clubs, restaurants, convenience/corner stores etc. all make profit from our community. That money is not circulated within our community it goes right into another community to enrich that community at our expense. During slavery our unpaid labour enriched white communities, built European empires. Today we willing hand over our hard earned money to enrich every community except our own. How many taxicab companies do we own? Ironic that the first taxicab company in Toronto was owned by an African couple, Lucie and Thornton Blackburn (1836). How many restaurants, convenience/corner stores, grocery stores, clubs, banks, hotels or bed and breakfast establishments do we own? Our community is impoverished because of economic violence. We need to stop accepting economic violence and work for economic freedom, economic respect and economic self-determination. The Honourable Marcus Mosiah Garvey gave us the blueprint, we do not have to reinvent the wheel. “Up you mighty race, you can accomplish what you will.”

Written in August 2007

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