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The unbearable whiteness of coffee

[Source photo: Boon Boona]

For too long, much of Black history has been kept out of textbooks. Perhaps that’s why Black business owners are thinking out of the box to tell important, little-known stories—infusing history into the packaging, branding, and design of their products.

The coffee industry is a prime example. Black history and coffee history are deeply intertwined: Coffee was stolen from African plantations by Europeans in the 1600s, incorporated into the transatlantic slave trade in the 1700s, and today is a $100 billion industry run mostly by white executives. Whitewashed coffee shops opening in Black neighborhoods are often an early sign of impending gentrification.

But a wave of Black-owned brands are working to reclaim the Black birthright of coffee. Memphis-based Cxffeeblack put this story smack in the middle of its coffee bags. Text on the back explains how the coffee plant was stolen from Africa by two Dutch spies shortly before the first enslaved Africans arrived in Jamestown, Virginia. “We are finding our liberation as a people, and now we are liberating our birthright,” the bags read.

Cxffeeblack is a fast-growing brand run by husband-and-wife team Bartholomew Jones and Renata Henderson. Launched in early 2020, Cxffeeblack harnesses the power of hip-hop and social media savvy to “make coffee Black again.”

Besides unpacking the racist history of coffee on its packaging, merchandise is a major part of how Cxffeeblack sends its message—and that message is far more profound than what appears on typical corporate merch. “When George Floyd was murdered, we came up with the ‘Love Black people like you love Black coffee’ tagline,” Henderson says. “We made a few shirts, with a goal to sell 25 in a week. By the end of that week, we sold 200.” They’ve now sold nearly 2,000.

Cxffeeblack deliberately uses design to connect its products to Black culture. Henderson, who also does graphic design for the brand, pointed to Guji Mane, Cxffeeblack’s signature roast. The use of bubble letters is intentional, she explains—bubble lettering is credited to graffiti artist Phase 2, who popularized the art form in the early days of hip-hop in the 1970s. “There’s a reason there’s a drip in the lettering. Drip represents this swagger—it has street appeal,” Henderson says. “When you say someone has drip, it means they’re dressed really well. ‘Signature drip’ says we like to do it with a different type of swag.”

At its brick-and-mortar shop in Memphis (appropriately named the Anti-Gentrification Coffee Club), Cxffeeblack invites visitors to sip a fresh pour-over while enjoying a cypher (a freestyle hip-hop session) by local artists. As musicians and artists, Jones and Henderson are focused on building a community through their business.

“Black women are the original baristas on this planet,” Henderson says. “But when I walk into most coffee shops, people look at me as if I’m an outsider. I want Black people to come into my shop and feel dignified.”

Dope Coffee, based in Decatur, Georgia, also infuses its brand with Black hip-hop and history. The shop’s mugs feature illustrations of Black women in history who broke barriers, like Harriet Tubman and astronaut Mae C. Jemison.

According to Kim Crowder, a business consultant who specializes in diversity, equity, and marketing, Black-owned businesses often use design to tell Black stories in addition to selling their products. “They’re using communal language to connect to their culture,” Crowder says.

Support for Black-owned businesses surged after the murder of George Floyd—but Crowder says Black-owned companies have always used narrative elements in their branding. “Storytelling is a big part of Black brands. Black culture is built around community, food, and Sunday dinners. A lot of our history was never recorded in the way that white culture has been, so a lot of our culture is based on oral storytelling.”

While storytelling is a common part of marketing in 2022, Crowder says this looks slightly different for Black-owned coffee companies. “We’ve seen Whole Foods talk about the origins of coffee,” she says. “But these brands are reclaiming these stories from a Black perspective that is less rooted in a large conglomerate. Businesses like Cxffeeblack take the history back to our communities.”

[Photo: courtesy Boon Boona]

Washington-based Boon Boona Coffee is a Black-owned shop that’s introducing the East African coffee ceremony to American audiences. It’s a traditional approach that involves pan-roasting raw beans, then brewing those beans in a clay pot known as a jebena. In 2019, visitors to the café participated in the ceremony every Saturday (a practice the company plans to revive when COVID-19 restrictions are lifted).

Founder Efrem Fesaha says the brand’s logo is an intentional connection to African history. It references painted cherubs on its ceiling of the 17th-century Debre Birhan Selassie church in Ethiopia. Fesaha says it’s also an homage to the Queen of Sheba.

“So often, only negative things are attributed to the people and continent of Africa,” says Fesaha, whose family is from Eritrea. “Putting a positive light on the history of Africa is so important—not only for authenticity but also to recognize our role in something that the whole world consumes.”

In Atlanta, Black Girl Black Coffee, which launched in 2020, sells coffee produced, exported, imported, and sourced by Black women. Its muse is Rose Nicaud, a formerly enslaved woman who became the first known coffee vendor in New Orleans in the early 1800s, selling coffee to passersby until she earned enough money to buy her own freedom.

“When I was writing my dissertation, I came across the story of Rose Nicaud,” says founder Neichelle Guidry. “In such a dehumanizing time, coffee was a vehicle for her freedom. After she became free, she taught other enslaved women how to utilize their skills to earn money and eventually freedom.”

Guidry is using design to honor Nicaud’s legacy on social media and through her product. “Our logo is two roses, in honor of Rose Nicaud. It helps me focus on how the work I do will contribute to the liberation of my community,” she says. “Coffee is a vehicle—it’s not the end-all-be-all. The point is telling the story.”

Crowder says Black Girl Black Coffee is a prime example of Black-owned businesses using design to serve their community, first and foremost. “When Black people think about business, we think: How does this honor the community I love most?

To Crowder, these coffee brands are using more than design and history to sell products. She says she’s reminded of how jazz influenced the creation of the Black Panther Party. “Art moves forward the conversation, whether it’s book covers, photographs, or paintings. Branding is an extension of how we’ve incorporated art into social justice, into the conversation about moving our people forward. We call it branding for products, but it’s really art.”

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