On MLK, Coffee Shops, and Fannie Packs

 “This problem of poverty,” Dr. King says, “is not only seen in the class division between the highly developed industrial nations and the so-called underdeveloped nations; it is seen in the great economic gaps within the rich nations themselves.”- MLK, Nobel Peace Prize lecture, December 11, 1964

My mother-in-law told me that some of the first sit-ins in Memphis were at coffee shops and diners like Woolworths. And she might know, considering her father was one of sanitation workers whose strike brought Dr. King's support to the city before his later assassination. 

Honoring the legacy of MLK is about more than quoting niceties. Truly honoring his legacy means continuing his work, and that includes spaces around coffee shops established in at-risk black communities. I can't help but wonder if King had survived his fatal shot, and made it to grab another cup of coffee at the small cafe at the end of the Lorraine Motel, would he have ever known that coffee, too, had been stolen like his ancestors? Would he, like Jackie Robinson before him, have found connection to the mother land through the coffee fruit, and even find support for the justice work that he gave his life for? And if he had survived, and maybe bought that little shop at the end of the Lorraine, what would that space look and feel like today as his grandchildren took ownership? What kind of music would be on the playlist? Would they travel frequently to the motherland and make tik toks with their African friends? This probably seems silly, but my imagination can't help but roam. And as it does I find that I end up at the same issue that was on Dr. King's agenda in his last hours: the issue of ownership and power. More specifically economic power for disenfranchised black communities.

I believe coffee can be a powerful tool for providing that power, and it's one that's been ignored for too long black communities in America. This tool can be transformational not only to correct colonial wrongs in single origin communities abroad, but also to strengthen diaspora bonds and heal colonial wounds in the communities of color facing gentrification locally.

So what do it mean to degentrify coffee? Or better yet, what would it mean, since it's a notion that at the moment hasn't found tether in realty. I suppose what I mean is that we reevaluate what we expect from coffee. This is  tied to how we direct the energy we put into the craft. Specialty coffee is so good at tenaciously learning the nuance of the smaller element of the brew process of a single bean, and so bad at understanding the most elementary elements of what it means to become a member of a single origin community. Can our curiousity extend to dialing in more than single origin brews, and instead to single origin histories and cultures. Doing so would mean degentrifying our reading lists, our playlists, our pallets, our purchasing patterns, and even our aesthetic values.

How do we make coffee not only taste like the black and brown soil it was taken from, but also feel like the black and brown communities it's so often brewed in? There are honestly a myriad of imaginative options, but for the purpose of this blog I want to focus on aesthetic. Specially that of streetwear and hip hop culture. Why? Because inherent in the aesthetic of a space, is the story of who it was made for.

For the life of me I can't understand why minimalism and Edison lights are pervasive aesthetic in coffee shops established smack in the middle of black communities. What's even more confusing is how often the owners are bewildered at the lack of neighborhood interest or engagement in said space, when the aesthetic aspirations of the neighborhood were never once considered during the shop's conception. Like fam, don't nobody in the hood aspire to no white walls and lightbulbs without lampshades. Don't nobody dream of denim aprons with hella buttons as they sip their morning brew. And they sure aint got no indie alt rock bumping while they ride to work in the morning. The articulation of a thing matters. It's an art unto itself. Chris Emdin, an urban pedagogue whose research is at the heart of much our praxis at cxffeeblack, says it pretty well: 

“If you don’t have ‘swag,’ you can’t [reach] someone who looks at swag as [social] currency,”

So why a fannie pack? Because its fresh! Because it contextualizes coffee as a thing that not only has been historically black, but also could be black currently. And it places that present belonging in the context of a self determined future: a degentrified future. Because maybe by integrating the globally black culture of coffee with the locally black culture in the communities so many coffee shops move into, a kid in said community will feel like coffee could be a space where his imaginative aesthetic could flourish and belong. 

So when rocking this bag, what would it mean to do what the writing on its literal walls entails? Well, for one it would mean taking the legacy coffee shop sit ins seriously. This irony of black folks choosing to be abused in a space built around a good stolen much the the same way they were is sickening, and honoring the legacy of those who, many unwittingly, chose to bear the weight of that historical double theft, means paying that work forward today.

It also means supporting businesses, specifically coffee businesses, of color. It means caring about the singularity of an origin beyond it's cash crops, and peering into the culture that surrounding said crop with the same fervent coffee nerd curiosity we garner when a new cultivar or processes drops from our favorite roasters. It means hiring from impoverished communities and helping them secure the bag to build their own indigenously owned establishemtns, both locally AND abroad. It means inviting their artists, their faith leaders, their educations, and their elders into these spaces to imbibe their ancestors brews, without pre-filling their cup with the sugar and and cream preferences of suburban Instagram coffee shop aesthetics. And lastly it means appreciating the swag of these communities: really dialing into the panache, before asking to white over its walls for hipster demographics. 

What would happen if cxffee culture loved people of color as much as it loved their cash crops? What if we cared for and celebrated single-origin people as much as we celebrated single-origin coffee? We believe coffee can be a force for good in our communities, not just in spite of them. We believe  that coffee is not just FROM communities of color, but it can be FOR them too. The profits, the aesthetic, the job opportunities, the empowerment,  and most importantly the vibe. All these can be tools to deepen the ties in our communities, rather than displace them. Coffee can do more than stimulate the minds of folks who consume it; we imagine it can stimulate the economy of the communities it is in as well. 

Made in collaboration with the homies at @departmentfobrewology, these fannie packs are an homage dedicated to spreading the inherently hip hop possibility, aesthetic, and message that coffee is not just FROM poor communities of color, but can FOR can for us well.

They’re super limited, and currently enroute from the manufacturers in China. Barring any covid craziness, we expect they’ll get here in the middle of February, and they’ll go pretty quick. If you wanna call dibs on one before they’re sold out, preorders go from now till Jan 30th. Secure the bag, and keep that cxffeeblack ✊🏿


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