I just finished Maggie Anderson’s Our Black Year: One Family’s Quest to Buy Black in America’s Racially Divided Economy. The book details her family’s efforts to buy goods and services only from black owned businesses for a year. The effort and book do a fine of job of pointing out the lack of black owned businesses. Living in Chicago the Andersons cannot find a black owned grocery store or a black owned store to provide new children’s clothing. Even finding pull ups proves to be a difficulty. On the other hand, some parts of her argument fail to convince the reader.
The book echos a lot of what Malcolm X said about the need for black owned businesses. See for example this quotation from his “The Ballot or the Bullet” speech:
“Then you wonder why where you live is always a ghetto or a slum area. And where you and I are concerned, not only do we lose it when we spend it out of the community, but the white man has got all our stores in the community tied up; so that though we spend it in the community, at sundown the man who runs the store takes it over across town somewhere. He’s got us in a vise. So the economic philosophy of black nationalism means in every church, in every civic organization, in every fraternal order, it’s time now for our people to be come conscious of the importance of controlling the economy of our community. If we own the stores, if we operate the businesses, if we try and establish some industry in our own community, then we’re developing to the position where we are creating employment for our own kind.”
However, Anderson makes a point of couching her argument in such a way that it is not militant, in fact striving to avoid any sense that she is following in the footsteps of Malcolm X. Instead she ties her efforts to W.E.B. DuBois’s concept of the talented tenth. She makes an argument that people like her family, the black elite, should support black stores as part of their responsibility to their people. This choice, while perhaps appealing on one level, does run the risk of elitism on another.
She also seems to over dramatize her family’s predicament. At one point her daughter does not have shoes that fit because they cannot find a local black owned store selling children’s footwear. As a reader in 2012, I find it hard to believe that she could not find a black owned shoe store somewhere on the Internet or could not email a friend in another city to buy and ship some shoes–the insistence on staying in Chicago seems artificial. Likewise, the family winds up eating a lot of food from convenience stores and fast food franchises because of the lack of black owned grocery stores. At one point the author has to break down and buy produce from a Hispanic store and suffers severe internal turmoil. I see the point, but once again the image seems rather artificially emphasized.
In general the book raised lots of provocative questions, particularly around issues as to why there is a lack of black owned businesses. Is it the fault of history and lack of black wealth accumulation? Is it the fault of the black consumer failing to support black businesses? Would having more black owned businesses result in the cascade of positive community benefits Anderson asserts would result.
It is not a particularly even treatment of issues but makes one think.