Attendees at Afriware’s annual Kwanzaa celebration on Friday recite Amy Jacques Garvey’s “This Flag of Mine.” | Michael Romain/VFP
Saturday, December 31, 2016 || By Michael Romain || @maywoodnews || Updated: 1/3/17
Dozens of people packed a second-floor conference room inside of the Eisenhower Tower, 1701 S. 1st Ave., on Friday night to commemorate the fifth day of Kwanzaa, whose principal, Nia (which means purpose), was celebrated in a keynote address by Maywood-born author TeQuila Shabazz.
The event, sponsored annually by Afriware Books — which partnered this year with Maywood Youth Mentoring — also featured Atiba Jali’s African drum rhythms, a ceremonial candle lighting and a book givewaway. The Dec. 30 gathering was Afriware’s 22nd annual Kwanzaa celebration.
Shabazz, the founder of the BRIJ Embassy for Black America and the author of The Neo-Green Book, said that her purpose is to help build capital in the African American community by emphasizing the importance of buying, and building, while black.
“You hear a lot about ‘buy black, buy black, buy black,’ which is good, but you have to also give black, too,” Shabazz said. “And time is money. We give a lot of it away.”
Shabazz, 39, worked for 15 years in sales at various media companies, including the Tribune Company, before she discovered that her purpose was beyond Corporate America.
“Today is purpose and I can tell you that it is quite fitting that I would be standing here in Maywood, the community where I was born,” Shabazz said. “My family is from here, parents went to Proviso East. Twenty years ago, at Afriware, I bought my first set of books that brought me into knowledge of self.”
Five years ago, Shabazz said, she left her six-figure job with the Tribune-owned CW TV network. She was stationed in Dallas, which she described as “a perpetual suburb” with no shortage of racial animosity.
The growing frustration and dissatisfaction Shabazz felt with her corporate job and the city’s cultural environment combined with life circumstances to draw her to what she described as another phase of nia.
Her best friend had been killed by the police in 2010. Her daughter, who was born when Shabazz was still a teenager, was about to go off to college on a full scholarship. One day, while driving in Dallas roughly five years ago, Shabazz felt tormented by the pain of being pulled one direction by a job and a culture she despised and what she believed was her true calling.
“In that moment, I swear to you, I was hit by a utility vehicle, smashed into a cement wall and was hit from behind by a little sports car,” she said. “My car was totaled, but I was unscathed. That’s what sent me home [back to Chicago]. I was in a job that required me to be in the field all the time. I’d just bought a new car and I was like, I can’t buy another one. So, I returned home.”
Instead of going back into Corporate America, Shabazz said, she started the BRIJ Embassy, which she describes as “cooperative of people who want to eradicate poverty and build wealth in black America.”
The cooperative has since grown into around 5,000 members whose goal is to “intentionally and strategically” eradicate poverty and build wealth in Black America.
The members, Shabazz said, collect receipts, conduct secret shopper visits, make phone calls and do extensive research in order to make sure that they’re supporting black-owned businesses.
In addition to having a presence on Facebook, the group also regularly hosts single-day shopping events for black-owned businesses, pouring thousands of dollars of money into the enterprises within a matter of hours.
Shabazz’s Neo-green Book includes about 500 black-owned businesses, most of them in Chicago, and is released quarterly. The book is an echo of The Negro Travelers’ Green Book, once considered the “Bible of black travel during Jim Crow.”
First published in 1936 by Victor Hugo Green, a black postal employee from Harlem, the Green Book was designed “to give the Negro traveler information that will keep him from running into difficulties, embarrassments and to make his trip more enjoyable,” according to Kathleen Franz’s and Susan Smuylans’ Major Problems in American Popular Culture.
Shabazz said her book “the next generation to [Hugo’s] book,” which went out of print in 1966, shortly after the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts.
“Today, we have to expose and highlight places that are safe to shop at,” she said in an interview earlier this month. “This is an economic war. There are companies we give our money to that fund the prison industrial complex [among other social problems that ensnare poor and minority consumers].”
The struggle, however, is real. That’s a dictum, Shabazz indicated, that holds for all ages, it seems. While looking through the original green book’s archives in New York City, Shebazz discovered a sad truth. Hugo was careful to add a publisher’s caveat to his editions, cautioning his readers that some businesses, while operational before the book went to print, may no longer exist after the publication rolls off of the presses.
Shabazz said part of the motivation to publish her book quarterly was the fact that the lifespan of many black businesses is short, making regular, frequent updates a necessity. In addition to going out of business, some enterprises may change contact information as well, she said.
But the struggle extends deeper than that tough reality, Shabazz noted.
The $1.3 trillion spending power of African Americans that’s often touted as a sign of economic strength, the author said, is less potent when scrutinized. The key word, she said, is spending.
“Spending power, spending, spending, spending,” she repeated. “Not saving, not accumulating wealth, spending, which means I’m giving it away constantly.”
Only around two percent of that black spending power, Shabazz said, gets invested into black businesses. The factoid elicited a collective gasp from the audience.
“That’s terrible, terrible,” said Maywood Youth Mentoring Founder Barbara Cole.
“There is no reason why we shouldn’t support our own all of the time,” said Pamela Hunt, of Hunt Cultural Brilliance Group, who introduced Shabazz.
“We only get $26 billion of $1.3 trillion,” Shabazz said. “That’s not even a dent. True wealth is in ownership, which means that our wealth is reflected in our black businesses. Those black businesses earn about $186 billion per year, which is really sad, because we’re spending, like, 10 times that.”
Shabazz said that, of the roughly 2.6 million black businesses in existence, around 90 percent of them are sole proprietors making about $50,000 to $60,000 a year. That means, she said, “we have to increase the intensity of our support to them if, realistically, we are going to have them employ our young people. Right now, [black business owners] are only making enough to survive day-to-day.”
Shabazz suggested that the widely held belief, particularly acute among blacks, that black businesses are often substandard or not very professional often omits the responsibility of black consumers.
“Instead of complaining, contact the business and say, ‘This is what I experienced coming into your place. I really loved this, but if you changed this, you’d be exceptional,” Shabazz said. “That’s accountability, y’all. That’s reciprocity, y’all. That’s among the small things we can do, instead of making excuses all the time about what we ain’t doing.” VFP
Correction: This article has been updated to clarify statements of Pam Hunt. VFP regrets the error.