Updated: Sep 15, 2020
Barbershops, hair salons, and comment sections are often very critical of black economic infrastructure or the lack thereof. One very common argument what is commonly deployed, goes, "They stick together", "How is it that people have come to the USA after us but have more economic infrastructure than us?".
Today people understand the economic history of African Americans a more than ever. So, it is not that nothing was built, but more that what was perpetually built was perpetually strategically destroyed.
Here I want to offer a different perspective to add to this discussion and specifically, how culture creates a small economic base. This gives an answer to, how is it done?
When one immigrates to a new country one immigrates their ideologies as well. Along the way the immigrant will take on new cultural norms, dropping former norms in exchange for new ones, consciously or subconsciously. The things that are preserved out of necessity or choice are what I want to use as a springboard for my perspective.
Items of Necessity:
This category are things like spices, medicines, fabrics, skill sets, music, meeting spaces and more. Think of holidays and cultural ceremonies.
The best way to think of this is imagine a the 4th of July. If you moved to a place that does not have BBQ sauce. There is an opportunity to supply you community with BBQ sauce. Most people want items from home so someone steps in and begins to import the brands of BBQ sauce that Americans like and are used to. In this way immigrant communities are able to not only carve out an economic space but also produces a tether to their home country for culturally unique items.
Another fast example to understand is seasonings. Sometimes, herbs and ingredients, are only grown in one place. However, to make the dishes necessary for life, be it a wedding, coming of age ceremony, birth, death etc... you need those herbs or ingredients, to make it authentically.
Lets go deeper. Imagine 1 million people all needing a specific group of spices for daily cooking. Let's say these one million people need $8 worth of spices every 6 months. This becomes a very viable business if you can get into the market early. So there are opportunities for procurement, warehousing/storage, transportation, and even distribution.
Items of Choice:
Items of choice are things people can live without but simply prefer them. I like to think of my time in China. There were days where I wanted Worcestershire sauce, cornbread, grits.
I did not need these items to perform any ceremonies, etc... but had they been available I would have paid up to 10 times the usual cost.
The Hard Truth:
African Americans or Black people in the United States did not have this luxury. Interestingly, this group was legally excluded from trade, but contrastingly, they were still allowed to recreate some of their cultural foods but only using substitution unless the item was brought to the USA or naturally already growing. Further, these unique creations then became the everyday food of the US regardless of color and many times, even class.
Once this group was able to engage in commerce, their cultural economic springboard was no longer viable because they had created and implemented a new system altogether. However, we would not do justice if we do not note how African Americans have been able to export this new taste, style, and experience around the world.
All in all, I hope this offers a different perspective on an old barbershop topic.