For far too long, a large portion of Black history has been omitted from textbooks. Perhaps this is why Black business owners are thinking creatively to tell important, lesser-known stories—infusing history into their products’ packaging, branding, and design.
The coffee industry is an excellent illustration. Coffee and black history are inextricably linked: Europeans stole coffee from African plantations in the 1600s, it was incorporated into the transatlantic slave trade in the 1700s, and it is now a $100 billion industry dominated by white executives. Openings of whitewashed coffee shops in historically black neighbourhoods are frequently a precursor to impending gentrification.
However, a wave of Black-owned brands is attempting to reclaim coffee as a Black birthright. Cxffeeblack, based in Memphis, featured this story prominently on the front of its coffee bags. The back text describes how two Dutch spies stole the coffee plant from Africa shortly before the first enslaved Africans arrived in Jamestown, Virginia. “As a people, we are discovering our liberation, and now we are liberating our birthright,” the bags read.
Cxffeeblack is a rapidly expanding brand founded by Bartholomew Jones and Renata Henderson. Cxffeeblack, which launches in early 2020, leverages hip-hop and social media savvy to “make coffee Black again.”
Apart from unpacking coffee’s racist history on its packaging, merchandise is a significant part of how Cxffeeblack communicates its message—a message that is far more profound than what appears on typical corporate merch. “When George Floyd was assassinated, we coined the slogan ‘Love Black people as much as you love Black coffee,'” Henderson explains. “We created a few shirts with the intention of selling 25 in a week. We sold 200 by the end of that week.” They’ve sold nearly 2,000 so far.
Cxffeeblack makes a conscious effort to connect its products to Black culture through design. Henderson, who also serves as the brand’s graphic designer, referred to Guji Mane, Cxffeeblack’s signature roast. The use of bubble letters is deliberate, she explains—the art form is credited to graffiti artist Phase 2, who popularised it during hip-formative hop’s years in the 1970s. “There is a reason why the lettering has a drip. Drip embodies this swagger—it possesses street cred,” Henderson explains. “When you refer to someone as having drip, it indicates that they are dressed impeccably. ‘Signature drip’ indicates that we prefer to do it with a unique type of swag.”
Cxffeeblack invites visitors to its brick-and-mortar shop in Memphis (appropriately named the Anti-Gentrification Coffee Club) to sip a fresh pour-over while listening to local artists perform a cypher (a freestyle hip-hop session). Jones and Henderson, as musicians and artists, are committed to fostering community through their business.
“On this planet, black women are the original baristas,” Henderson asserts. “However, when I walk into the majority of coffee shops, I am treated as an outsider. I want Black people to feel dignified when they come into my shop.”
Dope Coffee, based in Decatur, Georgia, also incorporates elements of Black hip-hop and history into its brand. Mugs in the shop feature illustrations of Black women who broke barriers throughout history, such as Harriet Tubman and astronaut Mae C. Jemison.