[REVIEW] Our Black Year: One Family’s Quest To Buy Black In America’s Racially Divided Economy, by Maggie Anderson

(Buy it on Bookshop here. Or not.)

To cut right to the chase, this book really pissed me off. On its face, it’s a real life account of an affluent, educated Black family in Chicago who decided to spend all of 2009 buying from only Black businesses in order to demonstrate the ethnic disparities in America’s economy and drum up inspiration and support for aspiring Black American entrepreneurs. Proceeds from sales of this book go to a foundation that supports Black business owners, and the author has an impressive website of resources for economic empowerment in the Black community.

However, the tone of this book is often so classist, judgmental and bougier-than-thou that I’m a little shocked it ever made it to print. The author espouses the role of the Talented Tenth, looks down on single mothers, and describes every Black neighborhood without a contingent of light-skinned Ivy-league grads as a filth-ridden war zone. It’s exhausting to read so many good intentions and historical and economical research sandwiched in between quotes like “We are the affable, token Blacks at the dinner party…That status can make us almost celebrities at these gatherings. People flock to us, asking about our backgrounds, where we live, even why my hair is ‘different’ from most African American women’s hair.” and “I endured the pain of buying Black to prove the power of buying Black.”

This was supposed to be my final #readBlackjoy review for June, but as you can see, it gave me anything but good vibes. I almost didn’t finish it, but I wanted to be kind and I genuinely do respect the effort here enormously. Still, I struggled through the last 50 pages of this Frankenbook and its paper bag test, fine tooth comb shenanigans.

Anderson’s quest to buy only from Black-owned businesses in Chicago for an entire year should have been exciting and empowering. Instead, it leaves the author bitter and sad and she has no qualms about blaming the pain of the experience with her audience. Even after beautifully breaking down the data behind retail redlining, discriminatory lending practices, racist domestic terrorist attacks on Black business owners, income disparities, and industry shut outs, the main conclusion she seems to reach at the end is “blame Black people”.

This is where I fall out with a lot of the dominant narratives about Black business in the US. No-one makes money in a vacuum. The immigrant communities that a white supremacist lens tries to set us against in fake minority business wars first make their money from outside groups–often Black folks!–and then recycle those dollars within or spend white–because like it or not, most businesses and nearly all essential services in the US are owned by white people and that’s where the vast majority of every minority and immigrant dollar goes. The missing link in Black business is not Black responsibility–it’s cash flow from outside of the community and equitable policies. Even though the data is all there in her book, Anderson never makes this connection. Many of us don’t.

What makes this worse is that Anderson is an educated, upwardly mobile Afro-Cuban who spends a lot of page time highlighting her connections to Black movers and shakers in politics, media and academia –yet instead of putting pressure on policymakers and pundits, she punches down, continually blaming Black people for somehow not doing enough to not be oppressed.

I find it very telling that in the last chapter, it’s revealed that Anderson’s child care provider, auto mechanic, financial planner, bank, tailor, bookstore, fast food restaurants, thrift store, and winery and quite a few other businesses the family patronizes are all Black-owned. Yet most of the book is about how bad Black grocery stores in the hood are and constant judgment of working class and poor Black people. (There’s a self-righteous rant at a man selling food stamps that made me feel physically ill.) Instead of truly uplifting the Black businesses she found, Anderson just chastises them on not doing business the way others do–a disappointingly common attitude.

I give this 3 stars because the appendices are full of truly helpful information and the data is good, even though the narrative is obnoxious.

Black-owned businesses featured in the products in the photo:
Honey Hair Beauty Supply
Hustle Itaewon Rooftop Lounge
Wasteupso: The Zero Waste Shop

Other Black-owned businesses local to me that I recommend (keep in mind I currently live in Korea):
Anxiety & Kimbap
Songtan Mugs

(So this was a disappointing read, beautiful people. If you buy it, I recommend doing so from the author’s site and supporting her foundation. If you don’t want to buy it but want to read it, search your local library. As always, for legal reasons I have to tell you that this blog has affiliate relationships and clicks/purchases from some sites result in a commission being earned. I am Black, though, so if you want to support a Black business directly please check out the Equal Opportunity Bookshop, where all clicks and purchases are greatly appreciated and no homeless men are ever lectured about class.)

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