To answer how, why or what is the importance of Black-owned businesses and to support them is tricky because most people couldn’t fathom asking white businesses what’s their relevance — it’d be perceived as an unfair bias to identify their business based on race. It hit me, while sitting at my daughter’s predominately Black school with predominantly Black educators for their Black History Month town hall, what a privilege it was for our kids to be in a safe space where Barack, Oprah, Dr. King, Malcolm, Shirley, Harriet and Douglass lined the walls as the standard to celebrate their Blackness.
All people of color’s value is questioned against whiteness in this country. Racism, systemic oppression, disenfranchisement and division are the foundations of our relationship with this nation. White people come to Pinky and Red’s asking for the owner, often assuming there is no way it could be a Black-owned business, let alone a female Black-owned business. Historically, families being torn apart by enslavement starting in 1501, being considered three-fifths of a person (so voices/votes didn’t count in 1787), the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1865, leading to segregation, and integration have all been very intentional hindrances to building sustainably thriving Black communities.
Segregation, ironically, allowed Blacks to return to our former glory of being business owners, doctors and educators, allowing us to buy Black and keep our dollars in our community. The premise of our enslavement was that white people wanted us for our skills and our minds.
Everyone should have the ability to move freely in any social setting, but integration meant chipping away at our Black dollars being poured back into our communities. The reality is Blacks and business owners could never freely come into white spaces and thrive without white resistance. Greenwood in Tulsa, Oklahoma was home to the most thriving community of Black business owners — from doctors to restaurants to movie theaters— in the 20th century known as Black Wall Street. In 1921, white people led the Tulsa race riot, murdering many Black people in Greenwood and burning Black Wall Street to the ground. And, I’d be remiss to not acknowledge Bishop George Berkeley, just as brilliant a racist as he was a philosopher, believing that the white race was superior.
George Berkeley had no real place for Blacks in keeping Manifest Destiny pure. In 1940, Black people made up 4 percent of the city of Berkeley’s population. The population of Black residents rose from 11.7 percent in the 1950s to 19.6 in the 1960s and peaked in the 1970s at 23.5 percent. The juxtaposition is interesting because Black freshman students make up 3.1 percent and Black transfers make up 4.8 percent of UC Berkeley’s student population — both as of fall 2018. Black students have had to fight for adequate space of representation the same way Black businesses have. Therefore, it is crucial that Berkeley residents support Black-owned businesses.
Watching my daughter’s Black History Month town hall where Black excellence was being normalized, I realized how my children have the luxury of seeing me and their grandmother own Pinky and Red’s. And, we had amazing help — La Cocina’s Business Incubator Program offers women the ability to achieve their culinary dreams with little to no debt. I applied, brought my mum along for the journey and went through La Cocina’s 10-month MBA program. At the close of the 10 months, we had the opportunity to launch at UC Berkeley in three weeks, serving fried chicken with spices my mother blends like a mad scientist and fried mac and cheese that’s taken me years to perfect — hard, crunchy outside and creamy, cheesy inside. My hope was to tell our piece of Black history, offer a bit of nostalgia through our food and provide a safe space for people of color (meat eaters, vegans and those who only eat halal). And I intentionally hired students of color. Our hope was blown wide open, and food took a back seat as our space provided refuge. Alongside Pinky and Red’s is A Girl Named Pinky, a Berkeley female-owned pastry business that allows folks to experience the relevant layers to Black people, women and businesses.
Eviction was not something we planned for, putting all my savings into opening Pinky and Red’s. And a beautiful thing happened: Black students — only 7.9 percent of UC Berkeley’s undergraduates — and so many other students of color used their voices, mobilized and tirelessly fought for us to stay. To be a part of the UC Berkeley community as Black folks keeping our culture ours and relevant and to be safe space for people to simply just be is an honor.
The Black History Month town hall concludes; great Black influencers line the wall in a room full of brown families — we are the Black history they fought for. And I realized my answer is simple: Black businesses are necessary because greatness is our birthright. It’s necessary for the culture; it should never be questioned. But Black-owned businesses need to get the financial support from the community to thrive and survive in the city of Berkeley.
Here’s to the dreamers, the entrepreneurs, the writers, the artist, the chefs and everyone in between. We are all the storytellers of our crafts. So, tell your story with pride, and tell it for your culture.
Sicily Sewell-Johnson is a chef and co-founder of Pinky and Red’s.