Posted on April 7, 2022

The Unbearable Whiteness of Coffee

Liz Posner, Fast Company, March 30, 2022

For too long, much of Black history has been kept out of textbooks. Perhaps that’s why Black business owners are thinking out of the box to tell important, little-known stories—infusing history into the packaging, branding, and design of their products.

The coffee industry is a prime example. Black history and coffee history are deeply intertwined: Coffee was stolen from African plantations by Europeans in the 1600s, incorporated into the transatlantic slave trade in the 1700s, and today is a $100 billion industry run mostly by white executives. Whitewashed coffee shops opening in Black neighborhoods are often an early sign of impending gentrification.

But a wave of Black-owned brands are working to reclaim the Black birthright of coffee. Memphis-based Cxffeeblack put this story smack in the middle of its coffee bags. Text on the back explains how the coffee plant was stolen from Africa by two Dutch spies shortly before the first enslaved Africans arrived in Jamestown, Virginia. “We are finding our liberation as a people, and now we are liberating our birthright,” the bags read.

Cxffeeblack is a fast-growing brand run by husband-and-wife team Bartholomew Jones and Renata Henderson. Launched in early 2020, Cxffeeblack harnesses the power of hip-hop and social media savvy to “make coffee Black again.”

Besides unpacking the racist history of coffee on its packaging, merchandise is a major part of how Cxffeeblack sends its message—and that message is far more profound than what appears on typical corporate merch. “When George Floyd was murdered, we came up with the ‘Love Black people like you love Black coffee’ tagline,” Henderson says. “We made a few shirts, with a goal to sell 25 in a week. By the end of that week, we sold 200.” They’ve now sold nearly 2,000.

Cxffeeblack deliberately uses design to connect its products to Black culture. Henderson, who also does graphic design for the brand, pointed to Guji Mane, Cxffeeblack’s signature roast. The use of bubble letters is intentional, she explains—bubble lettering is credited to graffiti artist Phase 2, who popularized the art form in the early days of hip-hop in the 1970s. “There’s a reason there’s a drip in the lettering. Drip represents this swagger—it has street appeal,” Henderson says. “When you say someone has drip, it means they’re dressed really well. ‘Signature drip’ says we like to do it with a different type of swag.”

At its brick-and-mortar shop in Memphis (appropriately named the Anti-Gentrification Coffee Club), Cxffeeblack invites visitors to sip a fresh pour-over while enjoying a cypher (a freestyle hip-hop session) by local artists. {snip}


Dope Coffee, based in Decatur, Georgia, also infuses its brand with Black hip-hop and history. The shop’s mugs feature illustrations of Black women in history who broke barriers, like Harriet Tubman and astronaut Mae C. Jemison.

According to Kim Crowder, a business consultant who specializes in diversity, equity, and marketing, Black-owned businesses often use design to tell Black stories in addition to selling their products. “They’re using communal language to connect to their culture,” Crowder says.


To Crowder, these coffee brands are using more than design and history to sell products. She says she’s reminded of how jazz influenced the creation of the Black Panther Party. {snip}