Originally published by Roast Magazine. Republished with their permission.
Research shows that African-Americans are less likely than other ethnic groups in the United States to select coffee as a beverage of choice. Yet coffee’s history links major contributions not only to Africa but the diaspora around the globe. Ethiopia is praised as the birthplace of coffee, and for giving us some of the most prized coffees in the world. African enslavement was the original source of labor for coffee’s production in Brazil, the Caribbean and the West Indies, and farmers of African descent continue to play a key role in its production. So how is it that African-Americans are only loosely connected to this long-standing historical continuum in coffee, finding themselves underrepresented as consumers as well as professionals in the coffee industry? And how can we as an industry bridge this gap?
In close to 20 years of working in coffee, I have met too few African-Americans employed in the industry, whether in international development, trade, retail, roasting, equipment manufacturing, training/education, marketing or other areas. Recently, however, I am starting to see some changes as more African-Americans are becoming visible in the industry. As part of my research for this article, I interviewed 14 other black coffee professionals, and they confirmed many of my personal thoughts about the industry and how we can improve. (You’ll find their photos and quotes throughout the article.)
The Past Informs the Present
Racism, inequality and the effects of slavery are human diseases that have left crowded rooms filled with little gender or racial diversity. The coffee industry must not shy away from these difficult subjects. These are not sidebar issues to be discussed from time to time by the few diverse individuals who sit outside these rooms, falling onto the ears of the highly empathic to the unconcerned and everywhere in between, yet left without action. These issues are major contributing factors to the state of our industry and society at large. Shying away from understanding or acting against these difficult realities is like pretending coffee rust disease doesn’t exist—what devastating impact this would have on the livelihood of farmers, local economies and the global coffee world. Similarly, when we continue to ignore and normalize the effects of racism and inequality within the industry, we cannot expect positive outcomes.
Dr. Bryan Stevenson, founder of the nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative, offered his perspective on PBS NewsHour in 2017, saying, “I don’t think slavery ended in 1865, it just evolved. We are burdened by our history of racial inequality. … We have made progress, but our silence has condemned us.”
African-Americans Choose Coffee Less Often
The National Coffee Association USA (NCA) provides research data on U.S. coffee consumption through its annual National Coffee Drinking Trends (NCDT) survey. Established in 1950, it’s the longest-running coffee survey in the United States. The NCDT consistently shows that, in comparison to other ethnic groups, African-Americans are less likely to choose coffee as a preferred beverage.
As an example, in the category of “gourmet coffee beverages (net)”—which includes espresso-based beverages, non-espresso-based beverages, traditional coffee-gourmet and ready-to-drink coffee beverages—the 2018 survey indicates 42 percent of African-Americans drink beverages in this category, compared to 64 percent of Hispanic-Americans, 53 percent of Caucasian-Americans and 59 percent of Asian-Americans.
A summary of the NCDT notes that African-Americans always have reported lower percentages of coffee consumption when compared to Hispanic-Americans and Caucasians.
One of the key areas that may explain lower participation among some African-Americans is a misperception of the health effects of coffee, as the summary further states that there is a general desire to limit caffeine intake in exchange for beverages that are thought to contain more healthful ingredients.
Marketing also plays a key role in this equation. Producers of carbonated beverages and juices have been quite successful in targeting marketing campaigns toward African-American communities, and African-Americans over-index on consumption levels in these product categories. According to the Technomic Consumer Tracker Survey, African-Americans over-index on overall consumption at home and away from home on fruit juices, with 68 percent of African-Americans drinking fruit juices once a week versus 55 percent of consumers overall. In addition, 60 percent of African-Americans consume carbonated soft drinks once a week versus 51 percent of consumers overall.
Celebrity endorsements for coffee tend to come from middle-aged white men, while celebrity endorsements for carbonated beverages and fruit juices more often come from young black athletes or musicians. Research shows that more women drink coffee than men, and Hispanics are the largest coffee-consuming ethnic group in the United States. As U.S. demographics continue to evolve, it will be interesting to see how marketing will follow.
The data clearly reinforces the fact that African-Americans aren’t major coffee consumers, and I believe the coffee industry is missing out on several fronts because of this lack of engagement. African-Americans are underrepresented in an industry in which they should have prominence and great pride.
When I pick up a cup of coffee at the airport, I notice the large number of black employees working in cafes and food service. The majority of the customers being served are not black. Standing in line, I think about my journey in coffee. I wonder about the employees’ understanding of coffee beyond the preparation of beverages with fancy names and complex recipes. Do they understand the history of coffee? Not the watered-down version that makes everyone comfortable, but the uncomfortable parts also. Would understanding this history offer more freedom, permission and pride? Could this foster a feeling of empowerment, and thus cause greater interest to do more in coffee?
Understanding Coffee’s History
The history of coffee is both fascinating and tragic. Working through this unpleasant history is necessary for everyone involved in coffee. For some, this history is a source of empowerment; for others, it is a source of anger, hurt and shame. Unfortunately, for many this history is unknown.
It’s important that we understand and acknowledge this history. We must not let the historical perspective of those who carried the bean to different parts of the world—the missionaries, travelers, traders and colonists—overshadow the contributions of those who labored in coffee production. The first coffees exported to North America and Europe were harvested by slaves. Later, enslaved Africans prepared and served coffees for their slave owners, when they were not laboring in the fields. In the book Slavery in America: From Colonial Times to the Civil War, authors Dorothy Schneider and Carl J. Schneider quote slave owner Henry Watson referring favorably to his house servant’s coffee-making skills, saying, “Ellen is a good milker, a negro rarely is. She makes good bread … She makes excellent coffee.”
According to Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World by Mark Pendergrast, coffee first came to what is now the United States and to Europe between 1650 and 1700. As we trace the bean that started in Africa and spread throughout the world, slave ships departed West Africa to put in place forced labor to ensure an adequate supply of production to meet demand. As demand for coffee grew during this period, so did enslavement, which was used to sustain production.
For decades, this tragedy played out. In Brazil, slavery ended in 1888; in the United States, in 1865. It’s important to note that the United States did not ban the import of goods produced from forced labor until 2015, with a bill signed by America’s first African-American president, Barack Obama.
While I could focus on the horrid treatment and shortened life expectancies of the enslaved, I will instead reflect on an incredible lady I recently learned about, Rose Nicaud, an enslaved woman in the United States who bought her freedom by selling hot coffee. Nicaud is credited with being the first person to set up a mobile shop near the New Orleans French Market. She was successful in selling enough coffee to purchase her freedom. Her success further allowed her to move into a permanent shop. Nicaud inspired other enslaved women to follow her example, developing their own coffee blends. In her book Women in New Orleans: A History, author Mary Gehman credits Nicaud with starting the growth of coffee shops throughout the city.
Coffee Will Make You Black: My Childhood Relationship with Coffee
Myths or strong negative beliefs about coffee aren’t known to be widespread in the African-American community, but they do exist. In reflecting on my childhood memories and first interactions with the beverage, I recall Sanka instant coffee in our kitchen cabinet and, from time to time, I would sneak a sip of my mother’s coffee. My mom always added sugar and milk, and I loved the taste of her coffee. Coffee was forbidden for children in my household, and sneaking a sip when she wasn’t looking was a thrill. My mom repeated a myth about coffee that had been passed down from previous generations: “That coffee is gonna make you black,” she would say when I was caught sipping from her cup.
It’s a clear and familiar warning that resonates among some African-Americans. The idea that coffee could permanently change the pigment of a child’s skin into a darker shade was clearly an undesirable feature.
Colorism, a prejudice favoring lighter skin within an ethnic group, was alive and well in my childhood, and remains prevalent throughout the world among many ethnic groups. The sad notion that physical characteristics linked to race have negative connotations dates back much further than a few generations in my family’s history—such misleading thoughts can be traced back to what at the time were respected but highly confused American physicians who wrote broadly on the subject during the mid-19th century, erroneously tying skin color (and shades of color) to inherent physical and mental abilities.
I moved past these childhood myths to start a coffee company, with little knowledge about the product or the industry. Somehow, I knew I could learn what I needed. My first international business trip in coffee came in 2001. Although my initial plan was to focus on coffees from Africa, I had never traveled to Africa, and I was afraid. It was suggested that I travel to Costa Rica first.
I started second-guessing my decision to attend the Costa Rica coffee conference soon after I arrived. I don’t speak Spanish, and the attendees were predominantly men in suits. I stepped outside to take a break—and to seriously reflect on the bad idea of starting a coffee company and traveling to Costa Rica—when a nice lady walked up to me.
“Here’s a lady with the right idea, sitting in the sun,” she said. Then came a barrage of questions and excitement, as she asked me, “What do you do in coffee, and where are you from?” She invited me to join her, her husband and their friends for lunch. Eunice Salter didn’t work in coffee. Her husband did, and she was tagging along on the trip. After lunch, this woman I had never met before, and haven’t spoken to since that day in Costa Rica 17 years ago, went on to share some encouraging advice.
“You have a great purpose in coffee,” she told me. “Center yourself, and build a business.”
Looking back, I realize how important it was for me that she acknowledged my challenges and recognized that I was an African-American woman with a big dream that I didn’t fully understand at the time. I believe that was instrumental in my having the courage to make my trip a success and continue toward my dream. Encouragement and recognition of my humanity was all I needed that day, and she was there to provide it.
A few months ago, when I ran across my diary from that trip, I thought about the many trips I’d made to Africa and other parts of the world since I met Eunice Salter. I thought about all the boards I’ve had the pleasure of serving on, and I thought about the hope I still carry for our industry. I’ve had numerous champions throughout my life who have invited me to the table. I encourage you to look for opportunities whenever possible to invite more people to your table.
Moving Forward Together
In some ways, we have moved on from the past and operate with a new sense of awareness. While we could never imagine enslaved workers harvesting and preparing our coffees, we must responsibly ask ourselves questions and consider where African descendants are in coffee today. This is a question that rings in my head in most large business gatherings. What is the status of this group of people that contributed so significantly to what we enjoy? Coffee is an important industry in the United States. In 2015, for example, coffee was responsible for 1.7 million U.S. jobs, represented 1.6 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP), and had an annual economic output value of $225 billion, according to a report published by the NCA that year.
Our connections to products we purchase may run deeper than we realize, and span generations and across oceans. Time and again multi-generational coffee companies tell their stories, connecting the present day to an ancestor or ancestors who came to the United States and began roasting and selling coffee. These immigrant-owned businesses served as a basis for what we see today as companies deeply rooted in the industry.
We must consider the need for greater engagement by African descendants beyond the lens of securing a new market and gaining new consumers. The industry misses out on opportunities to gain knowledge and creativity from an ethnic group that represents more than 13 percent of the U.S. population, with deeply rooted contributions in coffee.
Over the years, I’ve come to realize that the challenges African-Americans face in building a business in coffee aren’t so different from the challenges others face; however, the additional burden of having a lack of representation, little sense of belonging, and virtual invisibility within the industry have a profound impact on the success of an individual and their business.
My hope is that more African-Americans and those from the African diaspora will continue joining the industry throughout the supply chain, bringing incredible talent while understanding our deeply rooted connections. We all share in the tragic history of coffee. We are part of a society that will advance when we start to see value in our history, push toward a better understanding of what’s behind the numbers and the actions, and find greater ways to foster meaningful engagement—but it has to start with understanding and acknowledging coffee’s complex and often uncomfortable history.
It is my hope as an African-American and member of the diaspora that together we can build connections from a torn past that will allow us to uplift each other through understanding and respecting our shared history. Coffee is a major part of our history, and it has a way of bringing people together. I am proud and respectful of Africa’s contributions to coffee around the world.
In 2019, the African Fine Coffees Association (AFCA) conference will be held in Kigali, Rwanda. I hope to share some of what I have learned on my journey in coffee, as I am honored to serve as keynote speaker. As an African-American woman, I am especially proud of this honor. I no longer have to dream of traveling to Africa, but I do dream of sharing what has empowered me in my journey. My wish is to help empower others who are trying to find their way and understand their story.
WHY AFRICAN-AMERICANS BELONG IN THE COFFEE INDUSTRY
- Coffee originated in Africa.
- Africans and the diaspora contribute significantly to coffee production around the world, with great opportunities as consumers and entrepreneurs.
- African coffees are among the most appreciated and are thought to have greater distinction by discerning coffee professionals and consumers.
- Changing demographics in the United States mean previously underrepresented communities likely will have more prominence and more economic power moving forward.
- According to research compiled by the National Coffee Association USA, coffee has significant health benefits in many areas—including improved longevity, cardiovascular health, liver health, diabetes, cancer and stroke—all of which are significant issues for African-Americans.
- There is great opportunity within the industry to develop connections and empathy with farmers, and to better understand the shared culture.
- Coffee isn’t just big business—it’s small entrepreneurs working with small-scale farmers to improve the livelihoods of entire communities.