Ujamaa: Cooperative Economics in the Black Community

Each year, members of the African-American community begin the celebration of the holiday of Kwanzaa on December 26th. Kwanzaa is a cultural and political celebration of the lives of African-Americans and incorporates afro-centric symbols and traditions during a week-long celebration. At the heart of Kwanzaa are seven principles (Nguzo Saba) that are taught and highlighted on different days of the week. The Nguzo Saba are strong reminders of the values and practices that are needed to build strong community, preserve Black heritage and liberation politics in the African-American community.

The principles include:

  • Umoja (Unity): To strive for and to maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race.
  • Kujichagulia (Self-Determination): To define and name ourselves, as well as to create and speak for ourselves.
  • Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility): To build and maintain our community together and make our brothers’ and sisters’ problems our problems and to solve them together.
  • Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics): To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together.
  • Nia (Purpose): To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.
  • Kuumba (Creativity): To do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.
  • Imani (Faith): To believe with all our hearts in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.

The third principle Ujamaa, or Cooperative Economics, is a clarion call for the Black community to self-define its economic future by building black-owned businesses and cooperatives. Historically, Ujamaa was introduced as a socialist philosophy in Tanzania by its first president Julius Nyerere. Nyerere used the revolutionary concept in the development of a national infrastructure centered on communal values.

What we know is that from Black Wall Street to the Federations Southern Cooperative, African-Americans have been resisting in a spirit of Ujamaa for centuries.

Viable economic power is crucial for creating permanent pathways out of poverty. The economic disparities between black and whites in the US have never been greater. Renewed conversation about the 2015 Color of Wealth Report that exposed a net worth of a mere $8 for black households in contrast to that of whites ($250K) highlights the impacts of economic marginalization in the US. The national wage gap between black and white earnings continues to grow exponentially each year and is predicted to continue widening so the movement to establish direct pathways to financial self-sufficiency in black communities is urgent.

A bold, modern experiment in Ujamaa is happening in the heart of the south in Jackson, Mississippi. Cooperation Jackson is actively building a network of black-owned cooperatives that seek to develop an economic structure that can flourish outside of traditional capitalist systems. Cooperative business structures eliminate hierarchal employment dynamics and disrupt income inequalities through direct ownership. As families celebrate Kwanzaa and richness of African-American culture this year and every year, we can all find inspiration in the principle of Ujamaa in the development of a new global economy built through communal values and cooperatives.


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