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Embracing Black Owned Businesses

Cat Modlin-Jackson

As people across the world took to the streets to declare that Black Lives Matter, the owner of a small bookstore in Martinsville shared a message that rocked the internet.

On a sleepy street corner in the Blue Ridge foothills, DeShanta Hairston’s bookstore is booming.  She opened Books and Crannies in 2016, hoping to give her hometown a place to come together over a shared love of reading.

Then the killing of George Floyd shook the world from a pandemic haze, and Hairston took to Twitter to speak her truth.  "So I said something along the lines of: Until recently, I never posted in my social media bios that I was a black-owned bookstore, just out of fear of losing out on white customers."

Her tweet went viral, and like the anti-racism books on her shelves, her local business has become a nationwide hit.  Racism isn’t always blatant, she says.  "But you can definitely feel a racial divide in this area.  So it made me very hesitant to proudly state that I am a black-owned business on social media."

There’s a line of thinking that equates celebrating black identity with anti-white sentiment, she explains, and that’s not the case. "I think it’s just that black people have always kind of faced an oppression, so when we do accomplish things, you know, we want to be proud and we want to stand in that. And we want our people to know that if I can do it, you can do it, too."

The road from Hairston’s bookstore in Martinsville to Charleen Baylor’s Nutty Buttery cafe in Richmond is scattered with Confederate flags and iconography. But in a city where monuments are coming down, Baylor says the vibe is different. "I think here in Richmond you have a whole cadre of people who seek out black businesses intentionally," she says.

Baylor says she gets a mix of customers, and as Virginia moves forward with reopening, she’s back to hosting community events where everyone can mingle... albeit outdoors. 

Baylor comes from a line of entrepreneurs who also catered to a diverse clientele, even in the face of Jim Crow.  "My grandfather had a bakery in Ashland. It was not too far from John M. Gandy High School prior to integration."

A number of segregationist laws have since been overturned, but changes in hearts and minds are harder to quantify.

Martin Davidson is the Chief Diversity Officer and Senior Associate Dean at the UVA Darden School of Business. Throughout his career, he’s focused on bridging racial divides and helping combat prejudice against entrepreneurs of color. Bias is human nature, says Davidson. It stems from a biological and psychological design of the brain.  "We’re built to make decisions and bias and to learn and get better at certain things."

That’s actually a good thing, he says. But it can go awry. "When we’re not mindful and vigilant about how we learn about those biases, how we stay awake and stay conscious when they’re happening and do our best, just on the edges to short circuit it."

Unlearning bias doesn’t happen overnight or in a single training session, says Davidson. It takes time and persistence.   "It’s more just creating a way of thinking and seeing and being in the world and being with the people in this," Davidson explains.  "And good things can happen."

Back at Books and Crannies in Martinsville, Hairston has another suggestion. "Don’t silence us when we say how we feel. Don’t try to say ‘well -- but.’  Just embrace it and listen, and take it in, process it and then maybe go read a book or something about why we feel like this."

She’s excited about all the new people she’s connected with, and now that she’s got their attention, DeShanta Hairston plans to write her memoir. 

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.