Rediscovering Black Gold
by D. Amari Jackson
What if there existed a national directory for African Americans that contained current listings for Black artists, fashion designers, merchants, sculptors, painters, and book distributors? You might think, “Big deal, there’s a little thing called the internet…” But what if the internet didn’t exist? What if this directory manifested as a high-quality physical vehicle, comparable to a fine arts catalogue where you could peruse scores of glossy photos and timely articles on African American culture? And what if it served as a vital source of information for the Black community, arming users with access to valuable resources, consumers, commercial networks, and opportunities for everyone involved?
Wouldn’t that be golden?
It was. Introduced at the 1992 National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta, the Black Gold National Shopper’s Guide was pioneering both in its scope and creation. The 160-page publication, which listed over 1,000 goods and services, was the nation’s first exhaustive directory of African American and African-inspired arts and culture. The stylish guide, available in bookstores, newsstands, and retailers, circulated for two years before succumbing to a lack of funding.
But how did such an ambitious publication come about in the first place? What is its legacy? And in our current high-tech world, is this legacy even relevant?
“It was a continuation of a theme coming out of the late 60s and early 70s,” acknowledges Marvin Sin, head of the Black Gold Group, a nonprofit collective of artists committed to actualizing a nationwide trade association for the Black arts community in the 1990s. An artist and leather craftsman himself, Sin was particularly concerned with creating a vehicle that could “convert our cultural resources into an economic framework to sustain, first, the artists who produce it and, secondly, to stabilize it in a way that it’s a perpetual source of inspiration for our consumers and community.”
Given the simultaneous Black American social movements and African independence movements of the 1960s and 70s—and the global antiapartheid movement of the 1980s culminating with the 1990 release of South African freedom-fighter Nelson Mandela—Sin believed it was an appropriate time to launch such an ambitious endeavor. “Our issues paralleled the circumstances on the continent of Africa in that we produce this raw material, this cultural resource that, for the most part, is then absorbed by an economic system that we don’t own and control, produced, packaged, and then sold back to us,” explains Sin. He uses the example of the music industry, noting that “even though we are the raw material, the natural resource, the whole economic and business system is owned and controlled by other people. What we saw was an opportunity—particularly in the visual arts, crafts, and then in fashion and the wearable art universe—for us to break out of that paradigm and actually become the originators, the producers, the distributors, and the consumers, such that all of the benefits of our cultural resource, our raw material, would stay within our community.”
That, continues Sin, “was the idea behind coining the phrase ‘Black Gold’, that our culture, our art, our Black creativity was really like gold or raw material that could produce and generate wealth for our community.”
The quest for gold commenced in the early 90s as Sin’s nonprofit trade group focused on the networking and exchange of African heritage products for a national Black consumer base. Not long after, Communications Problem Solvers, a Chicago-based marketing and promotions company, invested in and expanded the concept in the form of a national directory with articles, images, ads, and a comprehensive listing of working Black artists and entrepreneurs.
“When we published Black Gold, our original intention was that Black Gold would be distributed through the Black bookstores, boutiques, and other outlets that were literally represented in the Black Gold directory,” recounts Raynard Villa Hall, president of Communications Problem Solvers and publisher and editor of the directory. Those listed in the directory, says Hall, would “turn around, represent it and sell it to their customers and others to expand the marketplace. That was the idea. By using the Black Gold directory as the first item distributed through this national looped channel of distribution, Black Gold would pave the way for other products to be put through that same channel to achieve national distribution for products that were, at that time, only being offered to limited local markets.”
Upon its 1992 introduction at the National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta, the guide received a significant amount of attention by way of write ups in such major publications as the Chicago Tribune, Atlanta Journal Constitution, and the New York Times. It even benefitted from key placements on such popular Black TV shows of the day as Roc and A Different World. Between 1992 and 1993, close to 10,000 copies were sold.
Given this momentum, plans were made for the release of a second, expanded edition of Black Gold. In preparation, Hall and his group convinced several faculty members, students, and administrators at Chicago State University to help with conducting a phone survey, the first national survey of African American artists. “One significant thing that occurred is that Black Gold serviced a lot more working artists and people who worked in cultural businesses than we ever anticipated,” recalls Hall, noting, as a result of conducting the survey, “we amassed a database of over 4400 artists and culturally related operations including bookstores, museums, gift shops, and significant festivals.”
With its comprehensive and high-quality content, its clearly identified target audience, and its potential consumer base, the second edition of the Black Gold directory was set to have a major impact on the cultural and commercial capacities of the Black arts world.
It didn’t. It was never published.
“Raynard’s company basically financed the production of it, as he hired the staff, the graphic designers,” says Sin, noting “they were under tremendous pressure to recoup that investment.” The ambitious venture ran out of money before the second issue reached publication.
“We just didn’t have the cash to get it printed,” acknowledges Hall, before pointing to some additional challenges including the cover of the directory itself. “It was supposed to have a significantly different cover, but the printer didn’t have any heavier stock paper,” recounts Hall, clarifying the initial intent to make the guide more like a hardcover countertop resource. “So we went with a softer cover which ended up positioning Black Gold more like a magazine than a directory” and, as a result, it “ended up being treated like a periodical which means, after 28 days on the shelf, it comes down. A periodical is exactly what the name implies,” continues Hall. “Publications are available for a period of time and then you need a fresh publication. In our case, we intended to market it for two years and, instead, we got 28 days of shelf space.”
“It was a rookie publishing mistake on our part,” adds Hall. “Very unfortunate for us.”
Still, the empowering and comprehensive concept that fueled the Black Gold directory was by no means a mistake. And both Sin and Hall believe its legacy has implications for today.
“In the early to mid-1990s, the Black art world was nowhere near as developed and cohesive as it is now,” says Hall, characterizing it as “scattered pockets of interest. People had a very limited awareness of other working artists, sometimes even in the same city. Black artists didn’t know each other and there were no real mechanisms for them to get connected to each other,” explains Hall. “So I can’t tell you how many artists thanked us for just shining a light on their work and on their aspirations to be economically and sustainably successful while offering their unique products to the world.”
Hall points to Black Art in America as being, “in many ways, similar to the vision we had for Black Gold online” in the second half of the 1990s. “African American artists needed a place to go where they could be seen by the largest possible audience and connect with as many critics and collectors as possible,” continues Hall, promoting how this facilitates “a sense of credibility, authenticity, and value” for the work they do. “So is the idea of Black Gold still viable today? Absolutely.”
While remaining copies of Black Gold are currently available as collectibles, Sin points to their additional, nonquantifiable value. “With the remaining copies I have at my disposal, if I travel to Africa and work on a project in Ghana, I take them to show the artist community there what is possible,” offers Sin, stressing that “it’s impossible not to comprehend, after you’ve looked at them, that other realities are possible.” Consistently, here in the States, “it inspired successive generations of visual artists, creatives, and designers to recognize that this was a viable career possibility,” he says, acknowledging how artists today, many of them successful, still tell him this.
However, clarifies Sin, even those contemporary Black artists who never knew such a national directory once existed are nonetheless impacted. “When you create an event like that, it’s like the ripples in a pond,” he offers. “A few miles down-river, nobody knew that a pebble was ever thrown in there, but they feel that bump, they feel that wave though they don’t know where it came from.”
“So it was a phenomenal event, a phenomenal project,” affirms Sin. “And I think everybody who touched it was inspired and changed in some way.”
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