Where Are the Black Makers?

Rahama Wright, Shea Yeleen founder with product in their H St office

I was called to write a story on black makers. “We see all these stories on makers, and they’re all white,” said my editor. “Please put a piece together highlighting black makers.”

I scratched my head a bit and began to think what that means. I had heard the term, but never sat down to begin to understand who or what makers are.

What does one do in 2018 when one has a question? I went to Google. The first few sites included Makers dot com and a Wikipedia entry.

The Makers dot com site had several well-produced videos that featured famous people discussing pieces of their life. Connie Chung was showcased in a piece that recognized her as one of the first women in network news and the first Asian American anchor on network news. Another video featured Russell Wilson, the NFL quarterback, discussing issues including volunteer service and the need for sports news to drive more attention to women’s sports.

These videos were not helpful in my concrete understanding of makers.

I moved onto the Wikipedia site “Maker culture.” The entry began discussing technological inventions. The cloud, microcomputers, digital fabrications, funding platforms. Further down there was another section, “Biology, food and composting,” “clothes,” “organic cosmetics.”

These categories were more helpful to me. When I thought for just a second with them, it was clear I knew black people who were makers in all of them.

I was raised by two makers. Between my mom and dad, our house was either a jam (or preserve) factory, a canning assembly line (organically grown in the backyard and a field we had not too far away), a wine and beer distillery (later to become my bedroom). I’m a child of maker culture.

When I start looking around my different circles, I find other makers. From my capoeira community to my Peace Corps community to my Ward 7 neighbors, makers abound.

Ajoke Williams is an MIT and Johns Hopkins electrical engineering grad. A Silver Spring resident, she spends her free time in Woodridge training capoeira with me. She makes scientific measuring instruments. “My first maker project actually resulted in something pretty academic, although it encapsulates everything I love about electronics and physics. It required coding, was based on the coupling of three forms of energy and allowed me to explore that space between analog and digital electronics.”

She also makes jewelry boxes and bookshelves. I know what those are.

Sitting on my kitchen table is a bag of handcrafted soaps from Efuas Baby (www.efuasbaby.com), a mommy-run business by a parent from our capoeira group. All four of Nandi Tonge-Gabremedhin’s children have trained at the studio. Black maker’s products are just sitting in my kitchen. I ran into Nandi a couple months ago at The Black Love Experience, an annual maker’s market and musical and artist event presented by Nubian Hueman, an Anacostia-based business connecting consumers with independent designers and artists from around the world.

Anika Hobbs is the owner of Nubian Hueman. “I am not a maker,” she is clear. “I make a platform for makers.” She challenges the notion that it’s hard to find black makers. “Black people have always been makers. You create when you don’t have.”

“It’s now becoming a marketable hobby, but black folks have always been making.”

Then I thought about some neighbor friends and gave them a call. I got Sonjiah Davis on the phone. Davis is a psychotherapist who resides in Hillcrest. She is immediately recognizable across the room. Statuesque. Long locks always perfectly styled. “I’m always known for how nice my hair smells,” she says without exaggeration and with agreement from this reporter.

She has always worn her hair natural. After creating natural hair products for her personal use eight years ago, she began to sell them last year.

“I’ve always been a naturalista. Never a perm. I always had difficulties finding products suitable for my hair.” She was introduced to an herbal rinse by a hair stylist, and when it became more expensive than she preferred, she duplicated the rinse herself. It smelled good and offered strengthening benefits, considering it was chemical-free.

When she resumed having a professional do her hair, she was complemented on the health of her hair and was persuaded to sell her product to others. “You should bottle it yourself and sell it,” she was told. She did. She sells it at www.wyntergardenbeauty.com.

Rahama Wright, a returned Peace Corps volunteer who served in Mali, created Shea Yeleen (www.sheayeleen.com) from the work she did during her service, and displays its skincare products in a store on the H Street corridor. A social-impact company is a local business with a global impact. Shea Yeleen’s products also appear in national retail chains, including Whole Foods.

Shea butter is the fat processed from the seed of the shea tree. Most often, local farmers sell the seed to processors, who then create and sell raw shea. Wright sources raw shea directly from the women collectives. Using the raw shea, she creates the formulas used in Shea Yeleen’s butters, lotions and other beauty products.

“For my community to grow and prosper, there needs to be an economic benefit to the community,” Wright explains. Shea Yeleen won the Maker of the Year award presented by the DC Chamber of Commerce and the Department of Small and Local Business Development.

Anaia Peddie is the program manager for the newly formed Minnesota Avenue Mainstreet and has created programming to support local makers. Peddie has made it clear that makers are going to be large part of the retail growth along the Downtown Ward 7 corridor.

“Makers are important to Minnesota Avenue’s development because, historically, it has been entrepreneurs and small businesses along the corridor and within the communities surrounding it that have spurred commercial activity and development by serving residents,” she explains via email. “It is through continued investment and support of makers and entrepreneurs that the small business ecosystem is strengthened and made resilient, providing more opportunities for residents to spend their money locally along Minnesota Avenue and within in Ward 7.” She is looking forward to Art All Night on Minnesota Avenue to include many local makers.

Makers are an integral component of the black community. From technology by Ajoke Williams to skincare products by Rahama Wright, there has always been a black maker presence. Start asking around and you’ll see one close by.

Here are other makers in my circle:


Maceo Thomas is a writer, real estate agent, property manager and art lover/show organizer. He squeezes those things in while training capoeira.