You may have heard the news about how fast the cannabis industry is spreading across this nation. But what you may not realize is that Black and Brown communities aren’t benefiting from this developing industry. Reasons include everything from incarceration and the drug war to lack of access to both education and capital. According to 2017 data from Marijuana Business Daily, 73% of cannabis executives were men and 81% were White. Women account for 25% and Black ownership in cannabis hovers at 4%.
While these numbers are problematic, some Black women are making strides and doing what it takes to shift through the challenges. As a cannabis industry adviser and advocate, I wanted to take a deeper dive into why our presence in this industry is a must. I sat down with Dasheeda Dawson, President of Flora Buffalo and co-founder of MJM Strategy, and Ashaki Fenderson, founder of Tainted Love Brooklyn, for insights on how Black women can transition into cannabis.
Mary Pryor: I’ll get right to one of the biggest concerns when it comes to talking about cannabis: “What will my family think?” This plant and its history is sensitive in our community, given the generational effect of the war on drugs. How do you warm people up to your involvement in this industry?
Dasheeda Dawson: I became The WeedHead, officially branding myself [as] a corporate-to-cannabis crossover. I wanted to share my stories and experiences transitioning into the industry to educate and empower others who want to be professionals and/or patients in the legal cannabis industry. My journey isn’t just for my family members, but for my extended family and community to see someone they trust and respect paving the way for their journeys to start.
Ashaki Fenderson: I had a very candid conversation with members of my family about how marijuana was a social justice issue. Admittedly, it was easier to speak to my siblings and cousins than work my way up the generational ladder to elders. There are family fears involving law enforcement kicking down my doors and taking me away in cuffs.
Still, as cannabis receives more attention as a medicinal tool, my elders come to me to speak about how it can wean them off “dopey” pain meds, help with their arthritis, and even aid in the care of my 92-year-old grandfather who has dementia. My cousins come to me about how to find or what to do with investment, business, and partnership opportunities. This is definitely a different tune than when I first came to them more than five years ago. Our people need to know how this plant can help us.
Pryor: How can we relay the message of “cannabis is plant medicine” to Black and Brown communities? (Think of the illnesses and diseases that seem to target us the most — i.e. diabetes, cancer, autoimmune conditions.)
Dawson: As a woman suffering from my autoimmune challenges, I consider myself to be among the “new faces of cannabis.” We are the fastest-growing legal users, largely due to the benefits of cannabinoid treatment on various misunderstood diseases and disorders, ranging from multiple sclerosis (MS) to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). As a scientist, my theory is that we are cannabinoid deficient, which is likely driving our bodies towards imbalance more and more. We need to drastically change our diets to improve the health of Black and Brown communities, which should include a reduction in sugar and the addition of a daily low dose of cannabinoids. People focus heavily on THC and CBD, but the real science shows there is power in all of the cannabinoids and terpenes found in the plant. My hope is that with re-education and continued research, we can identify the therapeutic opportunities available to us in cannabis and use them to improve our day-to-day lives.
Fenderson: Unfortunately, since marijuana was instilled in our communities as a drug, it gets abused as such. For many in our communities recovering from substance abuse, this is a barrier to medicinal benefits, as their previous use of the plant can trigger a more dangerous relapse. My mother has been in recovery for more than 30 years; she suffered a major stroke in 2005 which affects her physical, cognitive, and mental facilities. She was afraid to utilize the plant to help aid in her current care because relapse was a much scarier road. A flurry of research and marketing opened her up to using the plant as an option. She started using a full-spectrum CBD tincture. In a matter of days, I noticed a change in her health and the effects are overwhelmingly positive. Despite years of our communities using the plant to self-medicate for stress, anxiety, insomnia, and physical pain, this boon in medicinal research open up accessibility that may have been lost to people like my mother.
Pryor: What are the biggest barriers you’ve faced as a Black woman in this space?
Dawson: I have found the biggest barrier as a Black woman was initially a lack of community and support. More often than not, I have been the only afro in the room. I jumped into the industry as a patient and advocate in Arizona before the mainstream interest in cannabis began to explode. Within six months, I was successfully integrated into the local advocacy, education, and business groups for cannabis — or so I thought. How quickly that deteriorated when I was accused of stealing my own identity and the story was spread throughout the market simply because my excellence as a woman of color seemed unlikely and, therefore, unbelievable. Suffice to say, I knew I needed to enlist the support of my tribe to fulfill my mission to legitimize, stabilize, and diversify the legal cannabis industry. I am still usually the only afro in the room as I work with predominantly white males every day. I still occasionally have to defend my decision to transition into the industry to people of color who are still very afraid of the “devil’s lettuce.”
Fenderson: I started in advocacy and legitimizing business space of cannabis in 2014. For much of my life, I have been the only Black person in my classroom, on a film set, and a nonprofit’s executive board. In this cannabis space, I am often one of two, maybe three, Black women in the room. There is a huge gap of information and access being shared with the Black and Latinx community. Every moment in this space was barrier-breaking and that was exhausting. It is refreshing to see more and more of us get involved but I can’t help but recognize that we are a little behind in the race.
Pryor: How can Black women excel in this industry? How should one research opportunities?
Dawson: Last year, I wrote my first workbook in The WeedHead workbook series. How to Succeed in the Cannabis Industry is in third printing and will be available for purchase in summer 2019. It outlines the different sectors of the cannabis industry, identifying all of the potential white space opportunities for entrepreneurs, professionals, and contractors looking to cross over into the industry. Black women can excel in cannabis in all the same ways that we have seen white men excel — as CEOs, founders, and investors.
Fenderson: I came to this space after 18 years of film production and a lifetime in community advocacy work. I started Tainted Love BK to create interactive programming to share cannabis medical and justice information in entertaining formats. Speaking as a Black woman, we need to come to this space with our strengths. If you hate gardening or kill all your houseplants, starting a hemp farm/grow is probably not the right space for you. There are plenty of opportunities that do not include selling or growing the plant, like bed-and-breakfasts, project management, event management, media management, research, lab design, cooking, waste disposal, construction, and so much more.
I’ll also add that starting a plant-touching business involves a lot of upfront startup capital and experience in the cannabis industry. While there are incubators along the West Coast such as Hood Incubator and The People’s Dispensary, you’ll need to build a team, secure political connections, create a community campaign, and raise a minimum $3 million to $5 million. Networking at various cannabis conferences will tell you a lot about how this industry is maneuvering, given overwhelming populations of white men at MJBizCon, Cannabis World Conference and Business Expo, Benzinga, and National Cannabis Industry Association events. These events are important to attend but I suggest showing up as a large group, get in the room, and understand how to set up what you want to do.
Mary Teressa Pryor is co-founder of Cannaclusive, cannabis advocacy, programming, and marketing collective based in Los Angeles, New York State chapter president of Minorities for Medical Marijuana, and chief marketing officer for Tonic CBD, a hemp farm and CBD wellness company out of New York State.
LGBTQ+ Black Women Who Changed
This Black History Month (which is also LGBTQ+ History Month across the pond in the U.K.), we remember these bi, trans, and lesbian who used their strength and resilience to make way for the queer Black women who followed.
Ernestine Eckstein (1941-1992)
Early gay and lesbian rights groups in the U.S. had all of the transphobia, biphobia, racism, classism, and sexism of the straight world, but Ernestine Eckstein broke through barriers to become one of the only Black women publicly involved in the mainstream gay and lesbian rights movements of the 1960s. When she moved from her native Indiana to New York City at the age of 22 in 1963, she didn’t even know the word “gay.”
Once she found out about gays’ existence (and her lesbianism), she immediately got involved as an activist. She was the only person of color to participate in the historic first protests for gay rights in 1965. She was a leader of the first American lesbian rights organization The Daughters of Bilitis and one of two total women of color to appear on the cover of their publication “The Ladder.” Eckstein eventually moved to the West Coast and worked on issues more directly related to racial justice as a member of Black Women Organized for Action (BWOA), one of the first Black feminist organizations in the country.
Lorraine Hansberry (1930-1965)
When “A Raisin in the Sun” opened on Broadway in 1959, it was the first play written by an African-American woman to be performed there. The runaway success was nominated for four Tonys and was made into a movie in 1961 starring Sidney Poitier. Besides an impressive oeuvre of writing, Hansberry was an organizer for racial justice and co-founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
Her friendship with James Baldwin who lived just eight blocks away may have helped her discover the gay world, and when she found the lesbian publication “The Ladder,” she wrote in “I’m glad as heck you exist.” She had a decade-long marriage to a man that ended in divorce, and he restricted access to archival records after her death — perhaps to keep her sexuality a secret. There’s no doubt she had multiple affairs with women; indeed, she even wrote to “The Ladder” another time and identified herself as a married lesbian. Sadly, she passed away from cancer at only 34 years old.
Josephine Baker (1906-1975)
Josephine Baker was a bi woman who left the U.S. to become an international celebrity. A dancer and actress famous for her revealing skirt made of bananas, she became the first African-American to star in a major motion picture. Baker married and divorced four different men and adopted 12 children from nine countries. Her female lovers included bi Mexican painter Frida Kahlo.
Living in France during World War II, she used her fame to spy and smuggle messages for the Resistance, earning her the French military honor the Croix de Guerre. While living in France kept her away from the segregation of the U.S. when she returned to her native country, she was not seen as the hero she was in her adopted France. She was refused service by 36 hotels in New York City on a 1948 trip, which inspired her to travel the American South using a different name to see what Black Americans experienced daily. She wrote and spoke on the discrimination she experienced and was inspired to dedicate her life to ending racism in her home country. She used her international fame to draw attention to her native country’s racial discrimination issues (so much so that the FBI kept a file on her) and also used her clout to negotiate that venues she played integrate their audiences for the first time. She was one of the only women invited to speak at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Marsha P. Johnson (1945-1992)
Along with her best friend Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson co-founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) in New York City in 1970. Following their involvement in the Stonewall Uprising of 1969, it became clear that the gay rights movement was not going to include trans rights. STAR was the answer to addressing the immediate needs of trans homeless youth, and STAR House provided free housing along with community and some food for those who lived there. Johnson and Rivera funded it with their sex work, for which they were arrested several times.
In August 2020, Governor Cuomo announced that a state park in New York City would be named for Johnson.
Stormé DeLarverie (1920-2014)
No one knows the precise facts around who did what at the Stonewall Rebellion of 1969, but many say that butch lesbian Stormé DeLarverie threw the first punch. A founding member and Chief of Security for the Stonewall Veterans Association, DeLarverie was well known as a tough bodyguard who provided protections for women and LGBTQ+ people in Greenwich Village as a bouncer at bars like Henrietta Hudson and a self-appointed community safety officer patrolling the neighborhood.
Growing up in New Orleans as the daughter of a Black servant and her white employer who eventually married, DeLarverie was a drag king who performed as the emcee of the Jewel Box Revue, an integrated drag show that toured the U.S. in the 1940s, ‘50s, and ‘60s. DeLarverie outlived her partner of 25 years, Diana, by 30 years before passing away in her sleep at the age of 93.
Lisa Cannistraci, who was one of DeLarverie’s legal guardians in her old age and who had employed her at Henrietta Hudson earlier in her life, said DeLarverie “literally walked the streets of downtown Manhattan like a gay superhero. She was not to be messed with by any stretch of the imagination.”
Barbara Jordan (1936-1996)
Barbara Jordan’s college students said she was never without a copy of the U.S. Constitution in her purse. Her love of the Constitution and the law was unwavering, even though she “felt somehow for many years that George Washington and Alexander Hamilton just left me out by mistake.” Jordan became the first Black state Senator in Texas in 1966 and then the first woman and Black person to be elected to Congress from Texas. Her 1975 speech on the House floor that opened the impeachment hearings of President Richard Nixon is considered one of the greatest speeches in American history. She sponsored over 300 bills in Congress and was a supporter of the renewal of the 1965 Voting Rights Acts. She was also the first Black woman to deliver a keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in 1976 and eventually started a private law practice after her political career. When Jordan got multiple sclerosis, her life partner Nancy Earl was her caretaker. President Bill Clinton said he wanted to nominate her to the Supreme Court but that she was too ill by the time he got the chance. He awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994.
These women deserve to be remembered for the heroes they were. Black women who either loved women, or were trans, or both. The daily adversity they faced shaped who they were and fueled their desire to change the world. The art, activism, and historic firsts of each of these six women made them trailblazers who show us all how to aspire to live.
The women quilters of Gee's Bend, Alabama, have beaten the odds and kept their craft alive for centuries. Now they're finally getting their due. Jenny Singer/Glamour
Quilts made by the women of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, are, according to The New York Times, “Some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced.” They’ve been immortalized on U.S. postage stamps and hung in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. When Amy Sherald painted Michelle Obama’s stunning official portrait, she said that the quilts of Gee’s Bend inspired her depiction of the first lady’s dress.
And yet the women quilters of Gee’s Bend—most of whom are descendants of enslaved people forced to work on the Gee family’s cotton plantation—have reaped few financial rewards, despite decades of acclaim. Quilts bearing the Gee’s Bend name may have graced museum walls from the Smithsonian to the de Young in San Francisco, but the majority of households in the town have an income of under $10,000 a year, Bloomberg reported in 2018. Part of the problem is that the quilting collective hasn’t been able to monetize their art. Gee’s Bend, officially known as Boykin, is far from a tourist destination; it’s surrounded on three sides by the Alabama River, underfunded and isolated.
That’s not an accident. In 1962 white politicians shut down the Gee’s Bend ferry to prevent Black residents from voting. “We didn’t close the ferry because they were Black,” the sheriff reportedly bragged. “We closed it because they forgot they were Black.” Martin Luther King, Jr., visited Gee’s Bend three years later. “I came over here to Gee’s Bend to tell you, you are somebody,” he told the fired-up crowd, which included Gee’s Bend civil rights quilters who participated in the famed Freedom Quilting Bee. But the government didn’t think so—the ferry service stayed defunct, and Gee’s Bend was inaccessible except by 40-mile rural car ride for four decades. Images of Gee’s Bend quilts have been printed on Visa debit cards, but the town is hardly a shopping destination. Basics like grocery stores and even consistent sanitation are lacking, let alone hotels.
Doris Pettway Mosley, 61, is a seventh-generation Gee’s Bend resident. She grew up watching her mother and other ladies in the neighborhood go house to house in groups, quilting. “Most everybody down here is family,” says Pettway Mosley, who regularly works a full-time job and quilts in her free time, laying fabric over her lap and focusing on her pattern late into the night. She can complete a quilt by herself in a week, she says. And she’s already at work on the eighth generation of community quilters: “I have a grandbaby—sometimes I give her a needle and let her have her way with it,” she says, laughing. “Sometime she do good and sometime she don’t.”
For Kristin Pettway, one of the younger quilters at 23, picked up quilting by watching her mom, her aunt, and her grandma. “When I was younger it just seems like a pastime, like we were just hanging out and talking and making quilts,” she says. “At the time it didn’t seem like making art, it was just how we passed the time together.” To art critics, the Gee’s Bend quilters are responsible for priceless works. But asked she thought of the pieces that way growing up, Doris Pettway Mosley laughs. “No, I did not!” she says. “When my mother was making those quilts, they really was making them to keep us warm.”
Disciplines [If there is prayer, there is a mother kneeling]
If there is prayer, there is a mother kneeling, hands folded to a private sign. We recognize it. If there is a mother kneeling, hands a tent, she is praying or she is crying or crying and praying at the same time. Although it is recognized, the signals of it, it is private and no one knows, perhaps not even she, the content of the prayer, and perhaps its object. If there is a mother praying, she is on her kneels over some object, as one does not often pray in the middle of the room. One prays at the window or over the bed, the head bent slightly up or down, the eyes open or closed. This is a prayer for prayers, you know, a wanting something equal to a prayer, even though I am not a mother. —Dawn Lundy Martin