Juanita “Busy Bee” Britton, who recently held her post-pandemic event, the 30th anniversary of the annual BZB Gift and Art Show, doesn’t know where she’d be without Kwanzaa.
“I celebrated four Kwanzaas before I did my first BZB show,” Britton told The Informer. ”There would be no me if it wasn’t for Kwanzaa.”
Created by Maulana Karenga and first celebrated in 1966, Kwanzaa is an annual celebration of African-American culture from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1. Each day of Kwanzaa highlights a principle of African and African American identity.
“I live the principles of Kwanzaa year-round,” Britton said.
The seven Kwanzaa principles include: Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (Creativity) and Imani (Faith).
While the BZB Gift and Art show typically ends before the holiday celebrating Black culture, African American consumers are offered an opportunity to shop in advance of the Kwanzaa holiday. The event is held at Shiloh Family Life Center in Northwest, D.C.
“The BZB Gifts and Art show is a reflection of who I am at every level,” Britton said.
Umoja (Unity): To strive for and to maintain unity in the family and community.
Billed as the “largest African American department store on the East Coast,” for over 30 years, every holiday season — minus the two years missed during the pandemic — the BZB Gift and Art show has brought dozens of exhibitors and artists together in a vibrant display of artistry and entrepreneurship.
Kujichagulia (Self-determination): To define and name ourselves, as well as to create and speak for ourselves.
Inspired by a trip to a Brixton Market in Britain in the late 1980’s, Britton sought to bring a similar experience to Washington, D.C., where Black artisans had their own platform to showcase their work.
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.
With support from the late Vernard Gray, and several other Black artisans and gallerists in the D.C. area, Britton launched her first show and its immediate success gave her proof of concept.
“[At] my first show in 1990, I had nine artisans and the snow was a foot high and people were waiting in line outside,” said Britton.
Since then, Britton has made it a point to maximize the use of Black entrepreneurs in all of her business endeavors.
“I support the church by renting it, I support the graphic artists by using their services, Black printers, for printing the advertising, Black radio that gets paid through my purchase of commercials, Black universities, such as Howard, when I buy ads at WHUR, it just goes on and on what can happen when we do business together,” said Britton. “That is the basis of this show.”
Ujamaa (Cooperative economics): To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together.
“Shoppers want to buy Black” said Britton, speaking on the enduring legacy of the “Gift and Art Show”.
Owner and entrepreneur Tiffney T. Laing, 46, of Virginia first participated in the BZB event in 2016, shortly after the launch of Bevy and Dave, her educational company.
After having been featured in “Good Morning America,” Newsweek and MSNBC in the interim, Laing returned this year for BZB.
“My experience has been absolutely wonderful. It’s just great because you get a chance to interact with your customer base, with people who are very much connected to what you’re doing,” said Laing. “We are telling the stories of the African diaspora so we as a people are going to be the most invested.”
Nia (Purpose): To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.
Aaron Johnson, 57, the owner and proprietor of Unitees, is originally from the Bronx, New York. He relocated to attend Howard University and has remained in the District since graduation.
Starting with fellow “student activists”and ultimately taking on ownership of this business, Johnson has created a screenprinting, embroidery and fashion company with a strong legacy in the DMV area.
According to Johnson the energy and purpose behind Britton and the BZB brand has led to his Unitees company participating in almost every annual BZB Gift and Art Show since its inception.
Reflecting on his experience working with Britton over the years, Johnson told the Informer, “We call ourselves a marketplace but really and truly we’re a village of healers.”
“There’s a frenzy in getting back together. I’ve witnessed countless people so happy to see people they had not seen in three years— customers, and entrepreneurs and artisans,” Britton told the Informer.
Kuumba (Creativity): To always do as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.
Britton says the creativity and community of her exhibitors have led to incredible success coming out of the pandemic. A lot of people aren’t able to get their hands on some of the creative items sold at BZB, or participate in such a unique event for Black artisans.
A nationally attended event, for both the merchants and clients, guests come from all over the country,’ said Johnson. “Coming out of that, the spirit of just ushers Kwanzaa right in.”
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.
Johnson also noted the location of Britton’s annual market, as an important part of D.C.’s Black community and a key piece to its success.
“It’s not a coincidence, I don’t think, that this journey of BZB has been taking place in one of the mainstay churches in Washington, a spiritual center where souls are saved,” Johnson said. “And it is not lost on me that it has been 30 years in that same space.”
As she hopes to continue the market in the future, Britton is focused on expanding the BZB imprint and continuing to give Black shoppers what they desire.
Britton has been actively pursuing real estate – where the market could live year-round.
“I want to create the D.C. Black Wall Street,” she said.