If entrepreneur Andrea Carter has her way, there’s at least one thing in this town that won’t be ripped off.
On a weekday afternoon, the 32-year-old Columbia Heights resident wears a pink T-shirt reading “Uppity Negress” in white script. It’s one product in her “Uppity Negro” line, which features 13 styles of T-shirts for men, women, and children, two different tote bags, a coffee mug, and trucker hats emblazoned with that phrase and variants thereof.
Nine months after Carter made her first shirts, Uppity Negro merchandise has sold briskly at colleges and festivals, at a handful of boutiques, and at Carter’s Web site, uppitynegro.com. Director Spike Lee and comedian Dave Chappelle, among other celebrities, are wearing them. But Carter is trying to stop Uppity Negro from ending up in the pantheon of co-opted cultural totems—from Che Guevara T-shirts to dreadlocks to henna tattoos.
At Temple University in Philadelphia earlier this spring, a young white guy approached Carter wanting to buy the shirt for himself. “He was like a Vanilla Ice–type guy,” she says with a simper. After talking with him, however, and carefully gauging his understanding of the black condition, she decided to sell him a shirt. “I thought he was pretty brave—there were like four black guys standing right there,” she says.
An Asian fellow who wanted to buy a shirt at Bossa one evening last week wasn’t so lucky. After he dared to describe the T-shirts as hip, Carter talked him out of buying one.
To Carter, letting non-African-Americans wear Uppity Negro products, even at $20 or $25 a pop, is a tricky issue. More than a fashion line, Carter says, Uppity Negro is a movement, “a sense of pride.” She’s sold the merchandise to white people, but only if it is for a black friend, co-worker, or significant other—or if Carter deems their understanding of what Uppity Negro represents to be sufficient. Only African-Americans, she says, can truly understand its full meaning.
Part of what it represents to Carter is her personal battle with the Man—specifically, the white one ordering trendy coffees. Besides hawking the dry goods, Carter’s Web site carries a 4,500-word manifesto on the origin and concept of Uppity Negro. The origins can be distilled into more succinct form: Uppity Negro boiled up during Carter’s two-and-a-half years as a server at Tryst, an Adams Morgan coffee house.
Carter, a native of Savannah, Ga., started at Tryst in 2000 after stints in D.C. as a charter-school teacher, an actress, and, finally, a staffer for the Ralph Nader presidential campaign. From the beginning, she bucked against what she deems “the old customer-service attitude”: “The customer isn’t always right,” she says, “especially when they’re hurting my feelings.” White Americans in particular, she says, unlike any other race or nationality, need to feel special. “I didn’t want to make them feel special,” she says.
A fellow server, Heather Darling, who’s worked at Tryst for four years, says Carter was well-liked among the Tryst staff and most customers, but she rubbed a few of them the wrong way. “She definitely doesn’t take any shit,” she says. One of her habits, Darling says, was asking customers who had ordered a single coffee and hunkered down for hours to order more.
Last spring, fed up with the racial kowtowing, Carter planned to come to work in a handmade shirt reading “uppity negro.” But on June 17, before she could wear it to work, Tryst fired her, she says, for talking back to white customers. (Jocelyn Finnegan, her boss at Tryst, says Carter’s treatment of white people “was not the reason she was fired,” though she declined to discuss specifics.)
After her firing, a friend urged Carter to take her campaign against racial demureness public. “I got to the point where I didn’t want to talk behind white people’s backs anymore,” she says. By October of last year, the first T-shirts were printed. By December, the Web site was up and Uppity Negro had long since taken off.
Carter doesn’t have much in hard sales numbers—“I’m bad with bookkeeping,” she says. But recently, she’s averaged two dozen mail orders a week. She sells additional T-shirts through retail outlets and her own vending. At the DanceAfrica festival in Brooklyn over Memorial Day weekend, Carter says the shirts sold quickly.
Carter thought the shirts would appeal mainly to older black men, but they’ve sold well to younger audiences, particularly at Howard University and other historically black colleges and universities. Numerous celebrities have ordered shirts; besides Lee and Chappelle, Carter lists political activist Ron Daniels, NBA star Jerry Stackhouse, and the Rev. Al Sharpton’s presidential campaign staff.
Alongside the national celebrities, local heroes are getting behind Carter, as well: The Rev. Willie Wilson, pastor of Anacostia’s Union Temple Baptist Church, has promoted “Uppity Negro” from the pulpit in a number of sermons.
While talking about Uppity Negro’s appearance on Chappelle’s Comedy Central variety show, Carter takes a call on her cellphone from a potential customer in New York: “What size?…I think I’m out of small. I think I have blue and I have pink.”
The one-woman operation allows her to keep the brand close to the vest and out of the hands of would-be appropriators. But the nonstop work is wearing on her: Uppity Negro is a seven-day-a-week, 18-hour-a-day-job. In February, Carter was admitted to Howard University Hospital with a stress-induced ulcer. And on June 6, she decided not to restock her merchandise until she has help running the business. “I’m not ending it, but I can’t go on any longer,” she says. “It’s moving too fast for me.”
The support of investors would allow Carter to hire employees and increase distribution, but she’s so far stood on her principles. This spring, a white businessman called Carter, looking to invest. She calls him “a nice guy” and “well-meaning,” but she rebuffed him. “I said, ‘I can’t let you profit on the back of blacks, especially considering blacks were killed for being [uppity negroes].’”
It may be too late to keep Uppity Negro away from those who don’t understand the brand’s gravitas. Shelley Wynter, an Atlanta promoter who worked with Carter at an event last month, bought two of the shirts for his girlfriend, whom he calls a “Prada-Chanel fanatic”: “She loved it. She thought it was the cutest thing.”
It’s definitely too late for Carter to keep Uppity Negro out of one place: her former employer. One afternoon last week, Darling was wearing a pink “Uppity Negress” shirt at work. And Carter can’t even offend the Man: “I think she’s doing a great job,” Finnegan, her old boss, says. “I see them all the time.” CP