An interview with Maurice Henderson
Maurice Henderson (also known by his pen name, Bartholomew Jones), 28, is a local creative currently creating hip-hop, working in education reform and making a lot of coffee.
Henderson teaches eighth grade English at Sherwood Middle School—the last fully public middle school serving Orange Mound and Binghampton—and slings “spro” at the coffee shop inside Society Memphis in the Broad Avenue Arts District every Tuesday and Thursday night. He says Society Memphis has been a great supporter of his ideas, and they’ve allowed him to use the space as a lab of sorts.
He grew up in Memphis and later attended Wheaton College in the Chicago suburbs, where he studied elementary education and sociology. In the process, he fell in love with music and art. “Like most people, when I got to college I started experimenting with alternatives. For me that was in music and art,” he says. “As a kid who grew up freestyling with his friends during the height of crunk music in Memphis, my experimentation led me towards alternative forms of soul and hip-hop. As an indie artist, that led me to a few other forms of art in search of DIY album covers and apparel. All of this inevitably landed me in a lot of coffee shops.”
He would go for quiet, and then for inspiration, and eventually began to be fascinated by the beverage itself.
“That led me down the rabbit hole into the weird world of third-wave coffee. Not gonna lie—I was apprehensive at first, but I’ve always been sort of a geek for niche things, and the science and art of it all drew me in,” he says.
But there was something off.
“The more I went, though, the more I realized I was often one of few people of color in these spaces, and that puzzled me. Was it because we weren't welcome? Or because we weren't interested? I wasn’t really sure,” says Henderson.
The thought followed him.
“It was strange that shops I loved were so good at developing a fruit grown mostly by people of color, but so deficient when it came to interacting with those same people’s culture, especially as it’s reflected here in America,” he says. “At the same time, lots of American people were unaware of the resurgence of attention on this fruit from their home countries. How does something like that happen?”
That question followed him into his education reform.
“As an artist, I knew in my soul that whatever I taught had to be more that just punctuation and paragraphs, and so I always left room in my work to host a hip-hop empowerment program. The crazy thing was whether I was at a private school in Frayser, a church in East Memphis or a public school in Orange Mound, my students always ended up producing the most compelling literature when I gave them room to express their genius in a hip-hop context. It was kind of amazing,” he says.
He took this approach and applied it to the coffee he was drinking.
“The less attention I put on my own preference—hazelnut creamer, sugar in the raw, honey, whatever—and the more attention I put into what was naturally going on with the coffee at hand, the better the stuff in the cup became. That’s when cxffeeblack was born,” says Henderson.
Cxffeeblack is primarily an entrepreneurial venture with specific social implications. Henderson says the goal is to generate a profit from apparel and events and consultations and then use those funds to provide opportunities for people of origin to create and generate inspiring work. His wife, Renata, does a lot of the graphic design through her company, @browngirllettering.
Why the x?
“In math x represents the variable, and that’s what we’re all about—highlighting the variables God has placed in each person to create a better sum. The x is also what black people have historically used to replace the sugars and cream they were given as a last name during slavery. Most did this until they found a connection with their origins powerful enough to become their new family name. The x served as a fulcrum to connect them to their natural notes as humans, and that’s exactly what we wanna do as well,” he explains.
Henderson started cxffeeblack just like he started his musical journey in college—as an experiment.
“What would happen if cxffeeculture loved people of color as much as it loved their cash crops?”
“What if we cared for and celebrated single-origin people as much as we celebrated single-origin coffee?” he asks. “Cxffeeblack is a social experiment interested in exploring the impact people can have when they are empowered to live with no sugar and no cream. It’s a hip-hop cypher over a cup of probably overpriced coffee between the people who grew it, the people who roasted it, and the people who consume it daily.”
“Cxffeeblack is a lifestyle and form of expressing one’s individual and unique self.”
There are three primary arms of cxffeeblack, as explained by Henderson:
1) Education: “We really want to share our passion for God’s creation as a good in itself—the beauty of coffee and people when they’re valued for what they’ve been given as a part of creation, with no sugar and no cream needed. That comes from tastings and posts on Instagram.”
2) Empowerment: “We also want to empower people to identify their natural notes and use them to create a life process that highlights their giftings. We call that ‘brew better.’ Most of that happens with the hip-hop dialogues we do with the youth. The whole goal is to move our agenda out of the way and resource the youth to connect with their natural genius and curiosity through the arts.”
3) Creation and Inspiration: “The output is just as important as the input. Our whole goal of inputting information and resources is so that people can see what a world without sugar and cream would look like. That means we need physical goods to show to our community, and we approach that in pretty much any way our inspiration hits us. As of late that has been through creating photographs, music and apparel to reflect our vision for our community, but we look forward to some more experiential ventures in the next year. We feel like the more ways that people can hear, see, feel, smell and taste how great life can be when it’s brewed as intended, the more inspired and curious they’ll be to look into their own personal origin and notes.”
But what about the coffee? Does he literally only serve it black?
Short answer: Yes.
Long answer: “The goal of that isn’t to shame people who want cream and sugar, though. God made those things too. My biggest goal is giving people the opportunity to make an intrinsically motivated decision about what they want to pursue.”
“America is a place where most things black are valued by their proximity to whiteness. I think coffee is a great place to start the conversation about why that is,” Henderson explains.
“Have we actually gotten acquainted with the substance well enough to even know which particular brews would be complimented by the addition of a condiment? The point of drinking your cxffeeblack is to value what God has made; that includes coffee just a much as the people who drink it.”
Where to start?
“Try a light roast coffee that comes from a specific country—like an experimental micro-lot from Columbia, Ethiopia or Ecuador. Ethiopia is the gateway drug of drinking your cxffeeblack,” he says. “Also check out local roasters Vice and Virtue, Reverb and Dr. Beans, who focus on light roast, single-origin coffees.”
Henderson is also a fan of Bean Fruit Coffee in Jackson, Mississippi; Coffee Lab in Warsaw, Poland; and Onyx Coffee in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
For insight into Henderson’s favorite coffee, check the intro to his latest music video: https://youtu.be/0AFzHt-JsJQ.
Stacey Greenberg is editor in chief of Edible Memphis.
Ziggy Mack is an internationally published photographer about town. When not immortalizing the movements of ballerinas, circus performers and mermaids, he spends his time finding candid moments involving delectable cuisines and the people that create them.
Stacey Greenberg is the editor of Edible Memphis.