A Somerville bar director on being Black in the hospitality industry: ‘We experienced discrimination from the outset’

The Boston.com Book Club delves into Black dissidence with activist and Tanám bar director Kyisha Davenport.

Kyisha Davenport poses for a portrait at Tanám in Somerville's Bow Market on January 26, 2019.
Kyisha Davenport poses for a portrait at Tanám in Somerville's Bow Market on January 26, 2019. –Nathan Klima for The Boston Globe

In Howard Bryant’s “Full Dissidence: Notes from an Uneven Playing Field” — the inaugural pick for the Boston.com Book Club — the author and acclaimed sports writer unpacks the inequality, class division, and censorship that permeate the sports industry and America as a whole.

This week, we’re focusing on part one of the book, which begins by recounting the iconic moment when football star Colin Kaepernick kneeled during the National Anthem at a 2016 game to protest police brutality, and how no team would sign him to a contract after that season. Bryant delves into the widespread claims of Kaepernick’s lack of patriotism and the criticism the athlete received for being “too political,” while breaking down why this notion of American pride is a product of authoritarianism and quelling democracy in favor of censorship. In the second essay, the author explores the relationship between sports teams and the military — each displaying the “thirst to concoct heroes” in hopes to distract from the country’s immense cost of war — which leads into his third essay detailing the dangers of idealizing police without accountability.

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To better explore what it means to be a Black dissident, we spoke with Kyisha Davenport, an activist and bar director at the employee-owned Tanám in Somerville. Davenport shared a sneak peek from the drink menu at the soon-to-reopen Bow Market spot, discussed her experience as a Black hospitality professional, and shared what needs to change to achieve equity in her industry.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

What has your experience been like as a Black hospitality professional in Boston, and what do you view as the challenges in your industry?

When I first moved to Boston, people told me the first year was going to be very hard, and they were absolutely right. Where it was bartending jobs I was applying for, I was getting offered server gigs… I didn’t want to stay there because, in my experience, I found that people treat me better as a bartender than as a server… Being a worker to being part of a worker/ownership at Tanám, came a completely different set of challenges. We experienced discrimination from the outset. We would get bounced back and fourth between lenders because people looked at us and all the things that are associated with us and didn’t have the guts to say we’re going to take the risk because this is how radical change happens in our communities. I couldn’t get meetings with people around liquor distribution, around sponsorships. I think now that we’ve been open and we’ve seen some success and now that we’ve established ourselves, the energy is definitely different. But there’s still a sense of, “how come you made it?”

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What do you want people to know about the influence Black individuals have had on the restaurant and hospitality industry?

The history of Black people in America has been one of creation, of innovation, of labor, and there’s no way that Black people could have been here and not have contributed to this industry. We were responsible for growing the products that then became ingredients of the food we eat and the drinks we make. We were responsible for creating those recipes and preserving those recipes and serving them to people. It gets very understated, the influence that Black people have had in hospitality when we’ve been all over it from day one, and not by choice.

Do you believe that many individuals of color in the hospitality industry have reached a state of full dissidence?

I don’t think, as a majority, we’ve reached a state of full dissidence… Despite being oftentimes isolated, tokenized, erased, we still show up for our shifts and we show up for our shifts because we love what we do and we believe in that we do.

A significant aspect of Tanám is the emphasis on storytelling. As a business owned and operated by women of color, what does having this unique platform mean to you?

I think of the Ube Sour [Tanám signature cocktail] often when I think about this concept… I got rejected so many times in trial and error and had to keep retooling it because this drink is going to tell a story to anyone who walks in the door… In a larger sense outside of just cocktails, we’re learning our history as we go. Tanám is a space where the three of us are having this reckoning with how we are responsible for telling our stories and sharing our history… There are not many places where a woman of color can have a captive audience that will listen and are thankful for listening to learn something new, to be an active contributor.

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One motif Bryant mentions throughout this section of “Full Dissidence” is self-censorship. Have you seen this in your industry at all? 

I think there are definitely businesses of color that self-censor because it can negatively impact their bottom line… Our folks do struggle with this, in the way that Tanám wants to be more upfront and explicit about what we’re saying in our storytelling, but holding back because the confrontation of a white patron not liking something can be disastrous.

What has to change in the restaurant industry to reach equity?

Workers to the front. We need to see more worker-led businesses booming. We need to see more financial institutions loaning to cooperatives. We need to see more business owners converting their businesses into cooperatives. We need to see an overall shift in moving away from the culture of these god-like individuals and a transition into supporting the people that put their bodies on the line everyday. Those are the folks that need to be the authority of what happens next in this industry — if we are truly invested in an equitable future and a diverse, healthy and progressive industry.

Cocktail: Give Her Flowers

While we’ve all been mixing cocktails at home a little more in recent months, Davenport shared a sneak peek of Tanám’s new libations lineup with a drink that goes deeper than just a buzzy beverage. The Give Her Flowers, a refreshing concoction of vodka, peach, jackfruit, absinthe, and soda, will be available at the restaurant’s Bow Market location when it reopens for patio dining in the coming weeks — an official date will be announced at @tanamofficial. Created in honor of Rita Hester, a Black woman whose 1998 unsolved murder in Allston sparked the first annual Transgender Day of Remembrance, Tanám will donate the drink’s proceeds to initiatives and organizations that directly benefit Black transgender women. Davenport shared that proceeds from the cocktail will first go toward Dorchester artist and Boston Ujima Project Fellow Mercédes Donnell’s medical transition.

 

Stay tuned for our next book club discussion where we will explore athletes and sports leagues protesting the recent police shooting of Jacob Blake. What do you think? Let us know in the survey below or email us at community@boston.com.

RSVP now for our live discussion with “Full Dissidence” author Howard Bryant on Tue., September 15.

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