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How I Fell in Love with a Complicated Commodity

We unwittingly put so much onto our bodies. It takes a science degree to understand the list of ingredients lotions and hair care products contain. Isopropyl myristate, coumarin, geraniol. Have you ever heard of these? Do you want them on your hair, creeping down your back, or the side of your face on a hot summer day? The thought brings back a term I learned in high school economics: caveat emptor [let the buyer beware]. Sometimes I wish the rules of the marketplace were simpler so consumers could be assured they purchased exactly what they intended. No hidden malware.

COVID-essential worker mandates meant no non-essential NYC foot traffic, and street vendors and fairs were suspended. The funny thing was that when I walked into a drug store or a department store during the pandemic and scanned the beauty shelves, I discovered two things. There was more shelf space devoted to the needs of varied hair textures of the Black woman or man, and many of those products contained shea butter. It dawned on me that the shea nut tree is in high demand.

Some say it’s a natural antioxidant bustling with essential fatty acids and vitamins A, E, and F. It’s great for baby’s skin and everybody else’s. The butter from that nut even ends up in chocolates, and African women use a by-product as cooking oil. Engineers say it can repurpose one by-product into electricity.

I became aware of the product sometime in the 1990s at the African Street Festival at Boys and Girls High School in Brooklyn. The event drew hundreds of local and international vendors and thousands of attendees from places just as diverse. Vendors sold handcrafted bracelets and earrings, beaded necklaces and African print clothing. Wooden masks and soapstone figures were among the artifacts available. Oh, and the food––delectable. And somewhere on a small table, there would be, at least, one vendor who sold black soap, incense, Egyptian oils, and, of course, shea butter.

( Typical African Street Festival vendor’s table/MJM Collection)

I wanted to know more about that tree and learned it grows in abundance in the savannah regions of the southern Sahara, predominantly in Ghana, Burkina Faso, and Uganda, though the tree grows in a few other African countries as well. It could grow as tall as thirty-five to forty feet and produces a fruit with a nut with a byproduct that has found its way to the Americas an