Raven R. Smith, CEO Brown Sugar Café & Books

Meet Raven R. White. She is the CEO of the upscale urban bookstore in Katy called Brown Sugar Café and Books. The Chicago native has lived in the Houston and Katy area for the last 10 years and has truly found her community with the launch of the establishment.

Brown Sugar Café and Books launched in April with the goal to bring more diverse cultural awareness to Katy while increasing youth literacy programs, an experience she enjoyed as a child. 

Living in Katy, she felt a disconnect with her community and wanted to create a safe space where local authors, artisans and creatives can celebrate Black excellence while enjoying a diverse collection books during a time when literature from Black authors is being pulled from school library shelves statewide.

Raven R. White the CEO of Brown Sugar Café & Books

White spoke with the Defender about her passion for books and business and how reading changed the course of her life as a child.

Defender: Talk about your work in corporate America and how that prepared you for entrepreneurship?

White: Working in corporate America prepared me to be in leadership roles. I paid attention to how my bosses worked and I knew that one day I would be one. I learned about the leadership structure and the things they were in charge of. Those where the things I took away from my experience.

Defender: You said books literally saved your life? How did they impact your life?

White: Being one of 13 children in a household that sometimes didn’t have enough food, heat, electricity or blankets, sometimes I didn’t feel seen or noticed. My mom had an addiction problem. My father was addicted to gambling. Just being in a place where there were so many people, you can be overlooked. Everyone was doing their own thing. When I took interest in reading in fourth grade, I would come home to the chaos and noise, and I would start to read.

The first book I ever read was Mya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” I would listen to her describe the back roads of Mississippi and St. Louis and California, places I never heard of or visited and imagine myself in those places every day. Chicago was cold in the winter but the book took my mind away. I was experiencing life through other people. It made me look forward to life, because there are people who’ve never left their neighborhoods, or the country. I desired to go to Paris, and an HBCU because I read about Howard University in a book. Reading expanded my horizon. When I turned 14, I volunteered for a youth community center and that changed the game for me.

Defender: Why is youth literacy an important component to the birth of Brown Sugar?

White: Absolutely, the two go hand in hand. We have many different programs where people in our community can connect from dance, mediation, art, music. We want to meet young people where they are. We are committed to impacting the lives of our future leaders especially in their educational endeavors, mental health and social emotional well-being. 

Defender: What are your thoughts about Black authors being pulled from school libraries over critical race theory fears?

White: I can’t believe it. These books have literally nothing in them that should be pulled off of shelves. I think this is done to protect a certain group of people from look bad. It’s almost like saying, “You guys have these experiences but not everyone has them. It’s not real.” My son doesn’t have these experiences in school so why are you talking about something that only pertains to you?

Some of these books have a great message. These authors aren’t attacking other races or giving false information. At the bookstore we have about 35-40 local authors that we’ve onboarded. We’re talking about authors who live across the street from the bookstore. We are giving them a platform to have a home for their books and they can have their family and friends come check in it out and listen.

Defender: What makes the bookstore unique?

White: To be honest, we focus on Black people. In this community, there isn’t enough people who look like us. I would drive out almost an hour to find a place that had the type of ambiance and cultural things I wanted. Now, I had a safe space to be me as a Black woman. Representation is in plain sight. When you walk into Brown Sugar you know a Black women built it. You smell the brown sugar candles. You smell the mocha and cocoa. You see the reflections of Black and Brown people.

Defender: News of the vandalization of your building has overshadowed the positive work you’ve put into the launch. But you’ve chosen the high road. What message do you want to share with the community?

White: Sometimes you have to extend mercy and grace. You don’t want people to judge and assume who we are. I want to create a space where they can learn more about us. I figured it was children and maybe this is something they see around their home or certain environments they’re in. This is a place to learn about Black America, ask questions and see what we are really about.

I cover Houston's education system as it relates to the Black community for the Defender as a Report for America corps member. I'm a multimedia journalist and have reported on social, cultural, lifestyle,...