The continuing search for economic independence

Brittney M. Walker | 5/25/2011, 5 p.m.

There was a time when racism and segregation arguably brought out the best in Black people in America. From owning small businesses and farms to building hospitals and small towns, African Americans demonstrated a knack for survival and self-reliance despite the various obstacles they faced.

But some argue that was just the beginning of something that could have been greater. Others suggest there is still an opportunity to gain a strong Black economy, but only with the effort of a Pan African union.

Juliet E. K. Walker, author of "The History of Black Business," notes that the African business spirit was something inborn in Black heritage, explaining that even during America's slavery past, Black people thrived individually as commercial farm owners, professional carpenters, blacksmiths, and also worked in other business enterprises.

On the continent Africans practiced astute business traditions and controlled their own economy, she said.

"The West and West Central African victims of the transatlantic slave trade to the Americas came from complex, organized and structured market economies in which they participated as producers, traders, brokers, merchants and entrepreneurs," she writes.

"Trade and marketing were economic activities in which all Africans either participated or held an interest.... They either produced market goods or were producer-traders, brokers or merchants. Pre-colonial African political economies were based on surplus production, accumulation, and redistribution through trade and marketing. Moreover, the production of goods and trade and marketing activities in West and West Central African states were propelled by a high degree of both individual and communally based profit-oriented entrepreneurial activities."

She further maintained that across the continent Africans operated sophisticated trade and economic systems that contributed to sustaining the growth of wealth. But after the transatlantic trade, Black people were not able to perpetuate their ancestral business practices. Instead, African Americans have been able to materialize remnants of the customs through individual ventures.

Examples of successful self-sustaining individuals and communities range from Madam C. J. Walker, Black Wall Street, the town of Allensworth, and the Nation of Islam. But whether or not individual successes have contributed to the movement of the massive Black race forward into economic independence is something scholars debate.

Pan Africanist and creator of the Pan African Film Festival, Ayuko Babu, believes that in order for Black Americans to become economically independent, they must return to the ancestral ways of operating.

"First, I think the whole notion of a Black economy is a false notion," he said. According to Babu, African Americans spend trillions of dollars in the economy, but there is no surplus or savings. He explained that a Black economy cannot exist in the present mode of operation because an economy is born from surplus. The money spent in the Black community is for day-to-day living.

Back in the '50s, '60s and through the '70s, "buy Black" was a popular mantra among Pan Africanists, revolutionary thinkers, and rebellious youth. But as time passed and the spirit dwindled, buying Black became a difficult task to render.

"We used to talk about a Black economy in the 1960s as part of the Black nationalist, Pan African movement. We no longer talk about a Black economy or 'buy Black' and circulate the Black dollar. Those arguments have been around for a long time, since the days of (Marcus) Garvey ... and Paul Cuffee (a Black businessman during the American Revolution)," Babu said.