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.
The Black nationalist Garvey strongly believed in African (Black) self-sufficiency. Known for his Black Star Line shipping company, he preached that economic independence was the key to true freedom for Black people.
“The Negro’s prosperity today, limited as it is, is based upon the foundation laid by an alien race that is not disposed to go out of its way to prepare for the economic existence of anyone else but itself,” he wrote in “The Philosophy & Opinions of Marcus Garvey.” He explained that Black people were (and if the philosophy is relevant today, are) economically dependent on another race. “A race that is solely dependent upon another for its economic existence sooner or later dies.”
Garvey was also a man who believed in going back to Africa to uphold the existence and economic vigor of the Pan African community.
Babu and Garvey aren’t the only ones who agree with the notion. Blaine Hudson, Ph.D. professor of Pan African Studies at the University of Louisville, says that due to the condition in America, African Americans have never had a separate economy.
“The economic institutions and economic relations of the Black community under segregation were indeed separate and unequal, but only appeared to be autonomous,” he stated. “As long as the vast majority of African Americans worked for Whites–and the places in the Black community where they spent or invested their earnings were controlled by the rules that governed the national economy–there could not be a Black economy that was independent of the larger American economy.”
Under segregation, the Black community only appeared to thrive, he said. Because of segregation, Black people were forced to establish their own businesses, communities and small towns. But once segregation was outlawed, the businesses failed. Black people had more choices and easier access once the floodgates opened.
He said African Americans “are no longer a captive audience or clientele as under segregation.”
He suggests the first step to redeeming a Black economy is to educate the labor force and the community’s children.
It’s Babu’s belief that the reason the Black people in America cannot have a serious independent economy is because the community lacks surplus and is not tapping into the resources available in Africa.
“People say look at the Mexicans and the Guatemalans, how come we can’t do it? What’s the difference? The difference is they are coming here with people who have a particular culture and no one else is doing what they are doing. They have an audience,” he said. “El Pollo Loco was a big company in Mexico. They didn’t care what was being sold in Los Angeles because they had people buying chicken. KFC can hardly penetrate Mexico… They took that capital from Mexico and had Mexican banks backing them.”
Through the Pan African Film Festival, Babu has demonstrated the ability to service a unique product and expand as surplus develops. With backing from African banks and companies, Babu is on his way to build an empire unlike any Black establishment in the U.S. He emphasized the importance of incorporating the Pan African voice when servicing a product. With a broader expanse and understanding of money systems, he says a Black economy can be developed.
According to the Pan Africanist, it will take the support of African nations and the consciousness of entrepreneurs in the U.S. to make the connection to build a Black economy.