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Black Business

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In The History of Black Business In America,

Juliet E. K. Walker makes a magnificent

contribution to the literature on African American

entrepreneurship and capitalism. Shattering myths,

pointing to possibilities, and refining our thinking

about procrustean racism, Professor Walker

explores perceptively a world where blacks have

been much maligned and vilified as incapable of

mastering simple and/or world-shaking business

attitudes and skills.

Writing boldly in her introduction, the

author quickly alerts us to the value of the book:

"Beginning in l600s, Africans in America, slave

and free, seized every opportunity to develop

enterprises and participate as businesspeople in the

commercial life of a developing new nation ...

Why, after almost 400 years do we find black

business activities in the late twentieth century

existing at virtually the same level of industry

participation as it did under slavery?"

From the first page of the book, we are

carried through the maze of history to the answer:

one that lies not in when-the-sinner-comes-to-the-

mourner’s-bench bromides, but the very serious

and destructive practice of American racism

preventing blacks from access to resources and fair

opportunities to develop. Professor Walker invites

us to review and put asunder the old foolishness,

the blaming the victim ad hominem argument, that

black business failure and/or limited growth were

rooted in African inexperience turned into African

American ineptitude and lassitude.

Professor Walker was inspired to take up the

question of the African American business ethos

owing to the family lesson and lore of her great-

great-grandfather, Free Frank (l777-1854), who

entered the realm of commerce and business with

good intentions that got good results. Previous

scholars would have us belief that Free Frank was

an anomaly in his determination and his more than

modicum of success. Though he "could not read

or write ... he could count," notes Walker. Free

Frank established his own saltpeter (gunpowder)

manufacturing business. He used profits to

purchase his wife’s freedom. In the intricacies of

the slave world, Free Frank occupied a "triple

status" as entrepreneur, intrapreneur, and field

laborer, respectively operating his own business,

managing his absentee owner’s farm, and

producing as a worker. If Free Frank was in an

awkward situation, he nonetheless made the best of

circumstances in a world driven by capitalism. In

this, he found himself within, as well as inspiration

for, a great tradition of black men and women in

business--dealing with the hard and unfair, but

constantly showing resolve. If the stories of Free

Frank and other African American business

individuals were unappreciated by contemporaries,

historians have compounded the ignorance by

omitting black entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs

from any serious discussion of the nexus between

American racism and capitalism.

The evidence is overwhelming in Professor

Walker’s book that African slaves were not

dumbfounded upon entry into America. Despite

the disorientation, they found means of marketing

goods for profits to improve their lot. Free blacks

came forth too with similar stellar business

strategies and successes. In the seventeenth

century, Africans, as victims and profiteers, existed

within a market for selling human capital on both

sides of the Atlantic. Africans had great

experience in market economies in their homeland

as evinced by their trading organizations, secret

societies, craft and merchant guilds, and

cooperatives. African women also functioned

significantly in trade and commerce on their

continent. Certainly those skills were exported

with them to the so-called new world, and their

abilities were manifold in the names of Anthony

Johnson, and later as attitudes and determination

were carried over into the eighteenth and

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