Surviving, Thriving, and Holiday Kwanzaa

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When I look at the data that define the reality for African Americans in the economy, I am often alarmed and discouraged. One in four African American lives in poverty. Nearly one in three is out of work, according to unofficial data (official data say

When I look at the data that define the reality for African Americans in the economy, I am often alarmed and discouraged. One in four African American lives in poverty. Nearly one in three is out of work, according to unofficial data (official data says one in six). African Americans have lost billions of dollars worth of wealth in the foreclosure crisis. We aren’t alone in our pain – our nation is hurting. But, our pain is more pronounced, more acute, more debilitating.

This is hardly the first time African Americans have experienced disproportionate pain. Indeed, the story of our presence in this nation has been a story of us shouldering more than our share of economic pain. When people ask me about the wealth gap, I remind them that Black folks used to be the wealth White folks accumulated. Under those circumstances, it is difficult to imagine that the wealth gap will ever be closed.

And yet we rise. I wrote my latest book, Surviving and Thriving: 365 Facts in Black Economic History, to remind me, to remind all of us, that even in harsh times African Americans have been more than survivors, we have been thrivers. We have made it despite horrible conditions, despite unfairness, despite racism. The playing field has never been level, and yet we have played on the slanted field, returning, returning, and sometimes winning. In the middle of a week of running around, talking about the book in Detroit and in Chicago, I had to smile at myself with air of satisfaction and acknowledge a job well done.

Madame C.J. Walker is on the book’s cover, and everyone knows about this first self-made woman millionaire in the United States, but few know of Maggie Lena Walker, the woman who started the Penny Savings Bank in Richmond, Virginia. Californians are often familiar with Mary Ellen Pleasant (known as “Mammy Pleasant”) who was a millionaire who gained stock tips by working in White people’s kitchens. William Liedesdorff was the first treasurer of San Francisco. He was a man of African descent.

The most powerful acts of economic history, acts at our foundation, were those African Americans who bought their own freedom. I can’t ever even begin to utter those words, or write them, without feeling a bit of nausea at the contradiction implicit in buying one’s own freedom, and yet it happened. We bought ourselves, so committed to freedom that we were willing to cut a deal with massa, with those who believed us somehow less than human. We cut deals despite the fact that the Dred Scott decision said that blacks had no rights whites were bound to respect. We were smart enough to cut deals, and we could have run away, but we stayed and paid unscrupulous masters for a freedom that our very humanity had already earned for us. We bought ourselves. Purchased ourselves. And in the case of some, like Free Frank McWhorter, purchased our relatives, too. In the case of John Parker, of Cincinnati, not only freed ourselves but also walked up on plantations and, despite a price on our head, freed others. History books don’t talk about self-emancipation, but they should. I wrote my book because everyone needs to know about self-emancipation, about the will and the tenacity of people of African descent.

This book is not just a book about entrepreneurs, but about others that influenced economic history, those who protested segregation, those “firsts” like Federal Reserve Governor Andrew Brimmer, who influenced public policy, the women who were “firsts” in earning academic degrees in economics, Dr. Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander, and Dr. Phyllis Ann Wallace, with degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and Yale, respectively. This is also the story of the results of economic envy, shameful facts in our economic history, but essential ones nonetheless. The destruction of Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the destruction of a vital Black community in Rosewood, Florida, and the demolition of Black life in Wilmington, North Carolina have had an impact on contemporary Black life.

And so we need Kwanzaa now more than ever. We need the principle of Ujamaa – cooperative economics. The statistics tell a grim story about our status, but our history is a compelling reminder that in good times and in bad, African Americans have survived and thrived.

Julianne Malveaux is President of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, North Carolina.

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