Research

I am a historian of the United States and Africa during the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. My work focuses broadly on ideas about race, the economy, broadly conceived, and citizenship, and how they have shaped local, national, and international institutions.

At present, I am working toward completing my first book, Black Power, Inc.: Corporate America, Race, and Empowerment Politics in the U.S. and Africa. Drawing on a range of government and corporate records, including private correspondences, board meeting minutes, financial documents, magazines and newspapers, from the U.S. and Africa, Black Power, Inc. tells the story of the transnational rise of black empowerment politics amid the ongoing struggle to construct a post-Jim Crow/post-colonial/post-apartheid new world in the late twentieth-century. Building on and updating a decades-old tradition of racial uplift, black empowerment drew together a surprising cast of characters, which included civil rights activists, corporate executives, politicians, government bureaucrats, and post-independence African leaders, who together promoted job-training, black entrepreneurship, and business-community partnerships as the way forward for black communities from Harlem to Nairobi. By centering private capital alongside state power, Black Power, Inc. explains how American capitalism profited from black militancy, racial liberalism, and the seeds of political conservatism that blossomed within the global black freedom struggle.

 

Black empowerment emerged at a time when many black activists were focused on illuminating the links between capitalism, racism, and American imperialism. Indeed, black empowerment grew out of the same conditions—urbanization, de-industrialization, decolonization—which gave rise to Black Power politics. Historians have shown how Black Power inspired self-identified black people around the world to stand up and demand justice. In many instances, Black Power activists articulated a radical critique of capitalism’s propensity to exploit black people, while promoting alternative modes of collective ownership and redistribution. Scholars of black politics have often overlooked another dimension of the movement, however: those who adapted elements of Black Power to fit more comfortably with capitalism. Proponents of black empowerment like Leon Sullivan, founder of Opportunities Industrialization Centers, Inc., did more than oppose government welfare and sanctions against South Africa—two of the demands of black radicals. Rather, they showed how “black power and white power [could] put their strength together to build American power,” in Sullivan’s words, through developing programs to train and place black people in positions in business across the U.S. and Africa.

Black Power, Inc. makes clear the contributions made by proponents of black empowerment to American business, and vice versa, how corporate power shaped black politics, in ways too often elided by the separation of Black Studies and Business History. In doing so, it compliments recent work by scholars like Marcia Chatelain and Tiffany Gill on the commercial dimensions of the black freedom struggle. More than simply chronicling black commercial enterprises, I center black activist-entrepreneurs within the history of global American business. Thus, for example, I show how Harold R. Sims, the first black Vice President at Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical company and a friend of Sullivan’s, shaped the company’s post-1970 expansion in Africa through his work liaising with African officials akin to a corporate diplomat. Later on, I analyze the dialogue that emerged between American business professionals and black South African entrepreneurs in the National African Federated Chamber of Commerce (Nafcoc), revealing how the two groups working together, although not necessarily always in tandem, combatted sanctions and divestment by fusing free market and anti-apartheid politics. Much of the critical cultural labor performed by black entrepreneurs and executives in service of free market policies and U.S. corporations cannot be found in traditional corporate archives. Rather, Black Power, Inc. benefits from my use of black archives, including the personal papers of black executives, civil rights and anti-apartheid organizational records, and black American and African periodicals. Taken together, Black Power, Inc. outlines a trajectory for late twentieth-century capitalism routed through the global black freedom struggle revealing how multinational U.S. corporations relied on black activist-entrepreneurs to articulate a new kind of politics, one that united the struggle for freedom with the search for profit.

In addition to my book, I am currently working on several new projects. The first is a co-edited volume, Capitalism and the American Century: Toward a Global History of Post-War America, which foregrounds new scholarship on global capitalism and postwar U.S. social, cultural, and political history. This volume makes a particular point of highlight transnational approaches to studying U.S. political economy. For all of the recent attention to transnational history, histories of the postwar United States have tended to gesture to transnational connections more than explore or explain them. Such an observation applies to histories of capitalism, which, despite occasional references to globalization and the like, have tended to reinforce the notion that there exists a U.S. economy distinct from the world. This volume, by contrast, examines the history of capitalism in the postwar U.S. as a distinctly global project. We argue that postwar labor, business, and consumption cannot be understood as purely or even primarily domestic stories. Postwar U.S. capitalism evolved not only in an international context, but through transnational networks and against international competition. Capitalism and the American Century thus aims at more than an accounting of exports and imports, foreign assets, and other kinds of cross-border economic activity. Rather, through treating postwar U.S. capitalism as a global story, it transforms our narrative of the period’s political, social, and cultural life and offers new insights on the history of racial formation and gender politics during this tumultuous era.

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