The Cakewalk strategy for economic development

It is becoming increasingly clear to me that the most deeply hidden aspects of African-American heritage are the many examples of black entrepreneurship, innovation and discovery.
The conscious strategy is to create a legacy vacuum which leaves today’s black communities vulnerable to displacement and exploitation.
I wrote my latest novel Cakewalk, the story of the unsung creators of jazz, to provide an example of black men and women who operated without limits, whose actions were as big as their dreams and whose legacy endures a century later.
Plying my trade as an historian in San Francisco gives me the opportunity to see the effects of that legacy vacuum in the most extreme way, but similar phenomena are at work across the Diaspora.
We need only look at Brazil, the most populous African-American nation in the Western Hemisphere, where black identity is at a nascent stage.
Cakewalk portrays a real-life group of black men and women who were the dominant performers in American entertainment and how they parlayed their talent into ownership of venues, significant personal wealth, institutions which survive to this day and a template for how we can maximize our current-day blessings.
Because the buildings that they constructed still stand a century later, we have the opportunity to appreciate the magnitude of their accomplishments.
Here are some of the ingredients of success:
Rather than focusing on their individual fortunes, they created an entire civic infrastructure–a network of lodges, churches, mutual benefit societies, banks, literary societies, youth development programs–which nurtured their most valuable asset–African-American culture.
They went after the entire global market using their competitive advantage.
They channelled the base of African-American income in ways that reinforced their ability to act independently on behalf of the larger community.
They aggressively sought to change the global perception of African-American culture.
And they took a long-term approach to economic development.
Between 1880 and 1909, Sam King and Lou Purcell built a network of nightclubs generically known as “black and tans” because they catered to an affluent white clientele with black entertainers that eventually included five establishments in a two block area of Pacific Street in San Francisco.
They leveraged the celebrity of boxer Jack Johnson and entertainers Bert Williams and George Walker, the men who made the “Cakewalk” famous.
Their success supported an inventor like Richard B. Spikes, who operated a barber shop two doors down from Purcells.
In that milieu, musicians like Sid leProtti and the greatest saxophone player in the world, Benjamin Franklin “Reb” Spikes, brother of Richard, and Clarence Williams Sr. could hone the craft of “fillin’ and fakin'” into what became known as jazz.
The likes of Sissiretta Matilda Jones and Ada Overton Walker could break barriers to perform in opera and musical theatre from that base.
Buffalo Soldiers and Pullman Porters took advantage of their mobility to promote these enterprises and talents, because they understood the importance of having establishments where they could be treated with respect.
Entertainers from other venues where violence and Jim Crow set arbitrary restrictions like Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton could come out west to flourish.
Out of that base, Williams and Walker would go forth to become the first black performers on Broadway, and among the first blacks to move into Harlem and launch the black actors group in 1903.
“Reb” Spikes and his blind piano playing brother, John, would go south to Los Angeles, establish the first jazz record store, a booking agency for black actors and musicians to break into Hollywood and have a similar archipelago spread up Central Avenue.
To learn more about these unknown icons, participate in the Shaping the Culture of the Black Diaspora conference at the Vision Theatte Saturday, Oct. 9 where I’ll discuss the future of the black cultural infrastructure in Los Angeles on the concluding panel at 6 p.m., or join us in San Francisco for the fourth annual Preserving California Black Heritage conference on Nov. 12 at Marcus Books, 1712 Fillmore St.
Saturday, Nov. 13, I read from Cakewalk in a program for the African-American Center at the San Francisco Main Library, 1001 Larkin St. and on Tuesday, Nov. 16, I discuss what it took to write Cakewalk in just 22 days at the Mechanics Institute in San Francisco.