Self-Help Interest Group



Volume 50 Number 4 
Fall 2017

Self-Help Interest Group

Edited by Tehseen Noorani

Book review: Nembhard, J. G. (2014). Collective courage: A history of African American cooperative economic thought and practice. Penn State Press.

Written by Deidra Somerville, National Louis University

Editor's note: This issue's contribution from the SH interest group comes from Deidra Sommerville, PhD candidate in Community Psychology at National Louis University, who is interested in both historical and contemporary applications of African American mutual aid and self-help practices and their relationship to community organizing and development strategies. TCP_Winter_edition_book_cover_Sommerville_review.jpeg

The current discussions of the cooperative movement are led by and grounded in strategies of middle and upper-income white professionals who are fed up with the current capitalist system. As the discussion looks to history for successful examples of cooperative strategies and practices, African American contributions are often overlooked. Collective courage responds to this oversight with a compelling historical accounting of African American cooperative theory and practice. Nembhard, an African American economist and well-respected scholar and contributor to the cooperative community, chronicles the rich and storied history of African American cooperation, dating back to the time of enslavement. Using primary source material from newspapers, magazines, organizational documents, financial and property records, conference papers, and journal articles, Nembhard weaves a story of struggle, resilience, collective ambition and determination and the impetus of African Americans in history to succeed against all odds, convincing the reader that the historical practice of cooperatives in America is deeply rooted and braided into the African American story.

Current literature on self-help and mutual aid focuses on the ways that individuals work together, without intervention from imposing systems, structures, or authority figures, to resolve individual problems (Katz, 1993). Nembhard illustrates that the premise, intentions, and goals of self-help and mutual aid in the African American community has been differently placed. This is one of the important contributions Collective courage makes to our understanding of self-help and mutual aid. For African Americans, self-help and mutual aid practices emphasize the ways that contributions from community members are meant to benefit the community as a whole. Similar to the cooperative economics practiced by women of the Caribbean who run the Poto Mitan banking systems of Haiti, or the Sou-sou saving pots of Trinidad, material resources were shared by all for all. Nembhard presents early examples of newly-freed Africans establishing the initial giving circles in America as the earliest examples of self-help and mutual aid (see also Hussein, 2014; Hossein, 2014).

Nembhard leaves few stones unturned in her historical account of everything related to the case studies presented, from their financial position, to their membership rolls, organizational structures, and planning documents. Each case study lifts up the stories of women and men who saw no distinction between their work as cooperators and confronting the system of oppression they were up against. In each case, Nembhard describes the plans and intentions at the outset, through the struggles and challenges captured in various documents, to the eventual demise of many cooperative enterprises. Nembhard offers some analysis of how and why each case met with its outcome, but also leaves some room for the reader to come to his or her own conclusions. She also provides a comprehensive historical timeline chronicling the history of African American cooperatives from 1780 to the time of publication, a valuable resource for educators, organizers, students, and scholars.

Organized in three parts, Collective Courage begins with the early history of mutual aid and its broad application to various aspects of African American life. “Part one: early African American cooperative roots,” demonstrates the ways that grassroots organizing and cooperative practices were critical in resistance to enslavement and the ensuing violence during and after Reconstruction, the period of American history following the end of slavery (1865-1877), as African American families endeavored to build institutions for community cohesion and development. Part one highlights notable civic and political figures in history such as Sojourner Truth, previously disconnected from the story of the development of cooperative thought and practice, and places their ideals and organizing strategies at the center of our understanding of their legacy.

“Part two: deliberative cooperative economic development” bridges between thought and practice most eloquently of the three parts.  The attention to the contributions and prominence of Black women, namely Maggie Lena Walker, is particularly notable. Nembhard brings forward the debates among the foremost scholars of their day, each wrestling with the ways that cooperative economics could be used as a tool for economic liberation for African Americans. The treatment of W.E.B. DuBois is particularly poignant here. Nembhard brings the reader face-to-face with DuBois’ deep commitment and passion for cooperative development, documenting source material spanning nearly thirty years of his research and conference papers, as well as his publication, The Crisis.

By interweaving the legacy of the historical luminary figures responsible for the advancement of cooperative practice within African American communities, Nembhard brings deeper context to the founding principles that guided the civil rights movement and union movement, and the ways the cooperative practices were used to inform and sustain each movement.  Systems of cooperation and mutual aid were the basis of the networks of survival for families who participated in the Montgomery bus boycott, participated in sit-ins, challenged police brutality in northern cities, and unionized the African American workforce.  Using funds secured through community organizing, civil rights and union groups sponsored cooperatives, which in turn supported mutual aid practices that helped families to withstand economic hardships. African American cooperatives, including social and mutual aid clubs, credit unions and buying clubs also consistently and quietly supported the efforts of civil rights organizations in their pursuit of economic, social, and political equity throughout the 1940s to the 1970s.

            Part three brings the reader to the present day and the various cooperative enterprises that were recently founded and are still operational. As with the prior sections of the book, Nembhard contends with the strategies employed and challenges faced by cooperatives, particularly as they relate to maintaining healthy finances and facing policy and legislative challenges, ensuring that a new generation of African American cooperators continue to carry the torch forward.

Many readers will discover common themes and practices that have been used in different ways over more than a century. African American cooperators in some ways have learned similar lessons over time, which has made it difficult for African American cooperative development to become sustained on a larger scale. Nembhard makes clear that African American cooperatives must adapt to current realities and can very well learn from the past. This book bridges that gap of knowledge.

Nembhard does not delve into the connections that exist with roots in the indigenous cultures of Africa that African Heritage people are descendant from. This history has been covered in previous works on African and African American spiritual, social, and economic practices, notably by Martin and Martin (1985), Owens (1972) and Mbiti (1969). Had this been essential to her question, “is there an African American cooperative tradition?” she could very well respond affirmatively. This question and inclusion of the origins, and indeed, foundation of cooperative thought and practice, from the perspective of African Heritage people, is important, but not essential to the goals and tenor of this book. Nembhard provides, through painstaking research, strong and clear examples of cooperation that bring together three essential components worth noting: a way to ensure community vitality and resource redistribution in the face of racism and structural oppression; a strategy to ensure the community’s capacity to be self-sufficient and self-reliant; and the ability to strategically finance and sustain community development. The examples of these components are numerous throughout the book and provide useful and practical insight into the ways that African American cooperators organized themselves to affect change. Civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer was an ardent and steadfast supporter of cooperative development and worked to infuse its practices in every working community development model she engaged in. Nembhard’s example of Hamer’s pig bank demonstrates how African Americans viewed mutual aid and cooperative development as one and the same. The pig farm was designed to train families how to raise and care for their own pigs, establish small cooperatives they would run through assistance from study circles, and improve nutrition and health in the community. Focus on previous efforts is important to emphasize today, as a growing number of African American cooperators seek out effective models of cooperation as part of community development strategies currently in process.

The question remains still of whether the current climate of racist and structurally oppressive policies will continue to embattle the efforts of African American cooperators in the twenty-first century. As we continue to deepen our understanding of cooperative practice, theory, and the relationship to community context, we may find opportunities to confront and resist the current climate. Collective Courage helps us to re-examine how we can apply principles of self-help and mutual aid to include community-centered and engaged practices practiced in African American communities, as we endeavor to incorporate cooperative practices as a tool against oppression in all forms.

Collective Courage is a useful book for community psychologists looking for a historical and relevant resource for current cooperative practice. The various cooperatives highlighted in the book are all rooted in African American thought and practice and have worthwhile lessons on resilience and are instructive as a source when working with African American communities. Nembhard has traveled all over the country to work directly with communities engaging in cooperative practices. Community psychologists should consider our role and place at the table of African American cooperative practice and determine how best to engage communities working towards this endeavor.


Hossein, C. S. (2014). Haiti's caisses populaires: home-grown solutions to bring economic democracy. International Journal of Social Economics, 41(1), 42-59.

Hossein, C. S. (2014). The politics of resistance: Informal banks in the Caribbean. The Review of Black Political Economy, 41(1), 85-100.

Katz, A. H. (1993). Self-help in America: A social movement perspective. Twayne Publishers.

Martin, J. M., & Martin, E. P. (1985). The Helping Tradition in the Black Family and Community. National Association of Social Workers, Inc., 750 First St. NE, Suite 700, Washington, DC 20002.

Mbiti, J. S. (1990). African religions & philosophy. Heinemann.

Owens, L. H. (1977). This species of property: Slave life and culture in the Old South. Oxford University Press.