Black carbon is ubiquitous in the atmosphere and is the main anthropogenic absorbing particulate. Absorption by black carbon is thought to be comparable to the cooling associated with sulfate aerosols, although present-day satellites are incapable of obtaining this measurement, and model estimates are highly uncertain. More measurements of black carbon concentration are necessary for improving and validating transport and general circulation models. The Aerosol Robotics Network (AERONET) of 180 worldwide radiometers offers an opportunity to obtain these measurements. We use the Maxwell Garnett effective medium approximation to infer the column-averaged black carbon concentration and specific absorption of AERONET retrievals at 46 locations. The yearly averaged black carbon column concentrations exhibit the expected regional dependence, with remote island locations having values about an order of magnitude lower than the continental biomass burning locations. The yearly averaged black carbon specific absorption cross section is consistent with other measured values, 9.9 m2 g−1 for 19,591 retrievals, but varies from 7.7 to 12.5 m2 g−1. We attribute this variability to the details of the size distributions and the fraction of black carbon contained in the aerosol mixture. We also used the Maxwell Garnett equations to parameterize the imaginary refractive index with respect to the black carbon volume fraction, enabling simple but accurate absorption estimates for aerosol mixtures when the black carbon fraction and size distribution is known. The black carbon concentrations that we derive from AERONET measurements correctly describe the radiance field and represent an alternative to absorption optical thickness in the link between models and AERONET measurements.