The Black Rose by Tananarive Due
You need to know about Madam C. J. Walker, an African American woman, born Sarah Breedlove, to former slaves cum sharecroppers living empty hand to empty mouth in the American south. It is a true story fictionalized in this retelling by Tananarive Due. I knew of Madam Walker who took on this moniker which became her brand after marriage to her second husband. She is one of those icons so large, it seemed, at the time, in the African American imagination (though perhaps invisible to white people) that she made it all the way to a Black girl in the Caribbean – a Black girl who as a teen and young woman read Ebony and Essence, especially the latter, religiously, but still.
A side note about Black women and our hair is probably needed here. Our hair grows thick and bushy (also, and not always lovingly, called nappy, kinky, picky) out of our heads and more of us are lovingly embracing it now than ever (I went natural with my first big chop back in the late 1990s) but for a long time – thanks in part to the self-abnegation that began on slave plantations (the same kind of self-abnegation that has bred the skin bleaching culture), with the exception of that period of Black power in the 60s – 70s – the relationship with that hair has been (and remains)….complicated. Althea Prince’s book The Politics of Black Women’s Hair is a good primer on this subject; see also my article Mirror Mirror in Essence. Straightened hair was default when I was coming up (let’s not talk about the jheri curl which, thankfully, I never had) – easier to handle, closer to the perceived beauty ideal, perceived as being more professional etc. Our hair as it grew out of our heads naturally was (and too often still is) thought to be unruly and dirty, by others but too often (still) by (some of) us as well. Many of us little black girls remember well the stove and the hot comb on Saturdays in preparation for Sunday mass. This is (or was) true anywhere – including America, Africa, the Caribbean – that was touched by colonialism, because the real trick of colonialism is erasure and imprinting, erasing who you are and imprinting the values and lifestyles of your colonizer, down the generations, until you forget you were ever something else. The human will is strong though and we, in the African diaspora, never truly forgot ourselves and the process of de-colonization continues, one vivid example of that being the glorious embrace of our natural hair.
With that context in mind, Madam C J Walker became a millionaire in the early 20th century (a time when Black Americans were barely one generation out of slavery, if that, though it would have been a remarkable feat in any lifetime) off of that process of taming black hair via hot comb and some kind of secret formula. Erasure wasn’t her intention. She was initially per the book trying to find a homemade solution for her scalp issues. And she happened upon a miracle. Before she was done, this former clothes washer was the head of a business that made entrepreneurs of black women all over Black America as the Walker method and products made Black women feel more beautiful (with their straighter, longer, and better behaved hair).
The apparent contradiction notwithstanding, she emerges in the telling as a model for others of African descent in America, someone who through her own ingenuity and drive rose miles beyond where she started. No, I don’t think you understand. She came from literal nothing (orphaned and homeless after the death of her parents) and by half a century of life had acquired wealth beyond imagining (an estimated $8 million in today’s money). I don’t use that word model by accident because, per the novel, she really did have that sense of herself – she was very much about giving back to her community but she was also very much, materially, about the image side of her rise. The cars, the works of art, how she and her agents presented themselves it was all part of the show; and it was all very impressive.
I was very impressed with Madam C J Walker though at points I worried for her – that she was spending too much (she really was in some ways like a modern hip hop artist wearing her newly acquired wealth on her neck and feet and back and in the type of car she drives, how many cars she has, the size of her showcase mansion, though in Madam’s case there was also quite a bit of philanthropy and activism, a commitment to living and modelling self-empowerment and drawing attention to lynching and other issues affecting black people), that she was pushing herself too hard (eventually dying in her early 50s due to failing health), that her hard work would be frittered away by her much less driven much more showy daughter (who took very quickly to the socialite’s life). While I’m not sure what happened in the end to the Walker company, she did make smart moves and the company did outlast her by at least 60 years by the book’s reckoning; but beyond that, I’m not sure.
The book. At times getting through it was a slog as I’ve complained a time or two here on the blog. It was written as a work of fictionalized history by Due, whom I know primarily though not exclusively for her speculative fiction, using research and continuing the work begun by another great African American creative historian (Alex Haley of Roots and Autobiography of Malcolm X fame). The research shows in the level of detail but it is the level of detail that sometimes makes the reading slow (solid storytelling but slow). It walks through the stages of Madam Walker’s life to a painstaking degree – there are no fast forwards where maybe sometimes there should be. It is slow and more than that it feels slow. There are times when depending on the chapter of the subject’s life where it feels to be moving at a good clip; but then other times it feels like it’s getting nowhere very slowly. There are several stories, several thematic and literal arcs in a life and certainly so in the life of someone like Madam C J Walker, and rather than pick one or two or three, Due tells all of them. I have no doubt that it was a formidable challenge because reading it in full at times felt challenging. Though it had its peak emotional moments – e.g. on the bridge when things took a turn as the stagnation of Sarah’s life hit both her and the reader (me), the loss of a family member she hasn’t seen in a long time but whose death hurts (tears prickling the eyes, home calling at the spirit), and the dream – the dream was perfection as described – like Sarah, I didn’t want to wake up.
Overall, as well, Sarah’s boldness is endearing and inspiring. In matters of business and love.
And then there is Madam C J Walker, who Sarah becomes, a remarkable woman who led a remarkable life, and what’s more it’s a story (her story as a Black woman in America, and as an entrepreneur who is truly a self-made millionaire, and her part in the complicated story of our Black hair) which should be known. If it’s ever made into a film though, it might need to be condensed, for story telling efficacy.
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