Black Rose: The Magnificent Story of Madam C.J. Walker, America's First Black
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Format: Hardcover, 384pp.
Publisher: Ballantine Publishing Group
Pub. Date: June 2000
Reviewed by Paige Turner
Journalist and novelist Tananarive Due is fast establishing herself as a professional writer who can master any genre she deigns to approach. With her previous two books, the suave and masterful The Between, and its follow up, My Soul to Keep, she installed herself in readers minds' as a mystery writer of the highest caliber. With The Black Rose, a fictionalized biography of hair care empress Madam C. J. Walker, Ms. Due provides not only a biography of an undoubtedly great woman, but also offers a case history of the American "can do" spirit that prevailed in the decades after the Civil War.
Little Sarah Breedlove was raised in a stable home of hard work and Christian love. But this promising start is shattered when her parents die of yellow fever when Sarah is six years old. When their brother Alex goes away to seek work Sarah and her older sister Louvenia are left on the old delta farm to fend for themselves. This segment of the tale is among the most heartbreaking -- a story of relentless hard times with no food, no money, burden after burden, cruelty after cruelty, illness, racism, the worst imaginable poverty and unending, bone grinding hardship.
While Sarah was born free two years after the Civil War ended, she still experienced the struggle that most former slaves encountered in moving from slave mentality to the consciousness of fully free persons. There was a continual struggle between using one's waking time to ensure food and survival, or to strive toward uplift and self-improvement. For obvious reasons food and survival usually won out with most freed slaves. But early on Sarah distinguished herself by managing to carve out the time to do the work necessary for survival and still glean a few precious minutes to learn how to read. Indeed Sarah's entire history is a lesson in learning to make lemonade from life's lemons.
Tackling The Black Rose must have been a daunting task for many reasons. Madam C. J. Walker is an exalted fixture in black history but an under examined figure in American history, and there is great sentiment that the story of the first black female millionaire be told "right and proper". Also, author Due inherited this project from the late Alex Haley, the iconic author of the legendary Roots. Haley started initial research, but his death in 1992 prevented him from completing his plan for a fictionalized biography of Madam Walker. The project was later presented to Due, fresh from the successes of her first two novels, who perceived it as "a tremendous opportunity and gift". During the preparation of The Black Rose, Due had access to all of the records, interviews, letters and research that Walker's great great granddaughter A'Lelia Perry Bundles had shared with Haley.
Due's skill is especially evident in her presentation of southern and black dialect and in the genuineness of her characters' dialogue. Her preparation also included research into the long forgotten ancient traditions of southerners in the reconstruction era. Even whites depended on the local black conjure women and roots workers for potions that would protect them from dreaded diseases. The name "taking up" ceremony that followed the birth of Sarah's only child Lelia, describes her determinedly walking with her bundled baby to all four corners of her cabin and then drinking from a thimble of water and giving some to her child. Then Sarah's husband carried "the baby up to the highest place, that mean she gon' be rich one day."
The Black Rose offers an insider's perspective in how to build a business from scratch with no seed money, no mentors, and no formal education. It offers a step by step primer on the sacrifices and mindset needed for success. Sarah worked for years as a washerwoman, the only work available to black women of this era. Her problems with her hair and scalp led her to devise her own remedies. When she is successful in curing her own hair woes she seeks to share her product with other black women. After her marriage to her beloved first husband ends tragically, Sarah, after many years of widowhood and single mother status, meets charismatic advertising salesman C. J. Walker. They commence a delightful, if uncertain courtship, that combined wooing with business strategy and sales planning.
The Black Rose is especially successful in communicating the unique set of problems that beset upwardly mobile businesswomen. Sarah and C. J. marry and experience many happy and dynamic years as the explosive growth of the hair care business proves to be lucrative and satisfying to them both. But despite the fact that initially C. J. was the savvier businessperson, as the business grows so does Sarah's vision and ambition, to the point where her drive eclipses and outstrips C. J.'s ability to support it. After some tawdry behavior by C. J. the pair divorce, leaving a lonely and disappointed Sarah with the business and the Walker name. "Sarah suddenly remembered how the white woman had asked her whether it was more difficult to be a woman or a Negro. Sarah had been nearly rude to her, telling her the worst kind of flippant, awful lie to try to impress Booker T. Washington. But Sarah hadn't known any better then. She just hadn't known. That night driving away ’ with a fresh and bleeding wound in her soul, Sarah Breedlove Walker realized that being a woman was the hardest thing of all."
In addition to Sarah Breedlove's personal story The Black Rose also presents a fascinating and much needed history of African American women's hair care and the birth of the black cosmetology industry. The transition from slave to free status prompted new needs for hair care, and also reflected growing mass self-awareness and self esteem. "And she wasn't alone’there were’probably thousands of black women just like her who had no idea how much their hair could offer them, who wore kerchiefs all day long and barely let their hair even peek out. Well not any more, Sarah told herself. She was never going to wear a kerchief again. And if she had her way, other colored women would be taking theirs off for good too."
Sarah's dedication created opportunities not just for her own enrichment but she opened up opportunities for many thousands of colored women to be economically self sufficient -- an amazing and praiseworthy feat. Countless black families have nurtured and sustained by industrious women who worked as sales persons, cosmetologists and beauticians, fields that to this day still provide good income, independence and satisfaction.
On a spiritual level The Black Rose reinforces many lessons: the importance of following your dreams, not giving into defeat, the importance of looking for practical solutions, working toward success in small increments and how to use your use your dreams for guidance and inspiration. At one point in The Black Rose Sarah mentions that God gave her a gift for salesmanship and industriousness. This leads readers to ponder within themselves the equally great gifts that God has blessed them with. Let the new wave of Black entrepreneurs and visionaries come forth and assume their rightful places for Madame C. J. Walker has helped to carve out the path.