“I am a woman that came from the cotton fields of the South; I was promoted from there to the wash-tub; then I was promoted to the cook kitchen, and from there I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations.”
--Madam C. J. Walker, National Negro Business League Convention, 1912
Now, from a writer acclaimed for her novels and the memoir Crossed Over, a remarkable biography of a truly heroic figure.
Madam C. J. Walker created a cosmetics empire and became known as the first female self-made millionaire in this nation’s history, a noted philanthropist and champion of women’s rights and economic freedom. These achievements seem nothing less than miraculous given that she was born, in 1867, to former slaves in a hamlet on the Mississippi River. How she came to live on another river, the Hudson, in a Westchester County mansion, and in a New York City town house, is at once inspirational and mysterious, because for all that is known about the famous entrepreneur, much that occurred before her magnificent transformation—years that trace a circuitous route across the country—remains obscure.
By breathing life into scattered clues and dry facts, and with a deep understanding of the times and places through which Madam Walker moved, Beverly Lowry tells a story that stretches from the antebellum South to the Harlem Renaissance and bridges nearly a century of our history in her search for the distant truths of a woman who defied all odds and redefined conventional expectations.
“Wherever there was one colored person, whether it was a city, a town, or a puddle by the railroad tracks, everybody knew her name.”
--Violet Davis Reynolds, Stenographer, Madam C. J. Walker Co
Sarah Breedlove was born in 1867 on the Louisiana plantation where her parents had been slaves, was motherless by age seven, married and a mother by 14, and a widow at 20. After leaving the plantation and working as a Mississippi washerwoman, she headed for St. Louis, another way-station on her journey to becoming Madam C.J. Walker, the first black woman millionaire. In 1905, Breedlove was still washing other people's clothes; in 1919, Madam Walker died in her magnificent mansion on New York's Hudson River. Whether through a vision or stealth and science (i.e., possibly copying Annie Turbo's Poro hair care products for black women), Breedlove developed an ointment that, together with her improvements of the straightening comb, took her from rags to riches. But she left little in the way of a literary legacy. "We have to find her," notes Lowry, a novelist and author of Crossed Over: A Memoir, a Murder, "in stories and legends, in marriage certificates, deeds, interviews, insurance maps, city directories... scraps of information alongside allegations and patently untrue tales." And that's where Lowry loses her. By the time the author has stacked up all the detritus, readers are left with a hill of rather dry beans. Into a stew of "doubtless," "perhaps," "maybe," "would almost certainly" and "I imagine," Lowry tosses in such background material as information on St. Louis's kindergarten system (which Breedlove's daughter did not attend), yet offers less than we need to know about the historically significant black women's clubs and their leaders (whose paths cross hers). Lapses into sentimentality ("The wakened child stirs but will not rise") do not clarify matters. Along with 10 b&w photos, scholars will undoubtedly find Lowry's voluminous reportage about the contradictions in various accounts very valuable, but the precise character of Walker's dream of dreams is significantly less illuminated.