By Beverly Lowry
Alfred A. Knopf
Of all the great American stories of re-invention and rags-to-riches, none is more unlikely than that of Madam C.J. Walker. Born Sarah Breedlove, to freed slaves sharecropping a dismal patch land in Louisiana just after the Civil War, she would be orphaned at seven, receive no formal education, and spend the first thirty-seven years of her life eking out a living as a washerwoman and domestic. Yet before she was forty she ran her own “hair culture” business; by forty-five she was a philanthropist and an intimate of Booker T. Washington, the most renowned black American of her day; and by the time of her death in 1919, at the age of 51, she was an outspoken race advocate and probably the richest black woman in American history to that point; the owner of a thriving, international corporation, a fleet of luxury cars, an elegant Harlem townhouse, and a spectacular Westchester estate that sat nearly in J.D. Rockefeller’s backyard. Her daughter, A’Lelia Walker, would use her inheritance to establish herself as a patroness of the arts and the freewheeling “Joy Goddess” of the Harlem Renaissance.
It is a remarkable story—and one complicated by the fact that Madam Walker’s “hair culture” or “hair growing” process really meant hair straightening, a practice that strikes at the very heart of the African American identity. Lurking always, just beneath the surface of her astonishing rise, is the question of how much it depended upon exploiting the self-hatred of other black women.
For these and more practical reasons, this is not an easy story to tell. Official America in the nineteenth century had little interest in tracing the progress of an black orphan girl, and much of Walker’s history remains obscure, shrouded by lost or shoddy records, dubious reminiscences, and Madam’s own penchant for myth-making. She moved swiftly and almost ceaselessly through this life, shedding names, husbands, business associates, and family members, usually as her formidable business instincts moved her. Even the inspiration for her hair growth formula changed to suit each new audience and ad campaign. Sometimes she had developed it herself, through years of experimentation; other times it came to her through a vision of a large black man or even, at the height of her mythologizing, through God Himself, as a way of helping and uplifting the race.
These are among the obstacles that Beverly Lowry faced in writing Her Dream of Dreams, The Rise and Triumph of Madam C.J. Walker, and Ms. Lowry, the author of six novels and a memoir, brings both considerable strengths and weaknesses of her own to the task.
Foremost among her strengths are an immense energy and a powerful and dramatic writing style. Lowry has done prodigious research, and she paints a vivid and engrossing picture of the world Madam Walker emerged from, and triumphed over. The Mississippi Delta after the Civil War was a region of almost unbelievable hardship and wretchedness, regularly scourged by floods, disease, and human malevolence. Above all, Lowry never allows us to forget the terror that most African American were forced to live under, from the organized massacres and Klan murders that hastened the end of Reconstruction, to the dozens of lynchings that took place year in and year out, decade after decade.
It was a system of oppression so smothering that it seems hard to believe anyone could get out from under it. But Lowry fills the reader with an almost palpable sense of excitement as she follows the young Sarah to Vicksburg, then St. Louis. Working for subsistence wages at the immensely difficult, backbreaking trade of washerwoman; living in abysmal slums; married by the age of fourteen, a mother at seventeen, but still always restless, always looking to move on; never willing to accept the stunted existence she was supposed to be relegated to by birth. “I got my start by giving myself a start,” she liked to say in later years.
In fact, it looked for a long time as if her aspirations would not be enough. Then one day opportunity arrived in the person of Annie Turnbo, another determined young black woman, in St. Louis to sell her hair-growing treatment at the world’s fair. Sarah became one of her agents, and left domestic service behind forever. Within a year she was off to Denver, reportedly with $1.50 in capital and a new man in tow, Mr. C.J. Walker, who had useful ties to black newspapers and advertising services.
Lowry does a superb job of describing Sarah’s new world, as well. Turnbo was on the cutting edge of a revolution in sales, spurred on by the birth of the mail-order industry and mass production. Operating under Richard Sears’s credo, “Have the goods, then advertise,” salesmen—and saleswomen like Sarah—were now selling a whole lifestyle. Demonstrations of Turnbo’s hair formula were designed to be house parties, anticipating Tupperware, and Amway.
And they had the goods that black women wanted. Anyone who has read The Autobiography of Malcolm X or seen the Spike Lee movie can appreciate how awful home “conking” could be; black women a century ago were putting similar things in their hair, including cayenne pepper, quinine and ox marrow, straight lye and sulphur, even meat drippings—preparations that would often cause it to fall out in clumps, and permanently damage their scalps.
Sarah listened, and learned the new techniques. She left Denver after less than two years later—in business for herself now, armed with her own hair-growing formula. She had, it quickly became apparent, an almost uncanny flair for advertising, as well as a knack for hiring capable and useful people as her sales agents and assistants, and the boldness and eye for the main chance of a natural born entrepreneur. On the rise at last, she would literally never stop; doubling or tripling her income every year; traveling almost frantically around the country, building a factory and corporate headquarters in Indianapolis, building her dream house. Striving at all times to be heard, to command respect; whether that meant winning the blessings of the reluctant Washington for her enterprises, or having her say in the nascent black nationalist and civil rights movements.
It is at the moment of Walker’s triumph that, unexpectedly, Lowry’s narrative falters. Favored for once with an abundance of details about her subject’s life, she becomes mired in them, overwhelming us with descriptions of every major railroad station that Walker passed through, or the proceedings of every black business convention she attended.
Left hanging are other, more pressing questions. Lowry suggests, for instance, that the Walker hair formula was probably Turnbo’s, analyzed and reproduced by an obliging Denver druggist. If this is true, how did she get a patent, and what does this tell us about Walker’s character? The ingredients included “precipitated sulfur…along with thick petrolatum, beeswax, copper sulfate…a perfume made from violet extract to hide the sulfur smell…carbolic acid and coconut oil” —and while this may have been better than what black women were putting in their hair before, what did it do to them over the long run? How does Walker register in the black consciousness today, as a powerful, self-made black woman whose rise was predicated in part upon making other black women look more white?
Lowry doesn’t really address these issues—though near the end, as Madam Walker finally lies still in her new mansion, struck down by kidney disease, she devotes most of a chapter to listing almost every item in the grand house, from Walker’s gilded pipe organ right down to her ice box and the “dumbwaiter [which] still works.” It was the house, after all, that Sarah described as “her dream of dreams”—yet Lowry barely mentions an even more impressive edifice, the factory and office building that Walker built in Indianapolis to churn out her beauty products. It must have been unprecedented: a modern American factory, built by a black woman, with a black woman manager and an all-black staff. We would like to know how many people Madam Walker employed, what working conditions were like for the employees of the former washerwoman, or at least what finally became of the business. But this, Lowry informs us, “is in the future, and has nothing to do with Madame.” Oh?
At the other extreme, when the facts are not readily available, Lowry has the habit of imposing her own, breezy suppositions on the work. “…the living soul is wily, and the heart eludes discovery. And we will never know it all,” she asserts early on. True enough, but this still does not give a biographer license to make things up, and reasonable speculation is different from outright guesswork.
Thus, from her study of the woman that Madam Walker would become, as well as what “I have learned, lived, and come to believe…” Lowry assures us that little Sarah Breedlove’s mother, lying on her deathbed, “would necessarily pass on hard- won information to her children,” which would include—in order—“Learn to read…Never mind business that’s not yours…Stay out of white people’s way…” But how can we possibly assume such a thing, no matter what the life experiences of Ms. Lowry, a novelist and university instructor living in another century? When her marriage to Mr. Walker is winding down, Ms. Lowry assures us that “in all likelihood they no longer carry on casual conversations.” Really? Or could it be that two people in a dissolving marriage are capable only of casual conversations? At other moments, Lowry writes about Madam Walker’s rocky relationship with A’Lelia as if she were the girl’s mother: “I tend to think, also, that Lelia’s behavior is getting out of hand and that she’s starting to party more vigorously and spend more time pursuing an inappropriate night life, her interest in the business waning.”
These sorts of interjections are so pervasive that they seriously detract from Lowry’s whole endeavor. Madam Walker’s life is too rich, and Ms. Lowry is too good a writer, not to make much of Her Dream of Dreams a good read—but in the end Madam escapes back into the myth she created for herself.
Kevin Baker is the author of the historical novel Paradise Alley, about the Civil War draft riots in New York City.
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