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  • Written by Beverly Lowry
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The Rise and Triumph of Madam C. J. Walker

Written by Beverly LowryAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Beverly Lowry

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On Sale: July 20, 2011
Pages: 496 | ISBN: 978-0-307-76595-6
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Madam C. J. Walker is an American rags-to-riches icon. Born to former slaves in Louisiana in 1867, she went on to become a prominent African American businesswoman and the first female self-made millionaire in U.S. history. The story of her transformation from a laundress to a tremendously successful entrepreneur is both inspirational and mysterious, as many of the details of her early life remain obscure. In this superior biography, Beverly Lowry’s abundant research fleshes out Walker’s thinly documented story and frames it in the roiling race relations of her day.

Walker grew up illiterate and worked as a washerwoman well into her thirties before staking her future on a “Wonderful Hair Grower.” Defying all odds, Walker learned to read and write, mastered marketing and spin, and built a booming cosmetics empire that provided lucrative work for thousands of black women and allowed her to engage in philanthropy and civil rights activism until her death in a Westchester mansion in 1919. Spanning from the antebellum South to the Harlem Renaissance, Lowry brings this intriguing and important woman vividly to life.

Excerpt

Chapter 1
Croppers' Child

The year is 1874, and in flat wet country located in what was then regarded as the semi-barbaric Southwest there is a small cabin I want to enter, a sharecroppers' dwelling on the edge of a cotton field, inside of which a woman lies in a deep sleep on a narrow wooden bed. Between chills and fever, she breathes evenly, a quilt from the old days tucked firmly under her chin.

Dying is no mystery once it begins-it is as dutiful as a clock-and this woman is now into the process. A child is also in the house, a girl, and I will place her at the foot of her mother's bed: her high wide forehead, strong set jaw, brown skin and dark burning eyes, her hair tied up in strings.

From outside, if the water is back within the banks, come the sounds of early summer: hoes scraping at weeds in the cotton rows, railroad tracks being repaired, a depot under construction and, beyond it, a wharf boat that will rise and fall with the river, to facilitate the transfer of railroad cars from land to water and vice versa. A mule might bray or some far-off rooster let go as if dawn had just cracked. There is a blast of a boat's whistle, either passing by mid-river or stopping to pick up freight and passengers. These are the sounds of summer in this particular Louisiana river town. Year to year, only the nature of the construction changes. Everything else is repetition, ritual, more of the same.

Water is the story of the dying woman's life. Water, hard work and scraps of paper, one declaring her sound of body and a slave for life, the other proclaiming her to be now and henceforward forever free. Having lived on this patch of ground as far back as she can remember, she can identify by the number of hoots and the pitch of the whistle what boat is going which way, the ferryboat P. F. Geisse making one of its four daily trips between Delta and Vicksburg sounding nothing like the steamboat Pelican passing down to New Orleans or the Albatross going upriver to St. Louis.

Where does this scene come from, history or the imagination? Some things we can reckon precisely enough to construct a reasonable set of probabilities. To begin with what perhaps matters most, in time we are in the post-Civil War period and some ten years into Reconstruction. Geographically, we are in northeastern Louisiana, not far south of the Arkansas line and as far east as Louisiana reaches to the Mississippi. And while Reconstruction is on its last legs in this particular state, its effects-and those of the war-are still a part of everyday life. When Andrew Johnson, raised poor and white in Tennessee, took his seat in the White House, he promptly gave white Southerners every reason to believe that life would soon snap back to normal with only one exception: they would have no slaves. And so these people-having experienced the early stages of humiliation and defeat-are now on their feet again, nail-spitting mad and armed to the teeth.

The one-room cabin is constructed of cottonwood logs collected in the surrounding countryside, then chinked with rocks and daubed with clay to hold them in place and keep out rain and wind. There is no floor except the ground. A fireplace for warmth and cooking takes up most of one wall, but no fire likely burns now, for in all probability we are in the sickly season, either well into or entering the summer months, when in nineteenth-century Louisiana disease goes on an annual tear.

Because black people are not allowed to congregate socially with whites, even posthumously, they often bury their loved ones in the levees and along the riverbanks. They know that the ground will turn wet and sucky when the water rises, that the dead will be washed downstream past New Orleans into the Gulf of Mexico, where their bones will drift and roll with the tide and eventually become one with salt, sand and fish eggs. But there is nothing else to do. And perhaps, these families reason, in the end the river is an apt tomb for those who lived by its whims and occasional blessings their entire lives.

Stiff ropes knotted at the corners hold the bedstead snugly together and cradle the woman's mattress-a sack of homespun cloth stuffed with Spanish moss which has been scalded and then buried for a time to soften its threads and kill off the fleas. Moss is easy to come by in Delta, Louisiana, where it hangs in mournful swags from the willows and the sycamore and swamp ash, dense as a curtain out in the swamps and bottoms.

The mother slips beyond thought as the alert, big-boned girl at the foot of the bed maintains her watch. Single-mindedness, stubborn focus and wind enough for the long haul are part of her nature. She is seven years and some months old. Her parents have been croppers since before she was born, and she has spent pretty much every minute since with them. When she was a baby, her mother either strapped her to her back while she worked the fields or sat her on a long burlap bag and pulled her along the rows, keeping a sharp eye out for copperheads and moccasins. By the age of four, a croppers' child had a job drilling holes for cotton seeds and dropping them carefully in.

Long after Sarah Breedlove's death, a woman from Delta will say that she and Winnie (as some people there called Sarah) were the best pickers of all the children, and I believe this. Later, as Madam

C. J. Walker, Sarah Breedlove is demonstrably tireless. No one can match her capacity for work, whether younger or fitter and no matter from what kind of background. Work is what she knows, as deeply ingrained as a heartbeat.

Louisiana is a state so divided in its geography and culture that natives can know close to nothing about those who live only miles to the north or west. Where, then, are we exactly-where this woman is dying? Using a map from the early 1870s, find Vicksburg, Mississippi, then move your finger across the river and you will come to a thin finger of land which until 1876 reached so far east that it looked poised to tumble into the Mississippi itself. There, in northeastern Louisiana, is a town called Delta, on a wickedly narrow peninsula that extends like a lifted pinkie finger, forcing the river to veer from its natural course and flow briefly almost due north before looping around and crashing furiously southeast again.

The woman, who wears a loose dress made of heavy cotton, has been sick for longer than she knows. Here, where frost touches down like a quick kiss and lingers only briefly on its way to someplace else, sickness sleeps in the system all year round. One reason Southerners have the reputation of being sleepy and slow is that they are, many of them, sick deep down, all of the time. Fever, general malaise, a spleen so tender people call it an ague cake.

Let me tell you her first name: Minerva. For years she had no officially documented last name, but in an 1869 Madison Parish mar-

riage certificate, the only Minerva on the Burney place-where Sarah Breedlove's parents were owned like mules and she herself was born and grew up-is called Minerva Anderson. Since the bride cannot read or write, she signs the certificate with an X, as does her husband, Owen Breedlove. There is an accepted way of doing this. "Minerva" is written, presumably by someone else, and then there is a big X penned, presumably by the bride herself, and finally the surname: Owen X Breedlove and Minerva X Anderson.

In time, their youngest child will be interviewed by newspaper reporters, and large crowds will come to hear her speak, and they will want to know where she came from and how she managed to hack her way through poverty and oppression to become a woman in a full-length fur coat who can conduct audiences with politicians and interviews with reporters from the New York Times. And while Madame herself will rarely speak directly or publicly about her parents, many stories will be told about them in press releases she authorized and in accounts whose details she approved.

In 1874 disease is thought to be as free-floating as ghosts and memories, alive in the air and damp enough to soak like milk into paper and clothes. When epidemics hit, mail delivery halts; boats don't stop for passengers; even newspapers aren't printed. People live in dread of the night mist, when pale clouds of what are called miasmata move invisible through the river bottoms. Minerva Breedlove may think she became ill walking barefoot on the cool ground or from the air that sneaks through the chinking, or she may remember a night when, after the hogs were called up from the brakes, she and her daughters sat on the front porch and listened to a neighbor play the banjo, unmindful of the passing mist creeping down her unsuspecting throat.

Madison is a parish of bottomland, with only an occasional undulation to break the flatness, and is rimmed by rivers: the Ouachita to the west, the Arkansas and the Yazoo to the north, and to the south the less significant Tensas, which flows through a channel created by the Mississippi known as a meander scar. The Tensas-named for Indians, pronounced "Ten-saw"-drains Madison Parish, or tries to, through a maze of bayous to the north, south and west: Bayou Macon, Joe's Bayou, Roundaway and Brushy Bayous, the Bayou Bonne Idee.

We are, of course, west of the Big Daddy of rivers, actually on the Mississippi. In deeds and contracts, the property on which the dying woman's cabin is located is invariably described as "bounded on the East and West side by the Mississippi River, on the North by the old Hoffman tract, on the South by the Frederic Smith tract, now owned or occupied by Nicholson Barnes."

The town of Delta was improbably carved out of swampland in the 1830s by hopeful, upstart white men hot to fill their pockets with revenues from cotton, of course, or from ferryboats running east-west or steamships working north and south or, eventually, railroads headed west. In the nineteenth century, railroads turned the entire nation into a veritable money park. And because Delta is situated on the thirty-second parallel-which constitutes the shortest route between oceans from Savannah to San Diego-planters were hoping to claim and colonize territory as the tracks moved west. Before their spree was busted up by Lincoln and the Union Army, they had hoped to provide even the labor system for this enterprise; by 1874, now that slavery's disallowed, they'll settle for the real estate profits.

A short walk from Minerva Breedlove's cabin there is a smart new restaurant, and the railroad speculators have made Delta the parish seat. An engineer from the North Louisiana and Texas Railway Company has even marked off blocks and squares in preparation for the building of a whole new town around the projected depot. The ballyhoo never stops. Asked about the inflated property values in Delta, a participant said in 1874, "Well . . . we was booming the town."

When the sun goes down, Minerva Breedlove can see from her cabin the gaslights and lanterns of Vicksburg, where on the landing there are bars and cafés and a famous whorehouse. Vicksburg is the city Delta yearns toward, and its white citizens shop, pray and marry there, and they bury their dead in a cemetery on a hill east of the city. For black people, there are jobs, churches where they are welcome, schools for their children, a life beyond cotton fields and tree stumps.

Now we do not historically know that in 1874 a young girl stood at the foot of her mother's bed and attended her dying. We don't know exactly when Minerva Breedlove died or from what or, for that matter, when or where she was born or who, if anybody, owned her before Robert Burney did. Until 1913, neither death nor birth certificates were required by the federal government. And earlier, since slaves were considered property-classified, in Louisiana, as real estate-they were not counted as people in either U.S. Census or parish records.

What we do know is that within three years, when the little girl is ten years old and is said to have left Delta, she is-has to be-a fully formed person. This certainty is based on hard study, extended thinking and what feels like rock-bottom necessity, considering the woman she turned into; based too, in general, on what I have learned, lived and come to believe if not always, that is, on verifiable fact.

A mother who'd been born a slave would necessarily pass on hard-won information to her children. Lesson one is a commandment every bit as non-negotiable as those of Moses: Learn to read. Not especially for self-improvement or even education but as strategy. As long as the other race reads and you don't, they get to make the rules, interpretations, decisions and laws. Rules two and beyond are less predictable. Never mind business that's not yours, perhaps. Maybe, Stay out of white people's way. And again: Learn to read.

To create the scene of a mother's death-her very bed and fireplace-and then boldly assert that this was possibly the moment at which that particular daughter marshaled her strength and began becoming the girl who would become the woman we know as Madam C. J. Walker is, of course, a brash assumption. But let us do just that, without apology, and go on.
Beverly Lowry|Author Q&A

About Beverly Lowry

Beverly Lowry - Her Dream of Dreams

Photo © Marion Ettlinger

Beverly Lowry is the author of six novels and the nonfiction works Crossed Over and Her Dream of Dreams. The recipient of the 2007 Richard Wright Literary Excellence Award, Lowry teaches at George Mason University. She lives in Austin, Texas.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Beverly Lowry
Author of HER DREAM OF DREAMS

Q: When did you become interested in the life of Madam C.J. Walker and why did you decide to write a biography on her?

A:
I became interested in the life of Madam C.J. Walker pretty much the minute I heard of her existence, in the summer of 1992. Like a lot of white people, I didn’t know who she was before then, much less what she’d done or how she got there. Once I heard the story and read a little more about her, my feeling was: how can I not be interested? But not just in her. My own prior ignorance startled me a little, and still does.

I grew up in the Mississippi delta, in Greenville. At that time the population of the town was about 60% African American and about 10% Asian, primarily Chinese American. The Asians lived within their own community but, while strictly segregated by law and tradition, the black and white cultures in many ways were the same—music, food, language, the basic dance steps of life. Because of these very real circumstances of my day-to-day life, I think I have never not been interested in race, and what makes for differences between us and what, on the other hand, connects us no matter what.

I’m not a scholar or a historian. I wanted to find out how Sarah Breedlove became Madam C.J. Walker. And that’s the nut of it. And the only way I knew to do that was to find out everything I could about the time, the place and the circumstances of her life in whatever form that information was available, then sit and look at those facts and study them and look at them some more, until they came together and I thought I had reason enough, back-up material enough, to say, this is how it probably was. Which is about all a biographer can do, anyway.

Q: How did you go about doing your research?

A
: I started out the research process by catching up on American history, not just as it was lived by African Americans, but, I guess, primarily so. Sarah Breedlove was born in Delta, Louisiana, in wet, flat—hot, fertile, mosquito-ridden, etc.—bottomland, country I know very well. I explored the place in books and newspaper accounts, then went there. I spent a lot of time in Vicksburg as well. I wanted to get the beginning right, before moving on, and my basic feeling was that, despite her claim that “I got my start by giving myself a start,” her background definitely contributed: her family, in particular her mother. But Sarah’s parents had been considered property, the same as a fencepost or livestock. And so the only way to in a sense “find” them was to investigate documents and reports about the white people who once owned them. I spent a lot of time in the Madison Parish courthouse, the Warren County, Mississippi, courthouse, and at Louisiana and Mississippi state archives. I found an incredible amount of fascinating material having to do with the white Burney family—most of which did not end up in the book. Beginnings are crucial and, I find, messy. I always muck about in the early pages, for a long time.

Q: Tell us a little bit about your own family history.

A:
My mother and father came from Arkansas delta, on or close to the Mississippi, around Helena. My father once played four-string banjo on the roof of the Peabody hotel with big name bands that came by, and paid for my birth with nickels he collected from a pinball machine he had installed in the drugstore where he worked in Memphis. I was born in Memphis (at the same hospital where Elvis was pronounced dead) named for a debutante whose picture my mother saw in the Commercial Appeal. In time, my father—whom we called either Big Daddy or simply Big—went on the road as a traveling salesman. He was good at that, most people said the best. From my girlhood days he was on the road and we lived by commission and went up and down as his sales did. I know what it is to live that way, the way Madam Walker did when she was on the road as well—her own life—drumming up sales and telling stories; changing the stories as the times demanded. She and my father made up their lives as they went along, and this too has its ups and downs, for the children.

Stories have been a part of my life since long before I arrived; stories are what I imagine and search for. I didn’t think of myself as “Southern” for a long time but in researching Her Dream of Dreams, during a conversation with a black friend from Vicksburg, she asked me if I thought of myself as a Southern woman. I waited a long time and finally answered that I guess I did, did she? And she came up with the same hesitation and the same eventual answer. So there we both were: black, white, what could we do?

I didn’t want to pretend to be anything other than what I am, writing this book: a white women looking for the life of a black woman.

Q: Do you feel that the facts of your own history are what gave you the drive to write this biography?

A:
In the choice of biographical “subject matter,” Geoffrey Wolf said—somewhere, sometime—there are no accidents, and I believe that is true. In all of my novels, somebody is always defying historical, political, cultural odds to get beyond where anybody in her family, hometown, life would have ever thought, predicted or hoped for, and that somebody is usually a girl or woman. What I knew about the young Sarah Breedlove was, if anybody or anything could have chipped at her spirit or convinced her to pay attention to the expectations laid out for her in advance, she would never have grown into the Madam C.J. Walker she became. That she did, was extraordinary.

Q: You have such a unique perspective to this biography. Please explain why you chose this angle.

A:
I guess I don’t think I exactly “chose” an angle. I have always assumed that style and substance are impossible to separate. From the first word I put down, I knew it would be me telling the story, as I found it. I didn’t want to get in the way of hers, but I felt I had to establish the voice of the narrator from the beginning and hold to that. And I was the tale-teller. And the process of discovery was always a sub-text. Biography’s not a life but the story of one. This is the way I thought I could tell this one.

Q: You made your mark in the book industry as well as the film industry when your nonfiction CROSSED OVER(a moving account about your friendship with confessed murderer Karla Faye Tucker) became a made-for-TV movie starring Jennifer Jason Leigh and Diane Keaton. How did you feel about the success of your work that hits so close to home?

A:
The writing of CROSSED OVER was extremely difficult, but was something I felt I had to do, and that I had to confront the two heartbreaking and complicated stories of Peter Lowry and Karla Faye Tucker head-on, as directly as I was able, not in fictional terms. Their lives needed to be told and to stand, as they lived them. It is the facts of those lives and deaths that will haunt and sadden me for the rest of my life; the book and the movie extend their lives, allow other people to know of them and, I hope, pay tribute.

Q: So now that you've written one true-life nonfiction that has been made into a film and a biography on one of the most heroic woman in history, what's next? Any new books in the making?

A:
I’m returning to the early years of my research on HER DREAM OF DREAMS to the years of slavery, and will write a biography of Harriet Tubman, another American hero but of a very different kind. This book will be much shorter than the Madam Walker book and will also involve a great deal of re-examination of myths and legends. I have also written a draft of an erotic novel called After Edward, which I will eventually get back to and I mean to write a book about the government’s secret creation of Oak Ridge, Tennessee in the early 40’s.
Beyond those…I don’t know.

Praise

Praise

“A riveting, wrenching drama…. Lowry writes with brio and enthusiasm.” --The New York Times Book Review

“A joyous celebration.... an exuberant, truly sympathetic portrait of a fascinating woman.” –San Francisco Chronicle

“Lowry, who has immense energy and a powerful and dramatic writing style, has done prodigious research. She paints a vivid and engrossing picture of the world Madam Walker emerged from and triumphed over.” –Los Angeles Times Book Review

“Splendid. . . . A dramatic page-turner of a tale. . . . Utterly compelling.” —New Orleans Times-Picayune

“A picture of an impulsive, generous, furtive, commanding, entrepreneurial person. . . . By book’s end you can’t help feeling that Madam Walker must have been a real corker to be around. . . . Thanks to Beverly Lowry, Madam C.J. Walker is with us again.” –The Wall Street Journal

“[Lowry] brings a narrative approach to her portrayal of Walker, a novelist’s recognition of the way a life, like a story, develops and arcs over time.” –Los Angeles Times

“A three-dimensional portrait of the period that resurrects the ghosts of Walker’s early years. . . . The depth of [Lowry’s] research . . . gives the writing real solidity. . . . Her Dream of Dreams does everything a biography ought to–evoke a life, a personality–while pushing the form beyond its limits.’” –Newsday

“Beautifully written . . . puts the Horatio Alger story to shame. With crystal-clear prose, lively anecdotes and dutiful research Beverly Lowry tells how Walker, against all odds, became a pioneer businesswoman and civil rights activist extraordinaire. Lowry should be saluted for giving Walker the kind of grand historical recognition she deserves.”–Douglas Brinkley, Director of the Eisenhower Center for American Studies and Professor of History at the University of New Orleans

“Highly evocative. . . A remarkable tale. . . . Because of Lowry’s tireless, creative research, Madam C.J. Walker breathes–and inspires–once again.” –The Plain Dealer

“Vivid. . . . [Lowry’s] research is amazingly thorough.” –Houston Chronicle

“Lowry has combined the skills of a novelist and the perseverance of a painstaking researcher to produce the most complete account yet of Walker’s extraordinary rise from abject poverty . . . to fame and riches. Lowry invests her telling of Walker’s story with a depth and breadth of social, political, and economic context that makes the African-American businesswoman’s achievement seem all the more remarkable.”–Fort Worth Star-Telegram

“Lively, literate. . . Impeccable research informs a prose that sings, whirls, and delights.” –Kirkus Reviews

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