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The straight story

Kevin Baker is the author of "Paradise Alley," a historical novel about the Civil War draft riots in New York City.

Of all the great American stories of reinvention 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 in Louisiana just after the Civil War, she was orphaned at 7 and spent the next three decades eking out a living as a washerwoman and domestic servant. Yet by 45, this woman with no formal education had reinvented herself and built a “hair culture” empire into a platform for philanthropy that made her the most renowned black American woman of her day.

By 1919, when she died at age 51, she had become a familiar of the likes of Booker T. Washington and Adam Clayton Powell Sr., an outspoken advocate for equal rights for blacks, and the owner of a thriving international corporation, a fleet of luxury cars, an elegant Harlem townhouse and a spectacular Westchester estate near J.D. Rockefeller’s. Daughter A’Lelia Walker used her inheritance to establish herself as a patroness of the arts and the freewheeling woman whom poet Langston Hughes dubbed the “Joy Goddess” of the Harlem Renaissance.

Madam Walker’s is a remarkable story, one complicated by the fact that her “hair growing” process really meant hair straightening, a practice that strikes at the very heart of the African American identity. Lurking just beneath the surface of her astonishing rise is the question of how much her success depended on exploiting the self-hatred of black women.

For these and more practical reasons, this is not an easy story to tell. Official America in the 19th century had little interest in tracing the progress of a black orphan girl, so much of Walker’s early history is shrouded by lost or shoddy records, dubious reminiscences and her own penchant for myth-making. She moved swiftly, shedding names, husbands, business associates and family members, usually as her formidable business instincts directed her. Even the inspiration for her hair-growth formula changed to suit each new audience and ad campaign. Sometimes she said she developed it herself, through years of experimentation; other times it came to her through a vision of a large black man or, at the height of her mythologizing, through God himself, as a way of helping and uplifting the race.

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These are among the obstacles Beverly Lowry faced in writing “Her Dream of Dreams.” And as the author of six novels and a memoir, she brings both considerable strengths and weaknesses of her own to the task.

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: 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 most African Americans lived under, from the organized massacres and Ku Klux Klan murders that hastened the end of Reconstruction to the dozens of lynchings that took place year in and year out.

It was a system of oppression so smothering it is 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 backbreaking trade of washerwoman and living in abysmal slums. She was married by 14, a mother at 17, but always restless, never willing to accept the stunted existence to which she was supposed to be relegated. “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, who went to St. Louis to sell her hair-growing treatment at the 1904 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, C.J. Walker, who had useful ties to black newspapers and advertising services.

Lowry does a superb job of describing Sarah’s new world. Turnbo was on the cutting edge of a revolution in sales, spurred by the birth of the mail-order industry and mass production. Operating under Richard Sears’ credo, “Have the goods, then advertise,” salesmen -- and saleswomen like Sarah -- were selling a lifestyle. Demonstrations of Turnbo’s hair formula were designed to be house parties, anticipating Tupperware and other home products.

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 cayenne pepper, quinine and ox marrow, straight lye and sulfur, even meat drippings on their hair, preparations that often caused their hair to fall out in clumps and left their scalps permanently damaged.

Sarah learned the new techniques. She left Denver less than two years later -- in business for herself, 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 of a natural-born entrepreneur. On the rise at last, she doubled or tripled her income every year, traveling almost frantically around the country, building a factory and corporate headquarters in Indianapolis and her dream house in Indianapolis. All the while, she strove to be heard, to command respect, whether that meant winning blessings from the reluctant Washington, probably the day’s most influential black man, or having her say in the nascent black nationalist and civil rights movements.

It is at the moment of Walker’s triumph that 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.

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Left hanging are other questions. Lowry suggests, for instance, that Walker’s 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.” While this may have been better than what black women had put on their hair before, what did it do to them over the long run? And how does a powerful, self-made black woman, whose rise was predicated in part upon making other black women look more like whites, register in the black consciousness today?

Lowry doesn’t really address these issues. Near the end, as Madam Walker finally lies still in her “dream of dreams” mansion, struck down by kidney disease, most of one chapter lists nearly every item in the grand house, from Walker’s gilded pipe organ to her ice box and the “dumbwaiter [that] still works.” Lowry barely mentions an even more impressive edifice, the Indianapolis factory and office building Walker built 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 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 imposes her own breezy suppositions. “The living soul is wily, and the heart eludes discovery. And we will never know it all,” she asserts early on. True enough, but reasonable speculation is different from outright guesswork.

Thus, from her study of the woman 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” that 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 Lowry, a novelist and university instructor living in another century? When Walker’s marriage to Mr. Walker is winding down, Lowry assures us, “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 Lowry were the girl’s mother: “I tend to think, also, that [A’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.”

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Such interjections are so pervasive that they detract from Lowry’s endeavor. Walker’s life is too rich, and 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.


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