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Thursday, January 15th, 2004


Her Dream of Dreams: The Rise and Triumph of Madam C. J. Walker


Dream Weaver

A review by Justin Driver

African Americans have something of an obsession with celebrating members of the race who are the first to achieve prominent positions and attain significant titles. These "black firsts" once merited celebration because they represented the breaking of genuine racial barriers and demonstrated that blacks could achieve even in the face of stifling oppression. When, say, Jackie Robinson became the first black major leaguer in 1947, it meant a great deal because it signaled the coming integration of American society. As barriers to African American achievement have eroded over the last forty years, however, the fixation on black firsts has paradoxically intensified rather than dissipated. Just last year, Jet magazine trumpeted some of the most recent inductees into the increasingly unselective club of black firsts, many of whose meager achievements do not exactly signal a blow against unrelenting racism. In January, for example, the magazine saluted "the masterminds" who founded, the first black-owned Internet dating company. In August, Jet saluted Mike and Nicole Lewis, "Southwest Airlines' first and only Black father and daughter pilot team." The temptation to view nearly every endeavor as grounds for identifying a black first even prompted the magazine to label Dynasty "the 1980s prime-time soap where [Diahann] Carroll portrayed Dominique Deveraux, TV's first Black 'bitch.'"

So zealous is the search for black firsts that the title is sometimes applied even when it is inapposite. Although Madam C.J. Walker is widely described as the first female self-made millionaire of any race, A'Lelia Bundles revealed in her biography On Her Own Ground (2001) that Walker in fact fell short of the elusive seventh figure by about $400,000. Still, Walker amassed a spectacular fortune, and she is one of the few African American figures whose reputation has, after years of inattention, only grown in recent years. In 1998, she was immortalized on a postage stamp as part of the "Black Heritage" series. History seems to be gradually accepting the view espoused by the Madam C.J. Walker Company's promotional copy: "every age has its great men or women and this is true of every people. No unbiased historian can chronicle the history of the Negro without weaving the name of Madam C.J. Walker into the warp and woof of its life and institutions here in America." The dust jacket of Lowry's hagiographic book, in addition to repeating the misinformation about Walker's wealth, puffs her up as "a noted philanthropist and [a] champion of women's rights," and Lowry's text adopts a similarly adoring tone, typified by its opening sentence: "There has never been anyone like her."

There is only one problem with elevating Walker into the pantheon of African American leaders: her fame has a rather tenuous connection to black pride. Walker's money came from building a cosmetics empire whose most lucrative products (including Wonderful Hair Grower, Temple Grower, and Glossine) helped to straighten naturally curly hair. In addition, she adapted the hot-comb, lengthening the distance between the teeth, so that it would more effectively straighten the hair of black women. Rather than attempting to transform Walker into a pioneering civil rights leader or a great philanthropist (she was neither), we should be content to remember Walker for what she was: a first-rate businesswoman who sold products with a dubious but lasting legacy.

Madam C.J. Walker was born Sarah Breedlove in 1867, the child of former slaves, on a plantation in Delta, Louisiana. She died fifty-two years later in an Irvington-on-Hudson mansion that she built in the same area as the Tiffany and Rockefeller estates -- an area so wealthy that that there seemed no need for racially restrictive covenants. It is, to put the matter mildly, a long way from Delta to Westchester. Walker lost her parents at seven, married at fourteen, and became a mother three years later. She endured three marriages, the last of which was to Charles Joseph Walker, who supplied knowledge of the newspaper business and the name under which Sarah would become famous. (She adopted the honorific "Madam" to borrow a bit of old-world distinction, a common designation within the cosmetics world; she added an "e" to Madam only toward the end of her life.)

As much as anyone else, Walker created the modern cosmetics industry. Until the late nineteenth century, women who bought cosmetics purchased them from local sources. The African American cosmetics market, not surprisingly, was left largely untapped, as most blacks had precious little disposable income. In transforming the beauty industry, Walker brought a national focus (in terms of advertising, distribution, and mass production) that simultaneously retained the local touch (by crisscrossing the nation to promote her products in person, opening up Madam Walker beauty parlors, and employing thousands of door-to-door sales agents who had been trained in the Madam Walker school of beauty). Cosmetics lines directed at white consumers, such as Mary Kay and Estée Lauder, derived their sales techniques from those perfected by Walker's agents, as these companies emulated Walker's development of a line of products that won women's loyalty to her "system" of beautification.

More important than her introduction of a national focus on cosmetics sales, though, was Walker's penchant for marketing. Black newspapers received so much advertising revenue from the Walker Company that they felt compelled to run positive articles about the company's namesake -- coverage that read not all that differently from advertisement copy itself. "Like a dream from the Orient," an article in the Indianapolis Freeman reported "or ... like a mighty effort of the imagination fired by a belief in some unseen power, swayed and urged on and on by an invisible, yet potent, force, is the life story of Madam C.J. Walker -- her beginning, her struggles, and her ultimate success." In her company literature, Walker shrewdly constructed a mystical narrative to explain how she stumbled upon the Wonderful Hair Grower elixir that alleviated her own balding: "One night I had a dream, and in that dream a big black man appeared to me and told me what to mix up for my hair. Some of the remedy was grown in Africa, but I sent for it, mixed it, put it on my scalp, and in a few weeks my hair was coming in faster than it had ever fallen out. I tried it on my friends; it helped them. I made up my mind to sell it." Later Walker claimed that this dream had divine origins, saying that it was "an inspiration from God." It is a testament to the staying power of Walker's dream that nearly a century later her inane narrative sounds familiar to connoisseurs of late-night television pitches.

Walker's talent for marketing also skillfully drew upon dimensions of Horatio Alger narratives to help burnish her public image. Her standard account of her business success could come directly from the pages of Ragged Dick: "I began, of course, in a most modest way. I made house-to-house canvasses among people of my race, and after a while I got going pretty well, though I naturally encountered many obstacles and discouragements before I finally met with real success." In interviews, moreover, Walker never failed to mention that she started her business with just $1.25 and always emphasized the value of an honest day's work. "If I have accomplished anything in life it is because I have been willing to work hard," Walker said. "I never yet started anything doubtingly and I have always believed in keeping at things with a vim." Later in life she coined a series of aphorisms that would have caused Benjamin Franklin to swell with pride: "I got my start by giving myself a start"; "Perseverance is my motto"; "Don't sit around waiting for opportunities. You have to get up and make them."

Not content for Walker to be known exclusively for her business savvy, Walker's admirers insist on re-inventing her as a great philanthropist. Admittedly Walker was the first woman in the world to give $1,000 to a colored YMCA (a black first!) and she contributed some money to anti-lynching efforts. Yet even her philanthropic efforts have a decidedly mercenary feel, stemming less from a desire to improve the life-chances of disadvantaged blacks than to participate in what corporation executives today would call "business development." In one of her many letters to Booker T. Washington designed to curry favor with the black leader, Walker revealingly wrote that "[I] am in the business world not for myself alone, but to do all the good I can for the uplift of my race, which you well know by the great sacrifice I made in the interest of the YMCA of Indianapolis." Walker realized that giving large amounts of money created headlines, which in turn helped to raise her profile among African Americans and to expand the Madam Walker brand.

The current effort to extol Walker's philanthropic prowess, moreover, rests in sharp tension with the opulent lifestyle that garnered her so much attention during her lifetime. Walker had a well-known weakness for diamonds, full-length mink coats, antiques, Persian rugs, and state-of-the-art automobiles. After she bought the Westchester property, Walker boasted to a reporter that "I intend to erect on that property a home that will cost me no less than $100,000. And it is going to be very swell." To the extent that she was a race woman, Walker believed in racial uplift through purchasing power, in liberation through commodification.

Much of the retrospective emphasis on Walker's charity can be traced to a discomfort with the way in which Walker amassed her fortune. Just as emphasizing the booty-shaking videos that Jet's owner Robert L. Johnson helped to proliferate on BET is somehow distasteful now that he owns a professional basketball team, so, too, would many of Walker's admirers prefer not to focus on the hair-straightening products that brought Walker her fortune. While it may be thought that embarrassment over such products arose only during the Afro'ed '60s and '70s, when Black was Beautiful, Walker's methods in fact provoked the ire of a number of her contemporaries. "What every woman who bleaches and straightens out needs, is not her appearance changed, but her mind changed," Nannie Helen Burroughs, a member of the National Association of Colored Women, wrote at the time. "If Negro women would use half the time they spend on trying to get white, to get better, the race would move forward apace." Elsewhere Burroughs called black women who straightened their hair "Negrophobes." Similarly, Marcus Garvey railed against the "Anglocizing" of black hair. No doubt Burroughs and Garvey would have been horrified to learn that, following Walker's death, her daughter A'Lelia introduced a product called Tan-Off that was designed to bleach the skin.

Beverly Lowry makes no apologies for the products that Walker pedaled. She argues that black women who straighten their hair do so not as an expression of self-loathing, but as a form of self-actualization. "She just wants options, to be able to fix herself up however she pleases and in the styles of her time," Lowry writes of Walker's archetypal customer. "Not simply for vanity but also for purposes of confidence and practicality, so when she walks into a room she knows and likes how she looks, and can put that one small worry aside and go on to what is important."

Lowry would have done well to leave the matter here. Instead she resorts to the odious politics of black authenticity in her derision of Walker's critics. "The light-skinned, educated women running the NACW have no way to comprehend the secret strengths of Sarah Walker," Lowry admonishes, "never having picked cotton, scrubbed clothes or cooked and cleaned for a living; their parents never having been inventoried like fence posts." Lowry seems to believe that being educated renders African American women somehow incapable of leveling criticism at their black sisters. She proceeds to charge that Walker's critics simply do not understand the struggles that real black women face: "these are educated light-skinned women whose experience would seem to have little in common with that of a hardworking brown-skinned woman." Although divisions among African Americans along color lines are too often ignored, labeling Walker's critics high-yellow snobs with "aquiline" noses and "soft hair" does not much help in assessing the legitimacy of their claims.

For someone who has chosen to write about cosmetics, Lowry often fails to grasp that a large part of what is deemed beautiful stems from socially constructed notions. And some of these cultural inventions devalue black features. Why, Lowry seems to wonder, is there so much ado about a 'do? According to Lowry, Walker's customers "just want their hair to look nice, and not one of them doesn't know the pain of hair wrapping or the perils of chemical treatment." But arguing that women want hair that "looks nice" does nothing to resolve the matter. Indeed, hair that "looks nice" seems to indicate that un-straightened hair is somehow unattractive. Lowry apparently subscribes to the old, cruel distinction between "good hair" and "bad hair," as when she writes about Walker's impetus to tinker with chemicals to ameliorate her balding. "She lays most of the blame on poor diet and stress," Lowry remarks, "but she was also probably experimenting with concoctions to tame her natural frizz so that she could style it however she wished." Encouraging women to "tame" their wild hair hardly seems to embrace the notion that feminine beauty comes in a variety of forms. It is a bitter irony that Lowry's push for versatility and self-actualization through physical appearance unwittingly constrains black women who wish to wear their hair un-straightened.

Lowry's book is also marred by her peculiar decision to introduce herself into the biography, employing a technique that reached its nadir in Edmund Morris's Dutch. Although Lowry thankfully does not subject the reader to a fictional "Beverly Lowry," the intrusions distract the reader nonetheless. When writing of Walker's childhood growing up near the Mississippi River early in the narrative, for instance, Lowry notes: "It's a fantasy of mine to stand magically mid-river and hold out my arms, touching Louisiana and Arkansas, where my parents grew up, with the fingertips of one hand and, with the other, Mississippi, where I did." And this self-indulgence pales in comparison to Lowry's description of the scene that she witnessed at the county courthouse in Vicksburg, Mississippi when she was researching Walker's marital history:

When I was there, most of the employees on that floor of the courthouse were women: old, young, thin, fat, black, white. A fellow employee had just given birth, and everybody was talking about what to buy for the baby. A very large woman was having a long telephone call with a female friend who, as became clear from the conversation on my end of the line, was complaining about a man who'd betrayed her. On a table at the end of the room were open boxes of doughnuts, and the large woman kept breaking off bits of stale pastry as she doled out advice.

Lowry cannot resist informing her readers that she has done her homework. She is so enamored of this technique that she deploys it again to draw attention to an Irvington-on-Hudson field trip. It is, of course, necessary for a diligent researcher to visit Walker's estate to get a sense of the grounds and the structure. What is not necessary is an elaborate account of the menu at the dinner party that Lowry attended at the mansion: "With the current owners I have sipped champagne in her front parlor while Leontyne Price sang Puccini in the background," Lowry writes. "I've chopped vegetables in her kitchen for an elegant meal, have walked through her halls and onto her fabulous veranda overlooking the Hudson and have seen the Battle Creek bath cabinet in her basement, even walked into her private stand-up shower with water jets up and down the walls." Lowry makes only the meekest effort to tie her dinner party at Walker's mansion to her nominal protagonist: "As we enjoyed the red wine, crown roast of lamb and fresh mushrooms, onions, locally grown squash and zucchini, I thought of Madame serving a meal for her Indianapolis boarders from a single pot...."

Lowry believes herself to be practicing something called "creative nonfiction." But blocking the view of her subject hardly qualifies as a variety of literary creativity. Indeed, perpetually resorting to the first-person in non-fiction writing demonstrates not the presence of creativity but its absence. Biography, when executed well, allows the reader to understand better the subject's world and places the choices that the subject makes in context. Whatever one thinks of Robert Caro's assessment of Lyndon Johnson's character, The Path to Power vividly captures the isolation and the desperation of the Texas hill country in the early twentieth century. Similarly, Lowry should have gone about the business of re-creating the existence of impoverished black sharecroppers in the postbellum South rather than jarringly alternating between Walker's times and her own adventures in research. Biographers would be well advised to reserve their solipsistic fantasies and their dinner party anecdotes for their interviews with Brian Lamb.

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