Theme: A book from the the list Non-fiction Tour of America: 50 Books for 50 States. Dallas’ turn this month, and since she was born in Missouri, our book for June:
“I had a dream and that dream begot other dreams until now I am surrounded by all my dreams come true.” Madam C.J. Walker
It is difficult to conceive the tremendous obstacles Madam C.J. Walker faced in her rise to become America’s premier businesswoman in the early 20th century. Born on a plantation to former slaves, deprived of formal education, and simply being a black woman in an era where thousands of lynchings went unpunished and the civil rights movement that would finally turn the tide of “separate but equal” and institutionalized racism was still half a century away. Madam Walker would die a year before women were even granted the right to vote.
Fierce, determined, a brilliant marketer and business mogul, Madam Walker was an all-around badass; she created an empire that boosted thousands of women out of domestic work and into independence with her hair-growing product that generated enormous revenue and improved the health and self-esteem of thousands of consumers. She defiantly defended her products against those who accused her of attempting to emulate white culture with hair-straightening techniques:
“’Right here let me correct the erroneous impression that I claim to straighten hair…I deplore such impression because I have always held myself out as a hair culturist.”
And when Madam C.J. Walker was denied a seat at the table, as demonstrated in initially frosty interactions with Booker T. Washington, she brought her own chair and invited herself anyway.
On Her Own Ground is a fantastic biography written by A’Lelia Bundles, Madam Walker’s great-great granddaughter. A feat of journalistic rigor about a subject whose life is shrouded by obscure and incomplete source materials, Bundles manages to paint a beautiful portrait, made all the more evocative by her personal connection to the subject. The only frustrating part of the book is that we are presented with the captivating public life of Madam Walker, but her personal life, her thoughts, feelings, internal struggles, remains painfully obfuscated due to lack of information. Her biography often generates more questions than answers, and all we have from her comes in the form of letters and interviews.
We do, however, know about her public works, and they were manifold. In addition to being hugely successful, she was a generous philanthropist and fierce supporter of civil rights in a time when she was still referred to in newspapers as a “negress.”
Madam Walker traveled from one coast to another, leaving her mark wherever she went, from St. Louis to Indianapolis to Harlem. That she succeeded despite the odds brings with it a sobering reflection. For every Madam C.J. Walker, there were thousands upon thousands whose spirit and ingenuity could not break through the barrier of racism. How many bright lights were extinguished because of fear and ignorance? On Her Own Ground serves both as an inspiration and paean to an incredible woman’s spirit and strength and a stark reminder of how we must continue the struggle against returning to such dark times.
Which is why this scares the hell out of me.