The Black Rose

Written by Tananarive Due
Review by Tracey A. Callison

Born to emancipated slaves in 1867, Sarah Breedlove (later known as Madam C. J. Walker) struggled through poverty, racism and sexism to become America’s first black female millionaire. Basing her novel on research done by the late Alex Haley (which included interviews, letters and research provided by A’Lelia Perry Bundles, Mme. Walker’s great-great-granddaughter), Ms. Due has created a work that dramatically illustrates the life of one of America’s most interesting (and unsung) women.

The first half of the novel explores Sarah’s early years: the deaths of her parents, the subsequent move to Vicksburg with her older sister, her marriage at the age of fourteen, and her move to St. Louis with her young daughter. The catalyst for change comes with the 1904 World’s Fair, when she hears both Booker T. Washington and his wife speak. Energized and inspired, she conceives of the idea for a business, the production of a hair care product. Part of the legend of Mme. Walker was her insistence that the formula for her product came to her in a dream. Due handles this delicately, explaining how the story could have grown while still giving full credit to Sarah’s own strength, determination and intelligence as the root causes for her success.

The second half of the novel explores her marriage to C. J. Walker, the phenomenal growth of her business, and the toll it takes on her family. It also shows her maturation as a political activist and her burning desire to make a difference in the lives of others less fortunate.

Due also takes the time to explore the historical setting, giving the flavors and sounds of early twentieth-century life from Vicksburg to New York while also introducing us to some of Black America’s most influential and respected figures. An inspirational story, about an inspirational woman. (For more information about the life of Mme. Walker, watch for the first comprehensive biography, On Her Own Ground by A’Lelia Bundles, due out in February 2001.