THE BLACK ROSE
was nominated for an
NAACP Image Award.
THE BLACK ROSE
BORN TO FORMER SLAVES
on a Louisiana plantation in 1867, Madam C.J. Walker rose from poverty and
indignity to become one of America's first black female tycoons, the head of
a hugely successful company, and a leading philanthropist in African
American causes. Renowned author Alex Haley became fascinated by the story
of this extraordinary heroine, and before his death in 1992 he embarked on
the research and outline of a major novel based on her life. Now with The
Black Rose, critically acclaimed writer Tananarive Due brings the work to
"I got my start by
giving myself a start," Madam C.J. was fond of saying as she recounted her
transformation from the uneducated laundress Sarah Breedlove to a woman of
wealth, culture, and celebrity. Madam C.J. was nearing forty and married to
a maverick Denver newspaperman when the wonder-working hair care method she
discovered changed her life. Seemingly overnight, she built a marketing
empire that enlisted more than twenty thousand bright young African American
women to demonstrate and sell her products door-to-door.
By the time she died
in 1919, Madam C.J. Walker had constructed her own factory from the ground
up, established a training school, and built a twenty-room mansion at
Irvington on the Hudson, New York, called Villa Lawaro.
brilliantly creative businesswoman, Madam C.J. also became a tireless
activist in the fight against racial oppression and a key figure in the
anti-lynching movement. A stalwart "race woman," she worked with black
leaders like Booker T. Washington, and her legacy inspired poets like
Langston Hughes. Yet she paid a steep emotional price for her worldly
triumphs. Betrayed by her husband, plagued by rumors of her beloved
daughter's scandalous behavior, Madam C.J. suffered the private pain and
disappointment all too familiar to many successful women.
In the tradition that
made Alex Haley's Roots an international bestseller, Tananarive Due blends
documented history, vivid dialogue, and a sweeping fictionalized narrative
into a spellbinding portrait of this passionate and tenacious pioneer and
the unforgettable era in which she lived.
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THE BLACK ROSE
October 29, 1916
No one had seen a car like it.
DELTA WAS NOT A rich town, mostly an assemblage of weatherbeaten country
stores, banks and feed shops beneath faded, hand-painted signs. Residents
sat on barrels in the shade and engaged in their cheapest town
entertainment, which was watching the episodes of the day; a hitched horse
trying to rear up, the parade of cotton growers' wagons on their way to
market, or a motorcar owner cursing in the middle of the street, working up
a sweat as he cranked furiously, trying to coax the engine of his stalled
Tin Lizzie back to life.
So, when a long, sleek black convertible touring car glided its way into
Delta that day, driven by a somber-faced colored chauffeur donning his black
cap and uniform, the entire street took notice. The car seemed to stretch
forever, with room for at least seven or eight people to sit. And who was
the primly-dressed colored woman in a black suit and white shirtwaist who
sat in the back seat with a smile fixed on her face, waving to people as she
Before long, colored and white children, and a few older people, were
chasing the car. When the car slowed and the woman inside invited a few
children to climb in beside her for a ride, excitement rippled through the
town like fire through a field of summer wheat; colored people began to pour
toward the car, clamoring for a ride themselves. Soon, there was no room on
the street for passing traffic, and whites could only stare at the scene
with bafflement. Was this woman the wife of a king or chief somewhere in
Virtually unnoticed, another colored woman walked through the crowd passing
out yellow notices to any of the colored onlookers who would have one: MME.
C.J. WALKER HAIR PRODUCTS, the advertisement said, and careful observers
noticed right away that the likeness of the woman affixed to pictured
products called Wonderful Hair Grower, Glossine and Vegetable Shampoo
matched the face of the woman inside the beautiful car. This was Madam C.J.
"That's her?" A barely concealed, excited whisper.
"Reckon so. That's her face, all right. Seen it on the shampoo box!"
The car came to a stop, and the Negro woman expelled a huff of air as she
stepped down from the car, betraying her bone-weariness, but the crowd of
onlookers didn't hear it. Sarah Breedlove Walker had been traveling for
months. In the past three weeks alone, she had visited five cities and
spoken to hundreds of Southern agents and customers. Last night she'd stayed
up in her boarding-house writing letters long past midnight. On mornings
like this, she awakened with leaden arms and legs, her back aflame, restful
sleep a distant memory. Headaches seemed her daily companions, and at times
her heart raced in her chest for no good reason at all. Her doctor's nagging
words plucked at her memory like prophecy: You'll work yourself to death,
Madam Walker. Your blood pressure's sky-high.
But as usual, when Sarah saw the huddled people waiting to greet her, their
faces glowing with anticipation, energy suffused her bones and flesh, lifted
her spirits, cleared her mind. Especially here, and especially today. She
Sarah's heart fluttered with a strange mixture of exhilaration and dread as
she stared at the loamy roadway beneath her delicately laced shoes. This
wide clay street had once touched her family's feet, long ago. The road now
carried shiny automobiles alongside the horses and buggies she remembered
from childhood, but many of the same clapboard homes still stood, older but
little changed. She'd been born here nearly fifty years ago, and now she was
And there was so much work to be done! The folks who used three-penny words
like ostentatious to criticize her motor-cars, diamond jewelry and
fifty-dollar shoes just didn't understand. She wasn't putting on airs. In
fact, truth be told, in this Louisiana sun she'd just as soon be wearing the
threadbare cotton dresses she'd worn in her days as a washerwoman, without
her starched white shirtwaist and heavy skirt to trap the heat against her
skin. But she had more to think about than her own comfort. How many Negroes
in towns like Delta had ever met one of their race who spoke, walked and
dressed as she did? How often could someone stir their imaginations into
thinking they might make a good wage working for themselves instead of
cleaning houses or sharecropping for white folks? Who could believe that a
woman, born poor like them, could grow wealthy selling products to other
Well, if ideas were bread, Sarah figured she could feed her whole nation.
And if the good Lord would just keep firing her words with inspiration, or
let her capture her people's attention through the finery of her car, then
Sarah decided, yes sir, it was all right. The travel and the fatigue, the
long years, the work and the sacrifice…it was all worthwhile. Only one life
that soon is past. Only what's done for God will last.
Sun or no sun, bone-tired or not, she was going on. Especially today, in
Delta. And especially now, when the Lord had guided her to more fortune than
any other woman of her race in the world.
"Lady...you got a million dollars?" a boy blurted out. "Lemme see it!"
The boy's mother swatted him across the cheek, too hard. Sarah's aching back
tensed when she saw anyone strike a child, and her heavy arms grew taut in
anger. All too easily, she recalled the beatings from her brother-in-law,
when she was just a child herself.
"Who you talkin' to?" The boy's mother shook his arm. "This ain't just no
lady. This is Madam." Sarah could hear her parents in the young woman's
country accent and cadences, and for a moment the woman's features blurred
into her mother's, a long-ago dream. "'Scuse his manners, Madam Walker,
ma'am. I mean, if chirren ain't got a mule's sense!"
Sarah nodded at the woman, smiling. Not a happy smile, just bittersweet and
knowing. I've got my own mule, by the name of Lelia, she thought. She knew
that mother's fear of balancing too much love with not enough discipline,
and the dangers only increased with money and status. That thought, the
first hint of self-pity, was banished as the crowd penned Sarah in,
flurrying for her attention. There were even some white folks vying to shake
her hand. Oh, yes. White folks had even come to hear one of her lectures in
Jackson last week, praise the Lord, and those were some ornery, Negro-hating
folks over in Mississippi! Seemed like her skin color mattered less all the
time, so long as her money was green.
"Please, Madam, you just sign me up, an' I'll be a good agent!"
"Madam Walker, I'm a washerwoman jus' like you was-"
Sarah touched as many as she could, distributing handshakes and hope with
equal measure as she walked through the crowd. "That's right," she said, her
voice pitched to rise above the din. "I started out just like you. My sister
and I were here without a thing to call our own, in a shack not far from
where we're standing now," she said. "The Lord showed me a way through hard
work and faith, and he can show you, too."
One old white woman caught Sarah's eye, standing in the shade of the awning
of the church where Sarah was scheduled to speak. The woman's bright eyes
watched Sarah's every move, a smile lighting up her gently wrinkled face.
Recognition eluded Sarah, but not the conviction that she had met this woman
Seeing Sarah's hesitation, the woman stepped toward her into the bright sun,
smile widening. "Sarah?" she began, then quickly corrected herself. "Madam
Walker. Do you know me?" Her thin lips were trembling slightly. Sarah
guessed she must be at least sixty-five, but it could be so hard to guess
with white folks, what with the way their skin aged so fast.
"I'm Anna Burney Long," the woman said. The name resonated straight to
Sarah's soul, momentarily stealing her words. "Your parents…worked for my
father." There was a world of meaning within that carefully inflected word.
Sarah flinched, but hid it well. "I remember you when you were an itty-bitty
lil' thing, out on the farm. I'd like to invite you out to the house for a
cold drink today, if you have the time. That cabin where you grew up is
still on the land."
Now, the memory of the woman's face was clear, washed of the years
in-between. Yes, Sarah had known this woman. Before the War, Sarah's parents
had belonged to her father.
"Mrs. Anna Burney Long," Sarah said, drawing out the name. Without being
obvious, she evaluated the scuffed shoes, the dull purse, a dress worn at
the hem, and realized that the Longs were poor folk compared to her. The
people who had owned her parents did not have nearly what she did. Sarah had
to conceal a smile. She would have loved to know what her father would have
to say about this. Funny this woman being named Long, because Sarah's
journey had been long, indeed.
"Lord, Lord," Madam C.J. Walker said, squeezing the white woman's hand. "I
accept your invitation, Mrs. Long. We've got lots to talk about, and a cold
drink after my speech would do me good."
From the beatific smile on the woman's face, Sarah knew Mrs. Long felt
honored. "How did you do it, Sarah...? I mean, Madam. All the Negroes I see
seem to have such a hard time, but you! How did you ever come so far?"
Sarah smiled sadly. "To tell you the truth, Missus Anna..." Sarah said with
a sigh, naturally lapsing into the form of address she'd used as a child,
"some days, I don't know myself."
Already, as the years began to blur away, Sarah could scarcely believe her
© Tananarive Due
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THE BLACK ROSE
“[Due is] an inspired choice. …Tremendous
– Kirkus Reviews
“One of the most exciting novels of the
– E. Lynn Harris, author
"Due’s leap into historical fiction is
accomplished and enlivened by rich
– Publishers Weekly
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THE BLACK ROSE
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THE BLACK ROSE
||Ultimately, what is this
novel really about?
||In your view, what is the
one quality that ultimately made Madam C.J. Walker so successful?
||In what ways did Sarah
Breedlove’s tragic losses make her stronger?
||In this novel, what was
Sarah’s biggest flaw?
||Is Sarah or C.J. Walker
more to blame for the outcome of their marriage?
||In what ways did C.J.
Walker help his wife become successful? Was he more of a help or a
||Did Sarah sacrifice too
much for her success? Explain why/why not.
||Why was Sarah’s
relationship with her daughter, A’Lelia, so volatile?
||Describe specific ways in
which Sarah’s journey to success might be applied to success in your own
life. (Each member should answer this individually).
||How might Madam C.J.
Walker’s story be used to encourage young people to imagine themselves
in circumstances that seem unattainable?
||What are the biggest
differences between the era of Madam C.J. Walker’s life (1867-1919) and
today? What obstacles still remain for African-Americans?
What obstacles still remain for women?
||If Madam Walker could
have changed one thing about her life, what do you think it would be?
How would that change have made her life different?
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