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"A COMPELLING NARRATIVE . . . This book is worth reading for anyone wanting a glimpse into what the human spirit can create with the odds stacked sky high."
Born to former slaves on a Louisiana plantation in 1867, Madam C.J. Walker rose from poverty and indignity to become America's first black female millionaire, the head of a hugely successful beauty 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… See more details below
Born to former slaves on a Louisiana plantation in 1867, Madam C.J. Walker rose from poverty and indignity to become America's first black female millionaire, the head of a hugely successful beauty 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 Haley's work to an inspiring completion.
Blending documented history, vivid dialogue, and a sweeping fictionalized narrative, Tananarive Due paints a vivid portrait of this passionate and tenacious pioneer and the unforgettable era in which she lived.
"A COMPELLING NARRATIVE . . . This book is worth reading for anyone wanting a glimpse into what the human spirit can create with the odds stacked sky high."
The slave-kitchers couldn't get her. Not so long as she stayed hid.
Stealthily, Sarah crouched her small frame behind the thick tangle of tall grass that pricked through the thin fabric of her dress, which was so worn at the hem that it had frayed into feathery threads that tickled her shins.
"Sarah, where you at?"
Sarah felt her heart leap when she heard the dreaded voice so close to her. That was the meanest, most devilish slave-kitcher of all, the one called Terrible Lou the Wicked. If Terrible Lou the Wicked caught her,
Sarah knew she'd be sold west to the Indians for sure and she'd never see her family again. Sarah tried to slow her breathing so she could be quiet as a skulking cat. The brush near her stirred as Terrible Lou barreled through, searching for her. Sweat trickled into Sarah's eye, but she didn't move even to rub out the sting.
"See, I done tol' Mama 'bout how you do. Ain't nobody playin' no games with you! I'ma find you, watch. And when I do, I'ma break me off a switch,
an' you better not holler."
A whipping! Sarah had heard Terrible Lou whipped little children half to death just for the fun of it, even babies. Sarah was more determined than ever not to be caught. If Terrible Lou found her, Sarah decided she'd jump out and wrastle her to the ground. Sarah crouched closer to the ground,
ready to spring. She felt her heart going boom-boom boom-boom deep in her chest. "Ain't no slave-kitcher takin' me!" Sarah yelled out, daring
"Yes, one is, too," Terrible Lou said, the voice suddenly much closer.
"I'ma cut you up an' sell you in bits if you don't come an' git back to work."
Sarah saw her sister Louvenia's plaited head appear right in front of her,
her teeth drawn back into a snarl, and she screamed. Louvenia was too big to wrastle! Screaming again, Sarah took off running in the high grass, and she could feel her sister's heels right behind her step for step. Louvenia was laughing, and soon Sarah was laughing, too, even though it made her lungs hurt because she was running so hard.
"You always playin' some game! Well, I'ma catch you, too. How come you so slow?" Louvenia said, forcing the words through her hard breaths, her legs pumping.
"How come you so ugly?" Sarah taunted, and shrieked again as Louvenia's arm lunged toward her, brushing the back of her dress. Sarah barely darted free with a spurt of speed.
"You gon' be pickin' rice 'til you fall an' drown in them rice fields downriver."
"No, I ain't neither! You the one gon' drown," Sarah said.
"You the one can't swim good."
"Can, too! Better'n you." By now, Sarah was nearly gasping from the effort of running as she climbed the knoll behind their house. Louvenia lunged after her legs, and they both tumbled into the overgrown crabgrass. They swatted at each other playfully, and Sarah tried to wriggle away, but
Louvenia held her firmly around her waist.
"See, you caught now!" Louvenia said breathlessly. "I'ma sell you for a half dollar."
"A half dollar!" Sarah said, insulted. She gave up her struggle against her older sister's tight grip. Louvenia's arms, it seemed to her, were as strong as a man's. "What you mean? Papa paid a dollar for his new boots!"
Louvenia grinned wickedly. "That's right. You ain't even worth one of
Papa's boots, lazy as you is."
"There Papa go now. I'ma ask him what he say I'm worth," Sarah teased, and
Louvenia glanced around anxiously for Papa. If Papa saw Louvenia pinning
Sarah to the ground, Sarah knew he'd whip Louvenia for sure. Louvenia and
Alex weren't allowed to play rough with Sarah. That was Papa's law,
because she was the baby. And she'd been born two days before Christmas,
Sarah liked to remind Louvenia, so she was close to baby Jesus besides.
"You done it agin, Sarah. Got me playin'," Louvenia complained, satisfied that Papa was nowhere near after peering toward the dirt road and dozens of acres of cotton fields that had been planted in March and April,
sprouting with plants and troublesome grass and weeds. Still, her voice was much more hushed than it had been before. "You always gittin' somebody in trouble."
"I ain't tell you to chase me. An' I ain't tell you to stop workin'."
"Sarah, see, you think we jus' out here playin', but then I'm the one got to answer why we ain't finish yet."
Seeing Louvenia's earnest brown eyes, Sarah knew for the first time that her sister had lost the heart to pretend she was a slave-kitcher, or for any games at all. Right now, Louvenia's face looked as solemn as Mama's or
Papa's when the cotton yields were poor or when their house was too cold.
And Louvenia was right, Sarah knew. Just a few days before, Louvenia had been whipped when they broke one of the eggs they'd been gathering in the henhouse. It had been Lou's idea to break up the boredom of the task by tossing the eggs to each other standing farther and farther away. They broke an egg by the time they were through, and Sarah hadn't seen Mama that mad in a long time. "Girl, you ten years old, almost grown!" Mama had said, thrashing Louvenia's bottom with a thin branch from the sassafras tree near their front door. "That baby ain't s'posed to be lookin' after you! When you gon' get some head sense?"
Louvenia's eyes, to Sarah, looked sad and even a little scared. Maybe she was remembering her thrashing, too. Sarah didn't want her sister to feel cross with her, because Louvenia was her only playmate. In fact, although
Sarah would never want to admit it to her, Louvenia was her best friend,
her most favorite person. Next to Papa and Mama, of course.
Sarah squeezed Lou's hand. "Come on, I'll help. We won't play no mo' 'til we done."
"We ain't gon' be done 'fore Papa and them come back."
"Yeah, we will, too," Sarah said. "If we sing."
That made Louvenia smile. She liked to sing, and Papa had taught them songs he learned from his pappy when he was a boy on a big plan-
tation he said had a hundred slaves. Sarah couldn't sing as well as her sisterher voice wouldn't always do what she told it tobut singing always made work go by faster. Mama sang, too, when the womenfolk came on
Saturdays to wash laundry with them on the riverbank. But Papa had the best voice of all. Papa sang when he was picking, and to Sarah his voice was as deep and pretty as the Mississippi River on a full-moon night. Papa always started singing when he was tired, and Sarah liked to watch him pick up his broad shoulders each time he took a breath before singing a new verse, as if the song was making him stronger:
O me no weary yet,
O me no weary yet.
I have a witness in my heart,
O me no weary yet.
Sarah and Louvenia enjoyed the uplifting messages in Mama's and Papa's songs, which were mostly about Jesus, heaven, and Gabriel's trumpet, but they also liked the sillier songs Mama didn't approve of, the ones Papa sang on Saturday nights after he'd had a drink from the jug he kept hidden behind the old cracked wagon wheel that leaned against their cabin. Sarah and Louvenia thought those songs were funny, so that was what they sang that afternoon as they crouched to chop weeds from Mama's garden:
Hi-ho, for Charleston gals!
Charleston gals are the gals for me.
As I went a-walking down the street,
Up steps Charleston gals to take a walk with me.
I kep' a-walking and they kep' a-talking,
I danced with a gal with a hole in her stocking.
Together, as Sarah and her sister yanked up the stubborn weeds that grew frustratingly fast around Mama's rows of green beans, potatoes, and yams,
they sang their father's old songs. Finally, the boredom that had felt like it was choking Sarah all day long in the hot sun finally let her mind alone. Instead of fantasizing about slave-kitchers Papa had told them so many stories about, or fishing for catfish, or the peppermint sticks at the general store in town she was allowed to eat at Christmastime, Sarah thought only of her task. Her hands seemed to fly. She'd chop the soil to loosen it with the rusted old hatchet Papa let her use, then pull up the weeds by the roots so they wouldn't come back. Chop and pull, chop and pull. Sarah didn't stop working even when the rows of calluses on her small hands began to throb in rhythm with her chopping. By the time they saw Mama's kerchief bobbing toward the house in the distance, followed by
Papa's wide-brim hat, their weeding was finished, and they were lying on their backs in the crabgrass behind their house, arguing over what shapes they could see in the ghostly moon that was just beginning to make itself visible in a corner of the late-afternoon sky.
The cabin's windows, which were pasted shut with paper instead of glass during cooler months, were a curse in the winter, since they were little protection against the biting cold even with the shutters tied shut. But now, in spring, when the bare windows should have been inviting in a cool twilight breeze, the air inside the cabin was so still, so stiff and hot that Sarah hated to breathe it. It felt to her like hot air was trapped in the wooden walls, in the loose floorboards, in every crooked shingle on the drafty roof. Sarah watched the sunlight creeping through the slatted cracks in the walls and ceiling where the mud needed patching, wishing dark would hurry up and come and make it cool. Hungry as she was, Sarah wished Mama didn't have the cookstove lit, because it only made the cabin hotter. And it wasn't even summertime yet, Sarah thought sadly. By summer the heat would be worse, and the sun would bring out the cotton they would have to pick come the first of September.
Papa swatted at the big green flies and skeeters hovering above the table. Mosquitoes always seemed to know when it was suppertime, Sarah thought. Papa's arm moved lazily in front of his face as he shooed the insects, as if he were hunched over the table asleep. Sarah knew better than to try to talk to Papa too soon after he'd come back from the fields,
especially close to June. Sarah and Louvenia were both too small to help in the fields in late May, because that was when Papa, Mama, and Alex pushed plows to break up acre after acre of soil to tend the cotton plants properly. Sarah and Louvenia did weeding, or on some days carried water and corncakes out to the croppers. Papa hated plowing those deep furrows between the rows, and Sarah could see how much he hated it in the lines on his frowning, sunbaked face as he sat at the table. Papa and Alex were barebacked, so slick with sweat they looked greased up.
Papa and Alex spoke to each other with short grunts and words uttered so low Sarah couldn't make out what they were saying, man-talking that came from deep in their throats. She'd heard men speak that way to each other in the fields, or as they rested on the front stoop and shared a jug and rumbles of laughter. Papa grunted something, and Alex smiled, muttering husky words back. Sarah knew her brother was nearly a man now, and she'd seen the change in the way Papa treated him. It was the same way Mama was treating Louvenia like a grown woman, expecting her to cook and mend and do a bigger share of fieldwork. Everyone was grown-up except her.
Sarah knew she could go to her pallet and play with the doll Papa had made her out of cornhusks wrapped together with twine, but she wanted to be more grown-up than that. She walked across the cabinshe counted twenty paces to get from one side to the other; she'd learned numbers up to twenty from Papaand stood by the cookstove on her tiptoes to watch
Mama stir collard greens in her big saucepan while Louvenia sat on the floor and mended a tear in her dress. Mama had one kerchief on her head and one knotted around her neck, both of them gray from grime. Her cheeks were full, and she had a youthful, pretty face; skin black as midnight and smooth like an Indian squaw's, Papa always said. Gazing at her, Sarah wondered if her mother would ever become stooped-over and sour-faced like so many other women she had seen in the fields.
Sarah expected Mama to tell her to get from underfoot, but she didn't.
Instead she gave Sarah a big, steaming bowl. "Pass yo' papa his supper,"
Mama told her, and Sarah grinned. The smell of the greens, yams, and corn bread made her stomach flip from hunger. Papa's eyes didn't smile when he took his food from Sarah, but he did squeeze her fingers. Sarah knew that was his special way of saying Thank you, Li'l Bit.
Outside, Papa's hound barked loudly, and Papa and Alex looked up at the same instant. They all heard the whinny of a horse and a heavy clop-clopping sound that signaled the arrival of not one horse, but two or more. An approaching wagon scraped loudly in the dirt.
"Who'n de world . . .?" Mama said, leaning toward the window.
"Not-uh," Papa warned her, standing tall so quickly that his chair screeched on the hard packed-dirt floor. "Don' put your head out. Git back." Something in Papa's voice that Sarah couldn't quite name made her stomach fall silent, and it seemed to harden to stone. His voice was dangerous, wound tight, and Sarah didn't know where that new quality had come from so suddenly. She had never heard Papa sound that way before.
Silently, Mama took Sarah's hand and pulled her back toward the stove at the rear of the cabin. Louvenia was still sitting on the floor, but her hands were frozen with her thread and needle in midair. Alex stood up at the table while Papa took long strides to the doorway, where he stood with his arms folded across his chest.
"Whoa there!" a man's voice outside snapped to his horses. It sounded like a white man. Sarah felt her mother's grip tighten around her fingers, her face drawn with concern.
Papa's whole demeanor changed; the shoulders that had been thrust so high suddenly fell, as if he had exhaled all his breath. He shifted his weight,
no longer blocking the light from the doorway. The dangerous stance had vanished. "Evenin', Missus," Papa said, nearly mumbling.
"Evening, Owen," a woman's voice said.
A frightening thought came to Sarah: I hope they ain't here to take our house away. She didn't know why the visitors would do something like that,
but she did know that she'd heard Mama and Papa talking about their payment being late. And she knew that their house, like everything elseincluding the land as far as they could see, Papa's tools, their cottonseed, and even the straw pallets they slept onbelonged to the
Burney daughters. Time was, before 'Man-ci-pa-tion and the war that ended two years before Sarah was born, and before Ole Marster and Ole Missus died in '66 ("Of heartbreak," Mama always said, because of their land being overrun by Yankees and their crops and buildings burned up), the
Burneys owned Mama and Papa and a lot of other slaves besides. Some of those slaves, like Mama and Papa, still worked on the land as croppers.
But some of the other slaves, Mama told her, were so happy to be free that they'd just left.
Where'd they go? Sarah had asked, full of wonder at the notion that the other freed slaves had crossed the bridge to go to Vicksburg, or even beyond. The only other places she knew about were Mississippi and
Charleston, like in the song. Had they gone away on a steamship? On a train?
They went on they own feets, pullin' every scrap they owned on wagons,
Mama said. And Lord only know where they at now. Might wish they was back here. Now Sarah had a bad feeling. She wondered why Mama and Papa hadn't pulled a wagon with every scrap they owned and left on their own feet after freedom came, too. If they had, they wouldn't be late on their payment, and these white folks wouldn't be coming to take their house.
Tananarive Due is a former features writer and columnist for the Miami Herald. She has written two highly acclaimed novels: The Between and My Soul to Keep. Ms. Due makes her home in Longview, Washington.
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This was a wonderful way to tell the story of Madame CJ Walker. At first I did not know what to expect, but once I starting reading I could not put it down.