On Her Own Ground is the first full-scale, definitive biography of Madam C. J. Walker -- the legendary African American entrepreneur and philanthropist -- by her great-great-granddaughter, A'Lelia Bundles.
The daughter of slaves, Madam C. J. Walker was orphaned at seven, married at fourteen and widowed at twenty. She spent the better part of the next two decades laboring as a washerwoman for $1.50 a week. Then -- with the discovery of a revolutionary hair care formula for black women -- everything changed. By her death in 1919, Walker managed to overcome astonishing odds: building a storied beauty empire from the ground up, amassing wealth unprecedented among black women and devoting her life to philanthropy and social activism. Along the way, she formed friendships with great early-twentieth-century politi-cal figures such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington.
On Her Own Ground is not only the first comprehensive biography of one of recent history's most amazing entrepreneurs and philanthropists, it is about a woman who is truly an African American icon. Drawn from more than two decades of exhaustive research, the book is enriched by the author's exclusive access to personal letters, records and never-before-seen photographs from the family collection. Bundles also showcases Walker's complex relationship with her daughter, A'Lelia Walker, a celebrated hostess of the Harlem Renaissance and renowned friend to both Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. In chapters such as "Freedom Baby," "Motherless Child," "Bold Moves" and "Black Metropolis," Bundles traces her ancestor's improbable rise to the top of an international hair care empire that would be run by four generations of Walker women until its sale in 1985. Along the way, On Her Own Ground reveals surprising insights, tells fascinating stories and dispels many misconceptions.
Bundles, the great-great-granddaughter of America's first black woman millionaire, evinces great affection for her famous relative, even if she doesn't overcome a major hurdle: Madam Walker kept her intimate life so private that there's not much to say about it. In the first chapters, Bundles uses a lot of awkward "possibly"s and "perhaps"s as she speculates about her subject's motivations and feelings. Once into the swing of Madam Walker's career, however, Bundles sidesteps the problem by turning social historian, leaving questions of love and sex aside. Walker's trajectory from uneducated washerwoman to hair-care industry magnate becomes the organizing element for a larger mosaic of black life in America, from Reconstruction through the founding of the NAACP in 1909. There's solid business history here, too, as Madam Walker figures out how to make her kitchen industry into a national empire by franchising it. Walker's philanthropy and social consciousness (working for the antilynching and the African anticolonial movements, for example) made her an important powerbroker in the black community. With fascinating details on benevolent and fraternal organizations, urban churches, black colleges, political movements and government surveillance of those involved in them, Bundles takes readers on an engrossing tour of a neglected corner of American history. Agent, Gail Ross. (Feb. 1) Forecast: While this is too densely researched for the average Oprah fan, devotees of social history, women's studies and business narratives will find Bundles's work a treasure and find it they will as Bundles goes out on a major nine-city tour. This could easily become a staple in college-level African-American studies classes, and a reading group favorite. Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
There are no customer reviews available at this time. Would you like to write a review?
January 01, 2002
Number of Print Pages*
Adobe DRM EPUB
* Number of eBook pages may differ. Click here for more information.
Excerpt from On Her Own Ground by A'Lelia Bundles
Madam C. J. Walker's story has always deserved an expansive loom on which to weave the threads of her legendary life with the broad themes and major events of American history. As my great-great-grandmother's biographer -- and as a journalist who loves a well-told story -- I consider it to be my good fortune both that she was born in 1867 on the plantation where General Ulysses S. Grant staged the 1863 Siege of Vicksburg and that one of her brothers joined other former slaves in the 1879 mass exodus to the North from Louisiana and Mississippi. I could not have fabricated a more perfect scenario than her confrontation with Booker T. Washington at his 1912 National Negro Business League convention or her 1916 arrival in Harlem on the eve of America's entry into World War I. I could not have invented her 1917 visit to the White House to protest lynching or her decision to build a mansion near the Westchester County estates of John D. Rockefeller and Jay Gould. Certainly when I learned that she had been considered a "Negro subversive" in 1918 and had been put under surveillance by a black War Department spy, I was convinced that reality indeed was more interesting than most fiction.
It has surely been a bonus for me that Madam Walker knew so many of the other African American luminaries of her time because the work of their biographers has provided invaluable guidance. From the correspondence, papers and books of antilynching activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett, educators Mary McLeod Bethune and Booker T. Washington, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People executive secretary James Weldon Johnson, Crisis editor W.E.B. Du Bois, labor leader A. Philip Randolph and others, I have been able to resurrect long-forgotten relationships.
As a pioneer of the modern cosmetics industry and the founder of the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company, Madam Walker created marketing schemes, training opportunities and distribution strategies as innovative as those of any entrepreneur of her time. As an early advocate of women's economic independence, she provided lucrative incomes for thousands of African American women who otherwise would have been consigned to jobs as farm laborers, washerwomen and maids. As a philanthropist, she reconfigured the philosophy of charitable giving in the black community with her unprecedented contributions to the YMCA and the NAACP. As a political activist, she dreamed of organizing her sales agents to use their economic clout to protest lynching and racial injustice. As much as any woman of the twentieth century, Madam Walker paved the way for the profound social changes that altered women's place in American society.