A Dream Forgotten | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

A Dream Forgotten

The author of "Her Dream of Dreams: The Rise and Triumph of Madam C.J. Walker" will sign at Lemuria Books 1 p.m. on Saturday, May 3. She will also sign May 2 at 5 p.m. at Square Books in Oxford.

In the end, it all went. The organ, according to a reporter, was her "dream of dreams" and the last thing to go. Only the furniture in the bedroom where she died in May 1919 was not sold. By 1931, her company was a memory, but her legacy had just begun. Madam C. J. Walker's death had been the end of an era for blacks in early America. The story of America's first black woman millionaire is not just about Walker, but also about family (where Walker came from and her own daughter's mismanagement of her company after her death), business and the era of the Harlem Renaissance.

Born Sarah Breedlove in 1867 in Delta, La., Walker went from poverty to ownership of at least three homes (in Indianapolis, New York City and St. Louis), after inventing hair-care products for black women and starting the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company to make and sell them.

Biographer Beverly Lowry engaged in years of research that enables her to include newspaper articles, letters and photographs in her 480-page biography of Walker, "Her Dream of Dreams: The Rise and Triumph of Madam C. J. Walker" (Knopf, 2003, $27.50). Although Lowry starts off by saying she believes that "there has never been anyone like her," she also notes it's unlikely that we will ever know everything about Walker, the woman that history has been quick to omit.

To make up for facts Lowry could not find, she uses her skills as a novelist and her imagination. Lowry engages us in her search for knowledge about a woman outspoken enough to publicly excoriate Booker T. Washington for slighting her by refusing to acknowledge her at the National Negro Business League convention in 1912, yet powerful enough to be photographed with him two years later.

Early in the book, Lowry interweaves information about her own beginnings in the Mississippi Delta, setting us up for the history that is later intermingled into the life of Walker. Lowry includes details of lynchings, race riots and the violent deaths of some of Walker's companions. These things are not to distract from the biography, but instead add credibility to much of the history that Lowry has to piece together to write a story that's an important chapter in American history.

Based on what Lowry learns about Walker, the author "fantasizes" a death-bed scene in Walker's childhood where her mother gives her three principles: (1) Learn to read. (2) Stay out of white people's way. (3) Don't mind business that's not your own. Thus, the novel meets history in a triumphant book filled with both exemplary research and intelligent prose.

Lowry is the director of the Creative Nonfiction Program at George Mason University in Washington, D.C. Lowry will read from the book twice in Mississippi: On Friday, May 2 at 5 p.m. she will be at Square Books in Oxford and at Lemuria Books in Banner Hall at 1 p.m. on Saturday, May 3.

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