On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker

Alelia Bundles, Author
Alelia Bundles, Author Scribner Book Company $30 (416p) ISBN 978-0-684-82582-3
Ebook - 416 pages - 978-0-7432-1570-1
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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.
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