Consistently well-developed, Looking over Black Shoulders is a searing work of historical imagination and perspective that succeeds in turning America on its head. Not since John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me has a writer so captured the essence of American race relations.
—Tom Layne, author of The Assassination of Rush Limbaugh

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On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker (Lisa Drew Books (Paperback))

September 1, 2018 - Comment

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

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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.She was the daughter of slaves, married at 14, a widow with a baby daughter at 20. But, by the time that she was 40, Madam C.J. Walker (1867-1919) was making as much money as a white corporate executive, thanks to her popular hair-care products for black women and her brilliance at marketing them. She created a workforce of sales agents that gave African American women job options other than being washerwomen or domestics. As her prominence and wealth increased, she became a generous benefactor of black educational institutions, and such a staunch supporter of the antilynching movement that the State Department labeled her a “race agitator” and denied her a passport in 1919. Yet, she had plenty of time for fun, too; she built a lavish mansion (near John D. Rockefeller’s) in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York, and her daughter Lelia entertained the Harlem Renaissance elite in a spectacular Manhattan townhouse that was renovated with revenues from the company’s New York branch. Author A’Lelia Bundles, a veteran television journalist and Madam Walker’s descendant, reminds us that controversy over straightened hair has raged within the black community for a century, and that the businesswoman insisted that her aim never was to “de-kink” her customers’ tresses, but instead to “grow” them through proper care, frequent washing, and improved nutrition. Bundles seamlessly weaves together her great-great-grandmother’s remarkable personal odyssey with the broader outlines of African American struggle in the early 20th century, to create a colorful biography that’s also a fascinating social history. –Wendy Smith

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