October 29, 1916
No one had seen a car like it.
DELTA WAS NOT A rich town, mostly an assemblage of weatherbeaten country stores, banks and feed shops beneath faded, hand-painted signs. Residents sat on barrels in the shade and engaged in their cheapest town entertainment, which was watching the episodes of the day; a hitched horse trying to rear up, the parade of cotton growers' wagons on their way to market, or a motorcar owner cursing in the middle of the street, working up a sweat as he cranked furiously, trying to coax the engine of his stalled Tin Lizzie back to life.
So, when a long, sleek black convertible touring car glided its way into Delta that day, driven by a somber-faced colored chauffeur donning his black cap and uniform, the entire street took notice. The car seemed to stretch forever, with room for at least seven or eight people to sit. And who was the primly-dressed colored woman in a black suit and white shirtwaist who sat in the back seat with a smile fixed on her face, waving to people as she passed?
Before long, colored and white children, and a few older people, were chasing the car. When the car slowed and the woman inside invited a few children to climb in beside her for a ride, excitement rippled through the town like fire through a field of summer wheat; colored people began to pour toward the car, clamoring for a ride themselves. Soon, there was no room on the street for passing traffic, and whites could only stare at the scene with bafflement. Was this woman the wife of a king or chief somewhere in Africa?
Virtually unnoticed, another colored woman walked through the crowd passing out yellow notices to any of the colored onlookers who would have one: MME. C.J. WALKER HAIR PRODUCTS, the advertisement said, and careful observers noticed right away that the likeness of the woman affixed to pictured products called Wonderful Hair Grower, Glossine and Vegetable Shampoo matched the face of the woman inside the beautiful car. This was Madam C.J. Walker!
"That's her?" A barely concealed, excited whisper.
"Reckon so. That's her face, all right. Seen it on the shampoo box!"
The car came to a stop, and the Negro woman expelled a huff of air as she stepped down from the car, betraying her bone-weariness, but the crowd of onlookers didn't hear it. Sarah Breedlove Walker had been traveling for months. In the past three weeks alone, she had visited five cities and spoken to hundreds of Southern agents and customers. Last night she'd stayed up in her boarding-house writing letters long past midnight. On mornings like this, she awakened with leaden arms and legs, her back aflame, restful sleep a distant memory. Headaches seemed her daily companions, and at times her heart raced in her chest for no good reason at all. Her doctor's nagging words plucked at her memory like prophecy: You'll work yourself to death, Madam Walker. Your blood pressure's sky-high.
But as usual, when Sarah saw the huddled people waiting to greet her, their faces glowing with anticipation, energy suffused her bones and flesh, lifted her spirits, cleared her mind. Especially here, and especially today. She was home.
Sarah's heart fluttered with a strange mixture of exhilaration and dread as she stared at the loamy roadway beneath her delicately laced shoes. This wide clay street had once touched her family's feet, long ago. The road now carried shiny automobiles alongside the horses and buggies she remembered from childhood, but many of the same clapboard homes still stood, older but little changed. She'd been born here nearly fifty years ago, and now she was back.
And there was so much work to be done! The folks who used three-penny words like ostentatious to criticize her motor-cars, diamond jewelry and fifty-dollar shoes just didn't understand. She wasn't putting on airs. In fact, truth be told, in this Louisiana sun she'd just as soon be wearing the threadbare cotton dresses she'd worn in her days as a washerwoman, without her starched white shirtwaist and heavy skirt to trap the heat against her skin. But she had more to think about than her own comfort. How many Negroes in towns like Delta had ever met one of their race who spoke, walked and dressed as she did? How often could someone stir their imaginations into thinking they might make a good wage working for themselves instead of cleaning houses or sharecropping for white folks? Who could believe that a woman, born poor like them, could grow wealthy selling products to other Negroes?
Well, if ideas were bread, Sarah figured she could feed her whole nation. And if the good Lord would just keep firing her words with inspiration, or let her capture her people's attention through the finery of her car, then Sarah decided, yes sir, it was all right. The travel and the fatigue, the long years, the work and the sacrifice…it was all worthwhile. Only one life that soon is past. Only what's done for God will last.
Sun or no sun, bone-tired or not, she was going on. Especially today, in Delta. And especially now, when the Lord had guided her to more fortune than any other woman of her race in the world.
"Lady...you got a million dollars?" a boy blurted out. "Lemme see it!"
The boy's mother swatted him across the cheek, too hard. Sarah's aching back tensed when she saw anyone strike a child, and her heavy arms grew taut in anger. All too easily, she recalled the beatings from her brother-in-law, when she was just a child herself.
"Who you talkin' to?" The boy's mother shook his arm. "This ain't just no lady. This is Madam." Sarah could hear her parents in the young woman's country accent and cadences, and for a moment the woman's features blurred into her mother's, a long-ago dream. "'Scuse his manners, Madam Walker, ma'am. I mean, if chirren ain't got a mule's sense!"
Sarah nodded at the woman, smiling. Not a happy smile, just bittersweet and knowing. I've got my own mule, by the name of Lelia, she thought. She knew that mother's fear of balancing too much love with not enough discipline, and the dangers only increased with money and status. That thought, the first hint of self-pity, was banished as the crowd penned Sarah in, flurrying for her attention. There were even some white folks vying to shake her hand. Oh, yes. White folks had even come to hear one of her lectures in Jackson last week, praise the Lord, and those were some ornery, Negro-hating folks over in Mississippi! Seemed like her skin color mattered less all the time, so long as her money was green.
"Please, Madam, you just sign me up, an' I'll be a good agent!"
"Madam Walker, I'm a washerwoman jus' like you was-"
Sarah touched as many as she could, distributing handshakes and hope with equal measure as she walked through the crowd. "That's right," she said, her voice pitched to rise above the din. "I started out just like you. My sister and I were here without a thing to call our own, in a shack not far from where we're standing now," she said. "The Lord showed me a way through hard work and faith, and he can show you, too."
One old white woman caught Sarah's eye, standing in the shade of the awning of the church where Sarah was scheduled to speak. The woman's bright eyes watched Sarah's every move, a smile lighting up her gently wrinkled face. Recognition eluded Sarah, but not the conviction that she had met this woman before.
Seeing Sarah's hesitation, the woman stepped toward her into the bright sun, smile widening. "Sarah?" she began, then quickly corrected herself. "Madam Walker. Do you know me?" Her thin lips were trembling slightly. Sarah guessed she must be at least sixty-five, but it could be so hard to guess with white folks, what with the way their skin aged so fast.
"I'm Anna Burney Long," the woman said. The name resonated straight to Sarah's soul, momentarily stealing her words. "Your parents…worked for my father." There was a world of meaning within that carefully inflected word. Sarah flinched, but hid it well. "I remember you when you were an itty-bitty lil' thing, out on the farm. I'd like to invite you out to the house for a cold drink today, if you have the time. That cabin where you grew up is still on the land."
Now, the memory of the woman's face was clear, washed of the years in-between. Yes, Sarah had known this woman. Before the War, Sarah's parents had belonged to her father.
"Mrs. Anna Burney Long," Sarah said, drawing out the name. Without being obvious, she evaluated the scuffed shoes, the dull purse, a dress worn at the hem, and realized that the Longs were poor folk compared to her. The people who had owned her parents did not have nearly what she did. Sarah had to conceal a smile. She would have loved to know what her father would have to say about this. Funny this woman being named Long, because Sarah's journey had been long, indeed.
"Lord, Lord," Madam C.J. Walker said, squeezing the white woman's hand. "I accept your invitation, Mrs. Long. We've got lots to talk about, and a cold drink after my speech would do me good."
From the beatific smile on the woman's face, Sarah knew Mrs. Long felt honored. "How did you do it, Sarah...? I mean, Madam. All the Negroes I see seem to have such a hard time, but you! How did you ever come so far?"
Sarah smiled sadly. "To tell you the truth, Missus Anna..." Sarah said with a sigh, naturally lapsing into the form of address she'd used as a child, "some days, I don't know myself."
Already, as the years began to blur away, Sarah could scarcely believe her journey.
© Tananarive Due 2000