alex haley died in 1988, but his influence is still huge. Like the Roots author, writers by the dozen are plundering their family pasts in search of a decent story. But more important, uber-researcher Haley left behind material so fascinating that it can inspire a powerful piece of fiction even in another author's hands.
Miami Herald journalist and novelist Tananarive Due has picked up Haley's research on C.J. Walker, the first black female millionaire in America, to write The Black Rose.
Daughter of poverty-stricken former slaves, the very smart and wilful Walker made her fortune by selling hair products to blacks through agents she trained in St. Louis, Pittsburgh and finally in New York.
While creating the business, she helped her agents -- all of them black women -- to become personally mobile and financially independent, which in turn made her a political lightning rod.
Using letters as well as company and city documents, Due traces Walker's journey from washerwoman to magnate while evoking an era of dramatic political change within American black communities.
Though hardly a literary groundbreaker, The Black Rose is a sweeping page-turner, packed with vivid characters such as Walker's husband C.J. (whose first and last names she adopted), who couldn't tolerate her success, and her daughter Lelia, who never could match her mother's drive.
It's Due's historical detail that gives the novel its grit. As part of the story, while recounting key gatherings led by black activists, she paints Booker T. Washington, one of Walker's key inspirations, as a dour and diffident guy whose going-through-the-system approach to politics Walker would have jettisoned had she lived longer. And sly moments like Due's allusions to the original Coca Cola's sleep-denying qualities add more zip.
An excellent read for Black History Month.SUSAN G. COLE