'Black Rose' describes life of Madam C.J. Walker

July 9, 2000
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@ dcn.davis.ca.us

Tananarive Due is the author of "The Black Rose," the book that was researched and partially written by the late Alex Haley and handed over to Due by his estate to complete.

(A word about the author's first name: Tananarive is the former name of the capital of Madagascar, a name that captivated her mother who vowed to give that name to her first daughter, and did.)

"The Black Rose" (Ballantine, $25.95, 2000) is the fictionalized story of Madam C.J. Walker, the first female African-American millionaire.

Due, 34, is a graduate of Northwestern University with a degree in journalism. She grew up in Miami and worked at the Miami Herald for several years. She also was lucky enough to be the recipient of a Rotary scholarship that enabled her to study at the University of Leeds in England for a year.

She is the author of two previous novels of a completely different genre, that of supernatural suspense. They are: "The Between" and "My Soul to Keep."

In 1997 she attended a conference for writers of African-American horror and a year later married Steven Barnes, one of the conference attendees.

"For an unmarried woman looking for a soul mate, it was wonderful luck going to that conference," said Due in a recent phone interview. Due and Barnes now live in Longview, Wash., which is not particularly Due's geographical location of choice, but will do for now.

"I can get a lot of work done in Longview," said Due. "That's where I worked on 'The Black Rose.' "

Shortly after her marriage and move to Longview, the Alex Haley estate sent her a dozen boxes of research materials and gave her less than a year to complete the book.

Talk about pressure. However, that's where her new husband came to the rescue.

"He was very helpful," said Due. "He's been in the business a lot longer than I have and he was very encouraging."

Fortunately, the deadline was met and the book was published.

"So far, I think people are very excited. There are a lot of people who already know about Madam C. J. Walker but now at the beginning of this new decade it seems like the time is right. We still have a lot of social problems to be grappled with and it's good to look back at a woman who had so much less than we have and was able to accomplish so much."

Walker was born into family of sharecroppers in Louisiana. Even that fragile security was lost when her parents died leaving two young girls to struggle alone through their early lives. Sarah Breedlove, the younger sister, made her living as washerwoman. She was nearing 40 when she married an advertising executive who helped her market a wildly successful hair-care product she made in her kitchen.

By the time she died in 1919, Madam Walker had constructed her own factory, established a training school, hired her own private tutor, and built a 30-room mansion at Irvington-on-Hudson, New York. She'd also lost her husband to another woman and had to live with tales of her only daughter's wild life style.

Madam Walker's great-great-granddaughter, A'Lelia Perry Bundles, was Alex Haley's research assistant. Bundles own book, a work of non-fiction, will be published next year, Due said, and a children's book about Madam Walker has also recently been published.

When Due was taking care of extra research about Madam Walker at the Indiana Historical Society, she was excited and energized to see a reference to one of her own relatives, a Mrs. John Due, in a local newspaper.

"It was shocking to see it there and it put me right in that time and place," said Due.

Due said her father moved from Indiana to Florida to attend law school. There he met a political activist named Patricia Stevens and married her. Due's parents were civil rights activists in the 1960s, "a super team of activists," as their eldest daughter describes them. Due also has two sisters, both of whom are lawyers.

"Before this project came along, I had been working on a non-fiction book with my mother," said Due. The subject of that book will be the impact of the civil rights movement on political activists of the day, many of whom paid a personal price for political involvement.

"And my husband and I would like to collaborate, too," she said. "We're just looking for the right project."

In the meantime Due has a new book of supernatural horror coming out in April. It's called "The Living Blood," a sequel to "My Soul to Keep."

Those who would like to contact Due may email her at tdue@aol.com or may visit her Web page at www.tananarive.com.

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