So I’m behind in my posts about Women’s History Month because of this infectious disease called “life”. Even though March is over, I want to continue with this series because every month should be Women’s History Month, amirite? Also, my next post is about Madam C.J. Walker, who was great at not following the rules that would’ve only served to hold her back, so there’s my roundabout justification and not-so-subtle introduction to this post.
As I was deciding what women to research for this series, I made an initial list that I was pretty happy with. It included women from government, an activist for education and the first computer programmer. But pretty soon, I realized I was missing something: racial diversity. Sure, these women were all from different countries, but three out of the four of them were white. The very point of this series was to highlight women who are often overlooked in the annals of history and also in the present, and here I was passively ignoring the contributions of non-white women. After I caught myself, I took steps to make sure my list was more diverse. And that was how I came upon Madam C.J. Walker.
In Madam Walker, I had a perfect example of a non-white woman who made a huge impact. Despite her achievements, I still knew next to nothing about her. Madam Walker’s name sounded familiar, though I couldn’t say why. Maybe it’s because I grew up in Indiana and learned about her in my elementary school textbook, though I wouldn’t be surprised if she was overlooked. To this day, it’s easier for a white woman to get the credit she deserves for her work. Women of color have layers of prejudice to work through before they can achieve the same recognition.
This was certainly the case for Madam Walker. In A’lelia Bundles’ book On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker, Bundles writes about her great-great grandmother with a kind of awe. Walker, who was born Sarah Breedlove, had the kind of classic up-from-your-bootstraps story that Americans love. Born to former slaves in Louisiana in 1867, Breedlove initially made a living as a washerwoman for wealthy white families, a common occupation for African American women at the time. By the age of twenty, she was a mother and a widow. The uncertainty facing Breedlove and her daughter, Lelia (who later went by A’lelia and is the author’s namesake), was immense, but soon Breedlove became part of a growing industry that would change her life: hair care for black women.
After initially becoming an apprentice to Annie Pope Turnbo, Breedlove struck out on her own. This coincided with her marriage to Charles J. Walker, whose name she took and stylized with a French prefix. With a tireless work ethic and relentless determination to build relationships, Madam Walker would spend the rest of her life growing her beauty empire and making a huge philanthropic and cultural impact.
So those are the facts. But as I was reading Bundles’ account of Madam Walker’s life, what struck me just as often as her cut and dry achievements were the gaps in information about her life. Despite how meticulous Bundles is with her research, she’s still forced to make leaps when describing Madam Walker’s early life. Bundles is up front about this struggle, and, most interestingly, she seems to make an argument for why there is so little known about this time in Walker’s life: that Walker wanted it that way for the benefit of her business.
It sounds obvious, especially in the age of branding. But by hiding away certain parts of her past and spreading a narrative about herself that may or may not have been true – and does it really matter either way? – she was able to take agency over her own story. Something about this is fascinating in its daring and power. I’m a firm believer in the idea that parts of history have been tailored to suit a particular group’s narrative, meaning that we have to examine the fossils firsthand to get the actual story (see Kameron Hurley’s incredible Hugo-winning essay for more on this idea). Luckily, we have Bundles to sift through the facts and present us with this story.
What we get is a tale of a woman who managed to dodge submersion under the stories of whites and men, at least in her own time, by taking charge of the way people thought of her. She erased her three husbands from her life – including the one whose name she made famous – and she established her identity as an independent entrepreneur, leaving marriage at the wayside as she amassed her wealth. Walker also enthralled crowds with retellings of a prophetic dream from God that gave her the formula for her hair-growth concoction. After she gained enough influence, she used the power of her story to create ties with prominent African Americans, including Booker T. Washington, whose initial reluctance to take her seriously turned into respect for her business acumen. By the end of her life, Madame Walker had become one of the most influential African Americans of her time, thanks to her impact on the lives of women through access to beauty products and employment opportunities.
As someone who loves to write, I believe in the power of stories to bring about change. Not only did Madam Walker create a narrative that made her successful — she helped many other black women become more confident and independent. No matter your skin color or even your gender, Madam Walker’s vision and perseverance set the bar high for what can be achieved in a lifetime.