Madam C.J. Walker and the Power of the Self-Crafted Narrative

madam cj walker

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.

Buy Bundles’ On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker at Powell’s, Abebooks or Amazon.

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Elizabeth I: Power and Singlehood in the Face of Patriarchy

elizabeth_i

Though the sex to which I belong is considered weak, you will nevertheless find me a rock that bends to no wind.

When Queen Elizabeth I was born, her father was disappointed. Henry VIII had been hoping for a son, especially since he had literally created a new Church of England (nowadays known as the Protestant Church) to marry Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn. The irony here is that his daughter would go on to become one of the most successful monarchs in England’s history, but that possibility wouldn’t have crossed King Henry’s mind. Not only did he make her an illegitimate child after he decided to execute Anne Boleyn for treason and adultery (he would later reverse this decision and make her his heir by law after his son Edward and first daughter Mary), but Elizabeth was a woman. The odds facing a successful regime under a queen rather than a king seem, to me, like they were next to insurmountable. I say “next to” because, remarkably, Elizabeth did it. And because I wanted to know how she did it, I chose to read Alison Weir’s The Life of Elizabeth I as the first of four biographies on significant women in history for Women’s History Month.

There are a million things I could focus on in this post, because, as it turns out, Elizabeth was absolutely fascinating. I decided that her decision to never marry despite the enormous pressure put on her and all other women in her day is very worthy of some attention. I believe the reason her legacy was able to shine through as it does is partly because she had no king to obscure it — not because she would have allowed her husband to have any real influence over her mind, but because that’s what history tends to do to women in positions of power.

According to Weir, Elizabeth first said she would never marry just after the execution of her father’s fifth wife, Catherine Howard. There is certainly reason to believe that her father’s infamous tendency to get rid of wife after wife may have had something to do with Elizabeth’s aversion to the idea of marriage. However, as I read Weir’s book, she makes it clear that this was far from Elizabeth’s only consideration. If Elizabeth was anything, she was logical, and she knew the sacrifices that would come with marriage. She was firmly the master of her own mind, and in her time, to marry a man meant to be subservient. Even if her hypothetical husband accepted her ideas and wish to rule, she still had to face all of Parliament and her Secretary of State, William Cecil, who believed that a man should be in charge of matters of state. Remaining unmarried as queen guaranteed that she would be seen as the sole authority on England’s welfare, and that was exactly how she wanted it.

Most feminists – and when I say feminists, I refer to both women and men – will agree that Elizabeth I’s stalwart decision to remain single was badass in a way that’s difficult for us to comprehend, far removed as we are from sixteenth century England. Equally astounding is that the topic of marriage is still a sensitive one today. There are still many people who scratch their heads at unmarried women, assuming that all of us naturally want to find a husband or wife and that there must be something wrong with the ones who choose to stay single or cohabitate with their partners without tying the knot (and I won’t get into the double standard this represents). And on the opposite side of that argument, there are people who believe marriage is an archaic institution, and that women who credit marriage or family as some of the best decisions of their lives are threatening to take us back to London circa 1573 (see this recent reaction to Beyoncé stating that Blue Ivy is her greatest accomplishment and you’ll get a sense of what I’m talking about).

It’s certainly better to have two sides to this argument rather than one. But looking at Elizabeth’s example and at the times she almost decided to marry (though I think some of her prevarication was just her playing with the Commons the way a person teases a cat with a laser pointer), I can’t help but wonder if sometimes she was inclined towards marriage but knew it would have irreversible effects on her rule. I believe we need to work towards a world where women can choose to make the lives they want for themselves without worrying about whether or not people will condescend to them for their decisions. I realize that this is a broad statement, and I think there are problems with the SUPPORT ALL WOMEN NO MATTER WHAT mentality. But those problems are trumped by the need to create a culture in which women are not demonized for remaining unmarried and childless, but in which they can also marry and have children without others assuming they’ve given up their autonomy or are simply fulfilling expectations. In the meantime, let’s do as Elizabeth did and use the power we have to continue down the paths we choose, throwing out flirtatious smiles and trotting on toes as we go.

Buy Weir’s The Life of Elizabeth I at Powell’s, Abebooks or Amazon.

Stay tuned next week for a post on Madam C.J. Walker.

Four Weeks, Four Women

So it’s Women’s History Month.

On the one hand, I’m glad this month exists, because it means teachers will be doing special units on women’s contributions to society when they might otherwise just continue on with their usual history lessons, which almost definitely include fewer women. On the other hand, I wish these month-long activities and conversations didn’t have to happen at all. I wish we were past the need for them.

BUT! we’re getting there. So, instead of moping around, I decided to participate in Women’s History Month in my own way. Over the next four weeks, I’ll be reading a biography or autobiography a week: two on historical figures, two on modern women. This is a way to educate myself as I continue making my way through the world during an intense time, in which some of our rights are being threatened. But I’m also reading these books to give me perspective. Because I may have problems, but fifty or one hundred or five hundred years ago, my current problems would’ve been mere thoughts on the periphery of my life. I would’ve had much bigger climbs ahead, whether that was securing the right to my own property or simply getting someone to look me in the eyes while I spoke.

Of course, I’m a writer, so I’ll also look at the books I’m reading this month as research. The nice thing about writing YA fiction is that the current trend is to feature strong young women as protagonists. But lately, I’ve found myself getting bored. Katniss was great, but not every woman is going to be like Katniss in terms of her physical strength or her firm moral compass or her apathy towards her physical appearance. Give me girly characters! Give me characters who are leaders because they want to be, not just because they’re forced to be. Give me women who are soft-spoken but still manage to accomplish things and get what they want. Give me women who make a lot of mistakes, or who don’t have anyone on their side. In reading these four books, I’m looking for this kind of inspiration — I’ve tried to pick a variety of women who have lived very different lives and have different reputations. Because as we acknowledge that women can be strong and brave, we move closer to acknowledging that women can be an infinite number of other things, too.

Without further ado, here’s my reading list for March:

1) The Life of Elizabeth I by Alison Weir
2) On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker by A’Lelia Bundles
3) I Am Malala: How One Girl Stood Up for Education and Saved the World by Malala Yousafzai
4) HRC: State Secrets and the Rebirth of Hillary Clinton by Jonathan Allen

I’ll be back in a week from today with my post on Elizabeth I! Until next time…

(P.S. The image at the top is supposedly of the first women’s rights march in Seneca Falls, New York, though I can’t find a source that confirms this with certainty.)

Smith and Bowie

Smith

At the beginning of January, I saw Patti Smith in concert. This wasn’t the first time I had the privilege of seeing her live. I saw her only a few months before on the LA stop of her M-Train tour. She talked about writing and also sang a few songs for us. When I heard she was coming back and would be performing all of Horses, which is her first album (and my favorite of all her work), I promptly 1) had a coronary and 2) saved up for a ticket.

I’ve admired Patti’s music for years, but it wasn’t until last year when I read her memoir Just Kids that I really devoured her writing and interviews. I was struck by her absolute determination to live without concern for the constraints of gender, or decorum, or dogma. She wanted to become an “artist” in the purest sense of the word, and to do that, she would have to be free of any excess or affectation.

And now, seeing Patti live, one sees the result of that determined focus. From the cheapest seats in the house, I watched as Patti remained present while faced with a huge theater of people going absolutely insane because they were breathing the same air as her. She was constantly interacting and reacting with everyone on stage, including her two children, who performed with her. Even her voice is wild, with its unflinching ties to her instincts and emotions and total disregard for technique in the classical sense. Watching her perform, I realized that every moment with Patti feels authentic because she feels free to do exactly what she wants. She doesn’t live in a predetermined way.

The struggle for freedom is an important theme for young Patti in Just Kids. Patti is one of those rare people who truly did something that hadn’t been done before: she merged poetry and rock and roll. She trusted herself and her band so completely that she was able to break through creative barriers that many of us never will. Even now, her songs are evolving, and she altered some of her lyrics on stage to reflect the time that’s passed and the things she’s learned and the people who are no longer in her life. Patti doesn’t reach for an end point. She responds to the world around her, and what the audience receives is her art. It’s never static.

Bowie

I’ve never been as devoted to Bowie as I am to Patti. But I love Bowie’s music and have always been fascinated by his personas. So when I saw the headline on the front page of the LA Times, I felt some of the grief of his dedicated fans, though many of them felt it more deeply than I did. More than anything, I felt a greater sense of loss, like there was suddenly a hole in the world.

The word “authentic” comes rife with negative connotations. I used it to describe Patti, and I believe it can also be used to describe Bowie, though in a very different way. Patti chose to make much of her creative evolution public in Just Kids, but David Bowie has made his evolution public from day one. As he changed his appearance and adopted various stage names, he was going through vastly different times of his life.

During middle school, sometimes a girl would start wearing punk ties or a boy would put on a chain, and people would describe them with the King of Adolescent Insults: “Fake.” We didn’t allow others to grow or change without calling them out on it. Somehow, the fact that we could see their progression nullified the changes they were trying to make in the first place. Choosing to be publicly vulnerable in this way is challenging, because when you let people see your interior life, their insults can hit much deeper.

And here we have Bowie, someone who made his career on publicly examining and reexamining different facets of himself. In the age of branding, in which your image needs to remain consistent so that the consumer “knows what she’s getting”, Bowie’s success is that much more striking. Like Patti, Bowie allowed himself to be free in experimenting with his art – and for him, this included different ways of adorning his physical body. The result is that Bowie became a beacon of hope for us as we grow up and inevitably adopt some different identities ourselves. No matter what the mean kids whisper, it’s more important to be true to where you are in this moment than to hide yourself away. And when I find myself questioning someone’s decision to make a major change or take on new responsibilities, I always remind myself of this.

Together

Patti’s concert and Bowie’s death happened within days of each other. Somehow these two events seemed significant not just on their own, but together. Patti and Bowie are both iconic artists, but superficially, they seem extremely different. But the feeling I get from watching them perform or listening to their music is the same: the feeling that if I did the work I wanted without regard for what I thought others expected, somehow I would get to where I wanted to be. I’m grateful to Bowie and Patti for that lesson, and I’m also grateful that Bowie has left behind such a rich legacy. People are still mourning him all over the world, as it should be. And they’re mourning in vivid color, which is probably the way he’d like it.

2015 in Books

Though the title implies that I’m going to be talking about books I’ve read, that’s not really true. I definitely discovered a few gems this past year — my favorites were Just Kids by Patti Smith and The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison. But when I say I was immersed in books in 2015, I’m talking specifically about one book: mine.

I finished my first manuscript ever this past year. It was in November, at around 1:30am on a Monday morning. I was so wired that I couldn’t get to sleep for another hour and a half. I paced back and forth in my tiny bedroom, shaking out my hands as if I’d burned them. Which, considering the magical abilities of one of my protagonists, is an oddly appropriate reaction for me to have.

The experience was immersive and repulsive at the same time. I was confronted with many of the problems I need to fix in my prose, some of them so bad that I’d feel sick rereading my work from the previous day. In previous years, this would’ve scared me away from my computer, and I would’ve avoided writing until I dragged myself back to my desk weeks later, unable to deny that putting word after word until they make a story is the only thing that really gives me a sense of accomplishment and peace.

This time, I didn’t do that. This time, I sat my ass in the chair and would not let myself get up until I had reached my word count goal for the day.

“Just get up for a minute,” my shoulder devil said. “Just go warm up your cup of coffee. Just take a walk in the woods. Just read about how other successful writers manage to make themselves finish things. Surely their advice will help you. Surely you will not be distracted by other shiny links to other articles about other things that aren’t at all related to what you’re trying to do here.”

But ah, the shoulder devil didn’t realize that I am older and wiser than I used to be. I knew that if I set down any of these paths, it was the equivalent of entering into a black hole, and soon that entire day would be gone. I would be lying if I said that she never won out, because sometimes she did, and I lost the equivalent of a couple of weeks. But as time went on, something miraculous happened. It became easier and easier to say, “Shush. Can’t you see I’m busy?”

So I kept going, and a year after I started, I was up in the middle of the night staring at a huge pile of printer paper, and on that paper was a story that I created. I felt as though I’d come up for air after a journey to an underwater city, and the magic of everything I’d seen hit me all at once.

In all this melodramatic euphoria, there was a reality I was overlooking. The manuscript totaled over 143,000 words. This is 50,000 words above my original goal. Needless to say, this is bad, but it didn’t get me down. Nothing could get me down that night.

But that night only lasted for a few more hours, and when I woke up the next morning, my immediate thought was, “Oh my glob I need to cut out over a third of my manuscript.” My second thought was, “Give yourself a little time.” So that’s what I’ve been doing – giving myself space so that I can look at the manuscript with fresh eyes.

That break time is winding down now, and I’m getting ready to hop back into it. In the meantime, I’ve been making some reading-writing goals for the new year, and I thought I’d share them here:

1) Read more YA lit.

Disclaimer: I write mostly YA. So when I looked at my Goodreads 2015-in-review page and saw that I only read a handful of YA novels, I got the O_O face. I’m a firm believer that one needs to be well-versed in the genre in which they write. The challenge that I run into is that reading YA while writing YA can lead me to some problems — specifically, my writing style begins to look suspiciously like that of the book I’m reading. So I need to find a way to incorporate more YA into my 2016, and one of my goals is to figure out how to do this while maintaining my own voice in my writing. The specific goal I’ve set for myself is twenty YA books. I’m starting now with Daniel José Older’s Shadowshaper.

2) Complete my first standalone novel.

I’ve had the idea for a story about a girl who is on the run from an evil queen for a while, and I think it’s finally past the embryonic stage and I’m going to be able to get it on the page this year. This book will be a standalone novel, which will be a new experience for me, since my previous manuscript is the first in a four-book series. I’m excited to see how the process for writing a complete story pushes me in a new way.

And last, but definitely not least:

3) Complete revisions of my first manuscript and submit it to literary agents.

This is a big one. The one I’m most excited and nervous about. My manuscript needs a lot of work. A monstrous, painful amount of work. But I’ve been getting myself ready to revise and submit for a while now, and when the time comes and I’ve done all I can do with my manuscript, I believe I’ll be ready.

So here’s to 2016. Let’s see where it goes.