On the eve of Madame C.J. Walker’s 150th birthday celebration (December 23, 1867), her renaissance comes through with the relaunch of her revolutionary haircare line and a 10-part television series of her life.
Despite being a household name for more than a century, the life of Walker remains slightly elusive and yoked by conjecture, conflation, and rumor. Considered the first self-made, Black female millionaire, Walker (born Sarah Breedlove), however enigmatic, established a hair care system that revolutionized the beauty culture industry, and simultaneously manufactured an economic stronghold within Black communities that undergirded respectability and race pride. Walker’s great, great-granddaughter and author of the biography On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker, A’Lelia Bundles, told the AFRO that the renewed interest in the millionaire coincides with a desire among Blacks to reclaim lost narratives.
“My own research and discovery process is reflective of a lot of others’, which was like Alex Haley’s “Roots.” As people discover their place in American history, they demand recognition and acknowledgement and I think that is where we are now,” said Bundles, who initially wanted an identity removed from her famous ancestor. “But as I discovered how Madam Walker fit into history; how she was a part of the transformation of African Americans from slavery to freedom, and then to empowerment, I was able to positon myself and other member of my family.”
Walker created specialized hair products for Black women, beginning in 1906, and promoted the products through lectures and demonstrations across the country. And far from the conjecture that she invented the straightening comb or chemical hair relaxer, Walker’s pomades were devised to combat a common balding pattern experienced by Black women due to scalp infections.
“Madam Walker was going bald due to hygiene practices that were common for that era. It was revolutionary to convince Black women to wash their hair more often when most people didn’t have indoor plumbing. It was before penicillin and aspirin and insulin and so many basic things that we take for granted now. So, skin and scalp care was way down on the priority list for health concerns,” Bundles said. “But when people didn’t bathe very often and didn’t wash their hair but maybe once a month or not at all during the winter, they had horrible skin infections beyond dandruff. What she did was encourage them to wash their hair more often and then apply an ointment that contained sulfur petrolatum (the main ingredient to Vaseline) – used for centuries to heal infections of the skin. With their scalps treated, healthy hair could grow back.”
Now, 111 years after Walker founded The Madam C.J. Walker Beauty Culture company, the products once more create the same buzz among hair culturists. Available at Sephora stores nationwide, the mission of the line remains largely the same: quality ingredients to improve and maintain textured hair.
“The thing I love about the new products is that they really pay homage to Madam Walker. When she developed her vegetable shampoo and hair grower in 1906, and put her own image on the label she was determined to have a high-quality product with the best available ingredients in a product that really worked,” Bundles said. “What we’ve learned in the last 100 years, petroleum and heavy ointments are not good for the skin and clog pores. So, we no longer use the sulfates, silicones, and sulfurs. We have the spirit of Madam Walker integrated with the latest ingredients using science and technology . . . and they really smell fabulous.”
And just as the celebrations over the revived product line erupted, Bundles received word that the biography she penned in 2002 of her great, great-grandmother, piqued the interest of Hollywood A-lister Octavia Spencer. Despite having been optioned twice before, Bundles said that with shifts in the Hollywood machine following the Oscars So White protests, the floodgates of interest reopened – this time with backers.
“Late last summer, Octavia Spencer came aboard to portray Madam Walker, but she also said she wanted to come on with the 10-part series as a producer. That took the project to another level when she made that type of commitment,” Bundles said. “Since 1975 I’ve been doing speeches, writing books, and from the beginning the two things people would always ask me where can I purchase the hair care line and is there a movie of Madam Walker’s life and I always had to say, ‘no.’ Now I’m so happy to say that all of the pieces have fallen into place.”
Nicole Asher (Coco) has signed on as scriptwriter with Kasi Lemmons (Shots Fired, Eve’s Bayou) taking the reigns as director.
Walker, born the daughter of slaves, was orphaned at seven, married at 14 and widowed at 20. She died of hypertension in 1919, at age 51, as the sole owner of her business, which was valued at more than $1 million (about $14 million in today’s money).
“Madam Walker personified that first generation out of slavery, who moved to the city, but in her case it became something even more unusual because she was able to start a business and to provide jobs for thousands of women who were then able to educate their children and buy real estate and go on to do other things,” Bundles said.