Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs

Monday, March 29, 2010

Madame CJ Walker, from Cook to Cosmetic Queen

Women's History Month
Queen rule beehive, not king. (Guyana)

Madame CJ Walker (December 23, 1867 – May 25, 1919)

As a child, the smell of fried hair was a constant. My mother was a hairdresser running her salon from home, and women came to her to create the fantasy that made Madame CJ the first American Black (or white) woman to be a self-made millionaire. Like Madame Walker, my mother used the hot comb to straighten hair.

Black women today seem to have wide choices - heat or chemical, straight or jherri curl, braids or twists, short or long, red or blond, sisterlocks or dreadlocks. Still, Black women need to go the way of Madame CJ Walker if they want to rise in the corporate world, or if their spouses are to create the "right" family portrait as they rise to the top.

Madame CJ Walker was born as Sarah Breedlove. Her parents, who had been slaves, died when she was seven years old. She and her sister later worked as maids, and she married at age 14 - apparently to escape an abusive brother-in-law. She was widowed at age 20, with a daughter to support. She became a laundress, and by 1905 she was a sales agent for a Black woman, Ann Malone who made hair care products.

Of her rise to riches, she stated, “ I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South. From there I was promoted to the washtub. From there I was promoted to the cook kitchen. And from there I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations...I have built my own factory on my own ground.”

In 1906, she married Charles Joseph Walker, and changed her name to Madame CJ Walker. She then founded her Madame CJ Walker Manufacturing Comany to sell hair care products and cosmetics.

Reports do not say how Madame Walker found the means to rise from a white person's kitchen to her own manufacturing plant. One hint is that the way in which she acquired the formula for her hair grower. She said the ingredients came to her in a dream in which a Black man told her how to cure baldness. She also seems to have "borrowed" Ann Malone's formula, and I did not come across a record of royalty payments.

Charles Joseph Walker, a newspaperman, contributed to the management of the business, but it is not clear whether he brought equity as well. Madame Walker divorced him by 1910, and by 1917 she had the biggest Black-owned business in the US.

To Madame Walker's credit, she never forgot her early struggles, and she tried to use her wealth to create opportunities for others. Thousands of Black women working as her agents earned almost as much in a day as they might have done in a week working as a maid. She helped to raise funds for anti-lynching campaigns, and personally donated $5,000 to the NAACP for this cause. This was the largest gift the NAACP had received up to this time. She also made the largest contribution to saving abolitionist Frederick Douglass' home. In her will, she left money to support Black schools, organizations, and institutions.

When Madame Walker died at age 51, her daughter Lelia succeeded her. Madame Walker was inducted into the Junior Achievement U.S. Business Hall of Fame in 1992. In January 1998 the USPS issued the Madam C.J. Walker Commemorative stamp.

The discussion of Black women's hair remains relevant enough to have been the subject of Chris Rock's recent movie "Good Hair". From the fifties hot comb straight look, the sixties Afro and the seventies dreadlocks, we now seem to be in the era of the Korean hair weave. What next?

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When the occasion arises, there is a proverb to suit it. (Proverb from Rwanda and Burundi)

Welcome to this space where we can talk about proverbs that we can relate to (or not), and proverbs that make sense to us (or not). Most of all we can discuss how proverbs make us think about life and living. We can also share experiences of proverbs that have provided us with lifelines or just the chance to reflect.

Some of the proverbs here may also be found in "Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs", published by Random House and authored by Askhari Johnson Hodari and me. The foreword is written by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

One of the unique features of our book is that we arranged the proverbs according to life cycle, in sections including, Birth, Childhood, Love, Marriage, and Intimacy, Challenge, and Death.

For more proverbs and for information on Lifelines: the Black Book of Proverbs, please visit us at