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What is Madam CJ Walker’s real legacy? Part 1

• Dec 18, 2009

A’Lelia Bundles is the great‐great granddaughter of Madam CJ Walker and author of the best‐selling biography, ON HER OWN GROUND: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker. A Harvard University graduate, Ms. Bundles became a fulltime author and professional speaker in 2006 after a 30‐year career as an executive and producer in network television news. We are honored to have her on BGLH today to talk about her great‐great grandmother’s legacy.

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Photo Credit: Michael Cunningham
BGLH: First off, can you tell us a little about your own life?
AB:
Both my parents were executives in the hair care industry when I was growing up. My mother was vice president of the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company, the company founded by my great‐great‐grandmother in 1906. My father worked for the Walker Company for a few years after my parents married, but became president of Summit Laboratories, another black hair care company, in the late 1950s.

I worked in my father’s office filing invoices from beauty supply stores for a couple of summers and many of our summer vacations were centered around the big hair shows, but my passion always has been writing. Instead of a career in the beauty industry, I became a network television producer and executive working first with NBC News, then ABC News for 30 years. Today I’m an author and public speaker and serve on four nonprofit boards.

BGLH: What were the ‘black hair issues’ of Madame Walker’s day? Are they anything like the issues we have today?
AB:
As they say: the more things change, the more they stay the same. When Madam Walker started her company a little more than a century ago, many women were going bald because they suffered from severe scalp disease. It’s really hard for us to imagine just how different life was then, but imagine a time when most Americans didn’t have indoor plumbing, electricity and central heating. Instead of jumping in the shower and washing our hair as we can do today, people had to make their own soap, go outside to pump water from an outdoor pump, carry the water inside in buckets, make a fire in a wood stove, heat the water, then wash their hair. All that effort, combined with some “old wives tales” and superstitions about hair washing meant many women only washed their hair once a month and sometimes not at all during the winter. The scalp disease and dandruff were so horrible that many women were going bald as a result.

So the problem Madam Walker first was addressing when she still was a poor 38‐year old washerwoman named Sarah Breedlove, was baldness. She developed a vegetable shampoo and an ointment with sulfur as a medicinal agent that she called Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower. In her mind she was developing a process of “hair culture” and “cultivating” healthy scalps in the same way a farmer would cultivate the soil for growing crops. By washing her hair more often and applying the ointment, she was able to heal her scalp and create a healthier environment for her hair to grow. Once other women saw the results, they wanted to buy her product.

In Madam Walker’s day many women were grateful to her because she taught them how to care for their hair and grow their hair so they could stop wearing wigs. Today we still have scalp problems and many black women are losing their hair. Among the reasons: infrequent washing, over‐processing with chemicals, over‐use of weaves and braids and lack of conditioning. Today scientists and cosmetologist have learned a lot more about caring for black women’s hair and are conducting multi‐billion dollar research and development operations to address our specific needs. We are fortunate to have so many innovative entrepreneurs who are developing new lines of products.

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BGLH: Many people incorrectly credit Madam C. J. Walker with building her empire on hair straightening. Why is that?
AB:
It may be a surprise to many people, but Madam Walker did not invent the hot comb or chemical perms and she never used the words “hair straightener” in the advertisements that were produced by the Walker Company until the time of her death in 1919. In fact, she once told a reporter: “Right here let me correct the erroneous impression held by some that I claim to straighten hair. I deplore such impression because I have always held myself out as a hair culturist. I grow hair.” Sensitive to the critics who misunderstood the need for improved hygiene and grooming, especially in the rural South where the majority of black women lived during the early twentieth century and where most people were denied the right to attend school, she also said, “I have absolute faith in my mission. I want the great masses of my people to take a greater pride in their appearance and to give their hair proper attention.”

She also added a new message that signaled her vision of an evolving beauty aesthetic for black women who had been separated from their African traditions and who were becoming more urban and more urbane. “I dare say that in the next ten years it will be a rare thing to see a kinky head of hair and it will not be straight either.” If we can accept that she was using the word “kinky” not pejoratively, but as a way to describe a matted and uncombed head of hair, then I think we can see that she was predicting the range of styles that we see today from natural to permed. Her goal was healthy, well‐groomed hair whether it was natural or straightened.

Madam Walker’s role in the hair care industry is complicated by the fact that she helped to popularize the use of the hot comb at a time when many black women felt the pressure to conform to European standards of beauty. As I said, she did not invent the hot comb, but she actually saw the comb as an improvement over another device called “hair pullers” that many women were using. She thought pullers flattened the hair strands and made the hair look lifeless and unnatural.

After her death, some of the people who were managing the Walker Company purchased the rights to a hot comb patent from the widow of one of Madam Walker’s comb suppliers. It’s my speculation that through the years some of those employees decided that since the Walker Company owned the patent they would create the myth that she had invented the hot comb. The truth is, the hot comb had been around at least 25 years before Madam Walker started her business and was sold in Bloomingdales and Sears catalogs—presumably to their mostly white clientele—as early as 1890.

Madam Walker’s true legacy is the development of a system of hair care for black women at a time when few people were addressing our specific hair care needs. She was focused much more on conditioning and grooming than on straightening. She also was one of the pioneers—along with Elizabeth Arden, Helena Rubinstein and her major competitor, Annie Malone of Poro—of what now is a multi‐billion dollar international hair care and cosmetics industry.

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BGLH: I saw a photo of Madame Walker with her hair grown from short to really long. This was done with one of her own remedies. Can you tell us about that?

image_2
AB: This series of photos is from one of Madam Walker’s earliest advertisements, a kind of before‐and‐after illustration similar to the Jenny Craig commercials! She was trying to show other women that she once had been nearly bald and that her products truly were effective.

I also think it’s notable that she used her own image on her products during an era when few people were celebrating the beauty of black women. Many white owned companies of the time with product lines for black women, often used drawings of European women as the “after” image and black women with unkempt hair as the “before” image. So if we see this in the context of the times, Madam Walker was revolutionary in her celebration of black women.

In her ads, she also used testimonials and excerpts from letters her customers sent her as a way to reinforce her message. One of her sales agents was so happy with her success that she wrote to Madam Walker: “You have made it possible for a colored woman to make more money in a day selling your products than she could in a month working in someone’s kitchen.” Another satisfied customer wrote: “Before I started using your Wonderful Hair Grower my hair was an eighth of an inch long. Now it is has grown down my back and I have been able to throw my wig away.”
***
Please stay tuned for part 2 of this interview, to be posted tomorrow. Click HERE for a story on A’Lelia Bundles written in the New York Times.

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[…] BLACK GIRL WITH LONG HAIR :: What is Madam CJ Walker’s real legacy … December 18, 2009 Author: admin Madam Walker’s true legacy is the development of a system of hair care for black women at a time when few people were addressing our specific hair care needs. She was focused much more on conditioning and grooming than on straightening . … Read more: BLACK GIRL WITH LONG HAIR :: What is Madam CJ Walker’s real legacy … […]

Hmm
Guest
Hmm

Wooooow. Very enlightening!

Krystal
Guest

Fascinating interview! Thanks!

Tia
Guest
Tia

Love the interview. Looking forwarded to part 2.

Shari
Guest

I loved this interview! It was extremely informative. Thanks A’Lelia for setting the record straight.

fashionablynappy.com
Guest

Very interesting article, I always thought she has all about hair straightening.

Yoshi3329
Guest
Yoshi3329

Part 2! Part 2! Part 2! Part 2! Part 2!

I loved it! I really did. But then again, I love BLACK HISTORY. (well, history in general, but you get the point ^-^.)

BLACKkittenROAR
Guest

This is really fantastic! I can’t wait for part 2!

Lauren
Guest
Lauren

I truly enjoy the information provided on this website. Please keep it coming.

nawalatribe.blogspot.com
Guest

verrrry informative…thanks for giving us a piece of our history 🙂

christina
Guest

This is EYE‐OPENING. I totally bought into the myth that she invented the hot comb. But now I love and admire the Madam even MORE!

*skips off to email this interview to other natural hair nerds*

naijamerican
Guest
naijamerican

Wow, that was wonderful! I really enjoyed reading it. It was very enlightening.

Meena
Guest

LOVE THIS! I am a history fan so this interview is very much appreciated!

Monique
Guest

I co‐sign on all of the KUDOS! Great interview — insightful!

Joyful Mom
Guest

I’m looking forward to part two as well. I read On Her Own Ground and found it fascinating.

Nina
Guest
Nina

Good interview. Love that Ms. Bundles is natural too. Sad that we’re still having so many of the same haircare issues a century later.

Babydolltash
Guest
Babydolltash

This was a great interview! Thanks for giving me something new daily BGLH.

Sharon
Guest

What in insightful interview. I’m glad to have the misconception about Madame Walker’s intentions with her hair care products cleared up. I look forward to reading Pt. 2.

M.J.
Guest
M.J.

Very informative. I, too, was under the impression that she invented the hot comb. Wow…can’t wait to read part two.

Beebo
Guest
Beebo

I really want to believe this lady but the pics of longer hair appear straightened. Sorry…

Lisha
Guest
Lisha

Of course it’s straightened‐ she also sold the straightening comb.

Sunshine
Guest

I really enjoyed this interview. I too was completely misinfomred about Madame CJ Walker. This interview has given me a better understanding and a greater appreciation for her.

Also I feel more inspired and encouraged about my own product line!

Thanks BGLH!

Deola
Guest
Deola

Thanks for bringing us such a great interview BGLH. I love the picture of her sitting there in her vehicle. That would be the equivalent of a woman riding around in a pink hummer today!

TANIYAH
Guest
TANIYAH

You are the best person in the world

Sugabelly
Guest

Drat. Didn’t read part 1 first. My bad. I apologize. But still, the curly before and straight after is suspect.

Naturalesque
Guest
Naturalesque

What Christina said were my thoughts EXACTLY! WOW! Because I am a firm believer and swear by a healthy scalp. LOL! I found this to be very interesting and truly enlightening! I learned something new the other day. I’m back for pt. 2!

Mae Woulard
Guest

Pretty good post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I have really enjoyed reading your blog posts. Any way I’ll be subscribing to your feed and I hope you post again soon.

LBell
Guest
LBell

Thanks for doing this interview. Ms. Bundles has been talking about her ancestor’s true legacy for many years now so most of this information was not new to me but I’m glad to see that a new group of people are being enlightened by it. I recommend people read Noliwe Rooks’ book Hair Raising for more information on the beauty culture of the early 20th century and Madam Walker’s role. I do have to cosign Beebo’s comment though. Even though those pics was taken during a different era that’s now long past, they have always bothered me a teeny little… Read more »

Laverne
Guest
Laverne

I feel ya, but many Black women are going to have self esteem issues in this country starting as young girls regardless because our beauty is constantly under attack in American media and society. Also,it’s engrained in many African American families that a certain complexion and hair type means you’re prettier than those who don’t have those same features. Yeah it’s messed up that companies take advantage of this, but that’s why we need to be strong in pushing the natural movement so the rest of our sisters understand you don’t need to have long silky hair to be beautiful.

Sonia
Guest
Sonia

Why isn’t Annie Turnbo Pope Malone spoken of? Contrary to popular belief, she was the first African American beauty entrepreneur adn had an estimated net worth of 14 million dollars in the 1920s. She deserves to be recognized in light of Madame CJ Walker. She came before Walker and was known as a huge philanthropist. She started the Poro Collge and the built an empire. By 1902, she had developed an entirely new line of hair preparations called “Annie’s Wonderful Hair Grower”

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[…] are honored to have her on BGLH today to talk about her great‐great grandmother’s legacy. Click HERE for part one of this […]

Malasay
Guest

Great interview and I love that the products are still being manufactured. My friend recently bought some for me and I am grateful she did.

Malasay
Guest

I agree with Sonia…wonder why there has not been much mention of Annie Turnbo Pope Malone…seems Sara Breedlove learned alot from her as well.

Acuvue Oasys Rebate
Guest

This website is a wonderful read through, cheers.

Tosh
Guest
Tosh

I’m reading the book Black Rose right now about Madame CJ Walker’s life. This is also an awesome read. As the interview above states, Mme Walker did not invent the straightening comb, just used it to feature her hair products. Even if Mme walker capitalized off the standards of beauty/ insecurities of that era, she gave Black women something to be proud of. There was a stereotype back then that Black women weren’t well groomed and thus seen as dirty by the rest of society. We still face this challenge today on some levels. I’m glad Mme Walker was on… Read more »

John Blouin
Guest

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Guest

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Michel
Guest

I hardly drop comments, but I browsed a few of the comments on this page What is Madam CJ Walker?s real legacy? Part 1 | Black Girl with Long Hair. I actually do have 2 questions for you if you tend not to mind. Could it be just me or does it give the impression like some of these remarks come across as if they are written by brain dead people? 😛 And, if you are posting at other sites, I’d like to keep up with anything new you have to post. Would you make a list of every one… Read more »

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Media Accounts
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zariah
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zariah

I have long hair to my behind and I love you madam cj walker because you are the best female African American I know and love..

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