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.
Photo Credit: Michael Cunningham
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.
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.
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.