WALKER madamcj

Dwelling on Earth: Roots of Black Hair Care

28 Min Read

Madam C.J. Walker is taken into account the primary feminine self-made millionaire in the USA, because of her well-documented wealth she earned from her cosmetics and haircare merchandise. (Photograph: Scurlock Studios, Smithsonian Establishment, Public Area)

Hair care merchandise marketed to Black girls right this moment typically embody cancer-causing formaldehyde and hormone disrupting chemical substances. However again within the early 1900s, an enterprising Black girl named Madam C. J. Walker used largely pure substances in her hair merchandise to empower Black girls and develop into the primary feminine American self-made millionaire. Host Steve Curwood talks together with her great-great granddaughter, A’Lelia Bundles, who wrote the 2001 ebook On Her Personal Floor: The Life and Instances of Madam C. J. Walker.


CURWOOD: It’s Dwelling on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood.

Whether or not you rock a full Afro, a modern bob or an undercut, the way in which you type your hair will help you are feeling assured and specific your id and tradition. And it may be sophisticated for Black folks whose hair tends to develop in tight curls. Centuries of racism have contributed to a Euro-centric magnificence normal that elevates straight over coiled hair.

JAMES-TODD: As my daughter typically would say, when she was little, we’ve out-hair, like, the way in which that our hair is a crown, it grows out of our heads, however actually, that turning into not the fascinating option to function in society, and down-hair being valued and out-hair being not valued, type of the three-year-old phrases of “out” and “down.”

CURWOOD: That’s Tamarra James-Todd, an epidemiologist on the Harvard T.H. Chan College of Public Well being. Her analysis focuses on a number of the hair care merchandise Black girls use to reply to the social pressures to straighten their hair, risking their well being with publicity to hormone-disrupting chemical substances.

JAMES-TODD: As a Black girl, like many others, we’ll go to magnificence provide shops or to our native pharmacy and get our merchandise. And we are sometimes in search of issues that say one thing like, “will make our hair grow,” or “will make our hair fuller” or no matter, like no matter factor or attribute we equate with being stunning that we additionally equate with “this works,” no matter “works” means for us. However what struck me was additionally that the substances saying that they had been hormonally energetic, and I used to be working in a lab, a breast most cancers lab, the place hormonal exercise was linked to breast most cancers. I type of had this aha second the place I stated, is there one thing to this?

CURWOOD: Most cancers-causing formaldehyde can be an ingredient in some hair relaxers and straighteners used primarily by Black girls. Amid the rising considerations about well being impacts, the U.S. Meals and Drug Administration is giving its rules a makeover. The FDA has signaled plans to ban formaldehyde-related chemical substances from some hair merchandise as a part of efforts to modernize beauty rules. There are at the least ten thousand completely different substances utilized in cosmetics available on the market right this moment, but it surely wasn’t at all times like this. Within the early 1900s, an enterprising Black girl used only a few substances in her hair merchandise to make a huge effect and created jobs and uplifted political engagement. Her identify was Madam C. J. Walker, and he or she made a fortune promoting her hair merchandise, making her the primary American girl, Black or white, to develop into a self-made millionaire. Becoming a member of me now could be the great-great-granddaughter of Madam C.J. Walker, A’Lelia Bundles, the creator of the 2001 ebook On Her Personal Floor: The Life and Instances of Madam C. J. Walker. Hello A’Lelia and welcome to the present.

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A’Lelia Bundles is the creator of On Her Personal Floor: The Life and Instances of Madam C. J. Walker, now revealed as Self Made. (Photograph: CSUF Images, Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

WALKER: Delighted to be with you!

CURWOOD: So who was Madam C. J. Walker and what does she imply, writ giant, to Black hair care?

WALKER: Madam C. J. Walker was an incredible American enterprise story. Born Sarah Breedlove, the primary youngster in her household born free in Delta, Louisiana in 1867. However by the point she died in 1919, at age 51, she had based the Madam C. J. Walker manufacturing firm, develop into a millionaire, employed 1000’s of Black girls, empowered them to develop into economically unbiased, and used her wealth and affect as a patron of the humanities and a political activist. However she actually is without doubt one of the godmothers of the trendy haircare trade, together with different giants of hair care amongst Black girls, however she actually created an organization that has some enduring legacy.

CURWOOD: When did you develop into conscious of your loved ones’s haircare historical past?

WALKER: So I’d say, and never a lot the haircare half, however once I grew to become conscious of Madam C. J. Walker and her daughter, A’Lelia Walker, who was a key a part of the Harlem Renaissance, was actually earlier than I might learn, when my mom and I’d go to my grandfather within the condominium that, the place my grandmother had lived earlier than her dying, seven years earlier than my beginning, however we might go to that condominium. And whereas my mom and her father talked in the lounge, I’d go into my grandmother’s bed room and open the dresser drawers, and I discovered issues that had belonged to Madam Walker, A’Lelia Walker and my grandmother Might. So, ostrich feather followers, and mother-of-pearl opera glasses and souvenirs from Egypt. So I used to be starting to study one thing about them whilst a toddler. The silverware that we used day-after-day had Madam Walker’s monogram, and our china for particular events had been at Madam Walker’s mansion, Villa Lewaro, in Irvington, New York. So I had touchstones with these girls. I, my mother was Vice President of the Madam C. J. Walker manufacturing firm once I was rising up. So I’d go together with her to her workplace in downtown Indianapolis, go upstairs on the fourth flooring and play on her typewriter and her including machine, earlier than computer systems and calculators [LAUGHS] after which stroll to the manufacturing facility when she would discuss with the women who had been nonetheless mixing the Walker merchandise by hand. In order that’s within the Nineteen Fifties and early Nineteen Sixties. So I had a way of my mom being a enterprise girl and this being her household.

CURWOOD: So, inform me, what had been the principle substances of your great-great-grandmother’s haircare system?

WALKER: You understand, it is one thing quite simple, however that we take issues without any consideration now. And to only type of set the stage, when she began her firm in 1906, most People did not have indoor plumbing or electrical energy. So hygiene was very completely different. And like many different girls, she was shedding her hair not simply due to actually severe dandruff, however due to severe scalp infections. And so the system for the Walker technique was a vegetable shampoo that was much less harsh than a number of the lye shampoos and soaps. Wash your hair extra typically, get your scalp clear, after which apply an ointment that was a petrolatum base like Vaseline, that included sulfur, which is a centuries-old treatment for therapeutic pores and skin and scalp infections. Merchandise like Cuticura had been truly already available on the market. There have been different merchandise that used this fundamental system, medicinal system, pharmaceutical system, however she marketed it and packaged it underneath her personal identify.

CURWOOD: Now lately, and within the information proper now, the dialog is loud in regards to the hazard of hair chemical substances and Black girls’s well being. What’s your response to the FDA’s current announcement that company is stepping in to control now the chemical substances that ladies use of their hair?

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Madam C. J. Walker’s merchandise had been typically much like these already being offered, however her understanding of promoting allowed her enterprise to thrive. (Photograph: Smithsonian Nationwide Museum of African American Historical past and Tradition, public area)

WALKER: I am glad that this consideration is being paid to the hurt that chemical substances can do. You understand, what Madam Walker and her contemporaries developed with petrolatums and petroleum-based and sulfur-based merchandise, , now we all know that with shampoos, they’re sulfate free, that we do not use petroleum based mostly. However throughout that time frame, that was revolutionary. And sulfur was considerably dangerous, however not in the way in which that the chemical straighteners that got here a few generations later, that this hydroxy is, I feel, may be very dangerous. And I feel a number of the scientific research present that.

CURWOOD: So, inform me as a Black girl, as a author, journalist, historian, discuss to us in regards to the emotional and psychological ties between Black girls’s sense of self and their hair in trendy America.

WALKER: A lot of that is how we see ourselves, what our self-image [is], how we current ourselves to the world. And loads of the way in which that we really feel about ourselves depends upon the messages that come from the people who find themselves closest to us. Although typically, I do have pals who put on their hair pure, whose daughters actually wish to put on lace entrance wigs, or they actually wish to straighten their hair, they do not wish to do what mama did! However we, I feel there’s a journey, at the least for myself, personally, that many people undergo by way of turning into snug with who we’re. And that is to not say that, , some folks, particularly I feel younger girls and youngsters, wish to change their hair each different week. And I feel they must have the liberty to do this. However I personally, like to have the ability to put on my hair with none further, with none further issues, with out extensions. That is simply me. However I type of admire the creativity of a number of the younger girls. However I do assume it actually does must do with the messages that we get. A few examples for me: so once I was rising up, I had very lengthy hair and I used to be what we might say “tender headed”. And my mom was very affected person with me, she took loads of time. And once I would, , squirm, she would say, “Oh, you know, sweetie, you’re gonna be so pretty when we finish.” And that was her approach of attempting to present me confidence. She purchased Black dolls for me. So there was a message there. That didn’t stop me from feeling the stress of the exterior world. I at all times went to predominantly white colleges. So you start to check your hair texture to the hair texture of your classmates. And due to this emphasis on European requirements of magnificence, I feel that many younger ladies and, , girls and older girls really feel this stress to adapt. However when you’ve got a member of the family or somebody near you, or a boyfriend or a girlfriend, who says, “I would rather your hair be this way than that way,” typically it is very laborious to claim your self and say, “But you know, this is my hair, this is the way I want to wear it.”

CURWOOD: Now, what in regards to the enterprise market? I’ve heard some Black girls say that, in the event that they put on pure hair within the company setting, it actually units them again. They do not advance as far they usually really feel that they’ve the proof that straightened hair will get them additional than pure hair. What do you concentrate on that?

WALKER: I feel that is completely true. However , my private expertise as a producer and an government with ABC Information, after which having labored with NBC and ABC for 30 years, I watched an evolution of hair. I began at NBC in 1976. And one of many causes that I selected to not take the on-air route is as a result of I had a giant Afro and I didn’t need any individual telling me the best way to put on my hair. However behind the scenes, I might put on my hair nevertheless I wished with out that type of stress. Then via the years as I had completely different jobs, my final place was as Director of Expertise Growth at ABC. And so I used to be working with younger correspondents, individuals who had been simply approaching board, hiring new staff. And I do know that it was very troublesome, that individuals had been form of dismissed in the event that they did not have straightened hair. However I’ve observed inside the final form of decade or so, particularly on MSNBC, that the ladies attorneys, who had pure hair, had been introduced on the present as a result of they introduced some experience. So I am coming with my mind, and my hair comes with me. I even observed {that a} one of many male hosts on CBS Morning Information the opposite morning had cornrows. So persons are pushing that envelope; once you see executives like Debbie Lee or Sheila Johnson or B. Smith, when she was within the public eye with pure hair, or Ursula Burns, it begins to alter the equation when any individual on the prime has the braveness to do this. And it is not even braveness, it is like, that is the way in which my hair grows. So I feel we’re in a second the place there are individuals who assume they will nonetheless intimidate you. And in the event you’re in a spot the place there aren’t loads of eyes on you, and there is not loads of authorized recourse, there are nonetheless individuals who will inform you you can’t put on your hair a sure approach. We all know that in the event you’re simply beginning out or in the event you’re in a spot the place you do not have loads of energy, it is very laborious to combat again.

CURWOOD: So, A’Lelia, what impressed you to put in writing the ebook On Her Personal Floor: The Life and Instances of Madam C. J. Walker?

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Black girls can decrease their danger of reproductive cancers by avoiding sure hair straightening merchandise, however pure Black hair is usually stigmatized in America. (Photograph: Nappy.co, CC0)

WALKER: I used to be actually extra serious about A’Lelia Walker than Madam C. J. Walker, as a result of A’Lelia Walker, my nice grandmother, Madam Walker’s daughter, had identified the artists and writers and musicians of the Harlem Renaissance. And my senior 12 months in highschool, I, we satisfied the college administration to allow us to have a Black historical past humanities course. So I wrote about A’Lelia Walker and her Harlem Renaissance pals, and that was my curiosity. Madam Walker was actually sophisticated for me, as a result of folks thought, oh, Madam Walker, is not she the lady who invented the recent comb? Effectively, she did not invent the recent comb, however that was the narrative about her, and I used to be type of protecting her at arm’s size. So it took me some time to completely perceive her many dimensions. And once I bought to Columbia and journalism and graduate faculty, my advisor for my grasp’s paper was Phyllis Garland, the one Black girl on the school at that second when these doorways had been lastly opening up for various hires. And Phyl and I sat down to speak about my grasp’s paper matter, and I gave her the type of cliched, trite subjects that college students give to their professors. And on the finish of the dialog, she stated, “Your name is A’Lelia. Do you have any connection to Madam Walker and A’Lelia Walker?” And I am fairly certain Phyl knew the reply to that query. Her mom had been editor of the Pittsburgh Courier, she had labored for Jet and Ebony. However I wasn’t strolling round speaking about my relationship to them. So once I stated, “Why, yes, that’s my family,” she stated, “That’s what you’re going to write about.” So it was actually the ability of a professor who understood the significance of that story, who validated it for me, and who actually set me on a path that is actually type of 5 many years previous, nearly.

CURWOOD: So what was the story you tried to inform in On Her Personal Floor?

WALKER: I wished folks to learn about Madam Walker’s many dimensions, as a result of she had such good instincts about hiring her government staff that they created, they saved the data. So we’ve actually 40,000 paperwork and images that had been donated to the Indiana Historic Society which were digitized. So I had unbelievable, an unbelievable basis for my analysis. After which I spent a few years studying different manuscript collections and newspapers and doing analysis. So after I had performed this analysis, I spotted, sure, she had based a haircare firm, that was crucial. Sure, she had develop into a millionaire. However what intrigued me was the roles that she created for 1000’s of Black girls who in any other case would have been maids and laundresses and sharecroppers; allowed them to develop into economically unbiased, to purchase properties, to purchase actual property, to teach their youngsters, but additionally empowered them to develop into leaders of their communities. In order that was fascinating to me, that she based mostly it on the issues she discovered from the ladies of her church, the St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church, from the ladies within the membership motion, that management was necessary. I cherished studying that she had been politically energetic. She was a, she was a political radical [LAUGHS] which simply, , amazed me and made me really feel good that in World Conflict One, she spoke out in opposition to lynching, she spoke out on behalf of Black troopers. She was even spied upon by a Black spy who was working for the Conflict Division and, together with Ida B. Wells, was referred to as a “Negro Subversive,” which is just like the Nixon’s enemies record. So I wished to indicate these many dimensions and the impression that she continues to have, to encourage entrepreneurs, but additionally to encourage folks to not solely develop into rich and influential however to make use of that wealth and affect in a political approach and to help the humanities.

CURWOOD: Earlier than you go, A’Lelia, inform me: what’s Madam C. J. Walker’s legacy?

WALKER: For me, Madam C. J. Walker’s legacy is one in all empowering girls and one in all inspiring girls. She actually does present us the chances of what can occur each when girls have faith, but additionally after they have management they usually could make a distinction of their group. One in all my favourite issues, as I’ve performed all this analysis, is one thing that Tiffany Gill, a good friend of mine who’s a historian, found when she was doing her dissertation, and he or she was taking a look at girls within the Civil Rights Motion, specifically beauticians in the course of the Civil Rights Motion. And what she discovered is that beauticians, girls who had been members of the Nationwide Magnificence Culturists’ League, that they had been very politically energetic. I feel a few of these seeds had been planted by Madam Walker in that 1970 conference. And people beauticians would invite Martin Luther King to their convention, their conference yearly, they usually helped pay for the buses that took folks to the March on Washington in 1963. It is important to know that A. Philip Randolph’s spouse, Lucille Inexperienced Randolph, was a Walker agent. So I like this combine of girls who’re economically unbiased, personal their very own companies, being leaders and with the ability to use that for social justice.

CURWOOD: What else would you want us to know?

WALKER: We are able to twist ourselves into knots attempting to seem like any individual else. And I feel it’s, there’s loads of reckoning that’s necessary for ladies to do by way of how we really feel about ourselves. I do know that for me, personally, I’ve had a protracted haircare journey, for 70-plus years. It is taken me some time to be snug with myself and to appreciate that my hair texture has all my ancestors, as does the particular person sitting subsequent to me have all her ancestors, and what I can do with my hair shouldn’t be what you are able to do together with your hair, that it is so necessary for us to like ourselves. And that is, that is actually for me, crucial a part of a haircare journey, is what’s it that we do this makes us be ok with ourselves and love ourselves?

CURWOOD: A’Lelia Bundles is the great-great granddaughter of Madam C. J. Walker. Thanks a lot for taking the time with us right this moment.

WALKER: Completely my pleasure.

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A’Lelia Bundles is the great-great-granddaughter of Madam C.J. Walker. (Photograph: Courtesy of A’Lelia Bundles)



Be taught extra about A’Lelia Bundles

Buy A’Lelia Bundles ebook and help each Dwelling on Earth and native bookstores

A’Lelia Bundles is the model historian for MADAM, a brand new line of haircare merchandise impressed by Madam C.J. Walker. Discover them right here.

Take heed to our earlier story on the dangers of sure Black haircare merchandise


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