Television news journalist A'Lelia Bundles tells her great-great grandmother's story in a new book: “On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker” (Scribner). A century ago, Madam Walker built an international hair-care empire that forever changed African-American women's self-image.
How did Sarah Breedlove -- a.k.a. Madam Walker -- get into the beauty business?
She was working as a washerwoman and like so many other African-American women of her day, she had scalp problems and was going bald, because they only washed their hair once a month. So she developed a product system to cleanse and heal the skin based on petrolatum, sulphur, beeswax and coconut oil. She sold it in small packages to women like herself.
Madam Walker claimed that the formula came to her in a dream. Do you believe that?
Oh yes. In that era, African Americans couldn't have survived without a deep, abiding faith. She was an orphan, single mother and widow by the time she was 20.
There were products similar to Madam Walker’s. Why were hers so successful?
If you look in old newspapers you'll see there were a number of white-owned companies advertising hair-care products and cosmetics to black women with before and after pictures. "Before" would be a pen and ink drawing of a woman with blotchy skin, acne and hair that was wild. The "After" would be a mulatto, with flawless skin and hair in Gibson Girl style. They were appealing to some of the insecurities of black women. By contrast, Madam Walker put her own image on the products and sent a message: women who looked like her were worthy of being celebrated.
And yet she has been criticized for imitating white hairstyles with her products.
I've come to view African Americans and their hair the way I view the history of jazz: theirs is an amalgam of experience. Some of it represents African, some American. But in the end we are creating our own standards.
Without a business school background, how did Madam Walker create an international empire? Her genius was in marketing and distribution and motivating a sales force. She spent most of every year on the road. At the time Mary Kay was born, Madam Walker was already having national conventions of her agents. At a time when most black women worked as sharecroppers or maids, she provided a means to become economically independent. She gave prizes not only to women who sold the most, but individual and local clubs who contributed to charity.
Do any companies do this today?
Soft Sheen owned by L'Oréal and J.M. Products are involved in contributions to the black community.
What media messages do black women currently receive?
More so than ever before, there is a wider acceptance of African-American beauty. Whether it's Iman, Vanessa Williams or Toni Morrison, there’s such a wide range that we can embrace. Many African-American women accept themselves and are not worried about whether someone else accepts them. By doing so, they force others to recognize their beauty.
For more information on the ethnic hair-care company J.M. Products, visit A'Lelia's website at MadamCJWalker.com