Love ‘Self-Made’? Dive Into The Real, Extraordinary Life Of Madam C.J. Walker

Madam C.J. Walker, Octavia Spencer, The Book of Awesome Black Americans

Mango Publishing, Netflix, Public Domain

Madam C.J. Walker’s life has been transformed into Netflix’s Self-Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker. It’s the Madam C.J. Walker bio-series we’ve been waiting on…or is it? Unfortunately, I can’t tell you right now since I haven’t seen it yet. I’m trying to stay as unsullied from other folks’ opinions as possible, but from the little I have been seeing on social media, folks are having problems with the series.

I will give my full rundown on the series soon, but for now, I wanted to give you some background on Madam C.J. Walker, someone I featured in my book, The Book of Awesome Black Americans. Here’s a snippet from my book about Walker and how she became the first female millionaire in American history, starting from her friendship with fellow Black beauty entrepreneur Annie Turnbo Malone. Walker’s career also helped influence another Black woman who revolutionized Black hair care, Marjorie Stewart Joyner.

Annie Turnbo Malone was the woman whose work in beauty and hair care inspired Madam C.J. Walker to launch her own hair care business. Malone was born in 1869 in Metropolis, Illinois as the tenth of eleven children. When her parents died, she lived with an older sister and went to school, although she wasn’t able to graduate due to illness. But as her hometown’s name suggests, Malone was already born super. Even though she didn’t finish school, her time in class fostered her love for chemistry, and it was this love that led her towards creating her first product, a product that helped Black women straighten their hair without damaging it.

Malone kept creating more products until she had an entire line for potential customers, and to gain those customers, she moved to St. Louis and went door to door, giving women live demonstrations. She also debuted her products at the 1904 World’s Fair, one of the best ways to gain tons of publicity for a new product or service at the time. This amount of publicity gave her enough wind in her sails to launch her company, Turnbo’s Poro Company. She eventually married St. Louis school principal Aaron E. Malone and through her company’s success, became a millionaire by the end of World War I. She used her wealth in charitable ways to help Black American organizations and philanthropic groups, and established cosmetology school Poro College in St. Louis. 

Malone’s success in haircare paved the way for others, including Madam C.J. Walker. I feel we know more about Walker because of her ability to market herself as a brand alongside her business. She is effectively one of the first people to utilize their image as its own type of selling point, similar to how celebrities use their status to sell products or business ventures or, for the Gen Z crowd, beauty YouTubers endear themselves to their audience by becoming an inviting personality. Her flair for the dramatic helped propel her to superstar status, but thankfully, she also used her fame to help other Black women find opportunity.

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Walker was born Sarah Breedlove, was the daughter of slaves-turned-sharecroppers in Louisiana. Similar to Malone, Walker became an orphan during her childhood and lived with her older sister and worked in the cotton fields with her.

Her early life continued to be harrowing: she married at age 14 as an escape from her sister’s abusive husband. But her husband, Moses McWilliams, died, leaving Walker a single mother to her daughter Lelia, or, as she came to be known, A’Lelia. Her second marriage to John Davis was also worrisome, and the two divorced. Throughout that time, though, Walker did her best to provide for her daughter by moving near her four brothers in St. Louis and earned work as a cook and laundress.

Her brothers’ profession, barbering, was a bit of foreshadowing as to what Walker’s life would become. She became devoted to Anne Turbo Malone’s “The Great Wonderful Hair Grower” product to recover from hair loss, presumably from stress. Her love for the product led her to become one of Malone’s Black saleswomen and eventually, Walker launched her own hair line with just $1.25. By this time, she had moved to Denver, Colorado and was married once again, this time to an ad man named Charles Joseph Walker, and renamed herself “Madam C.J. Walker” to launch her line. 

This third marriage didn’t last long either, but the name and her husband’s business acumen helped Walker establish her line and grow her Walker Manufacturing Company in Indianapolis, Minnesota. Like Malone, she also hired a line of Black women for her sales team and eventually employed 40,000 Black men and women throughout the U.S., Canada and the Caribbean. She became a millionaire, owned a mansion in Irvington, New York as well as several properties in Harlem, St. Louis, Chicago and Pittsburgh and established the Negro Cosmetics Manufacturers Association, helping Black businessowners network and coalesce as a powerful business force.

One of the Black women Walker inspired was Marjorie Stewart Joyner, who was one of Madam C.J. Walker’s contemporaries and became a huge part of her Walker’s business as part of her board of directors. Joyner was born in Virginia in 1896 and her family moved to Chicago as part of the Great Migration north for jobs and opportunities. She met her future husband, Robert Joyner, who was studying podiatry. While he was in school, she went to the A.B. Molar Beauty School and became the school’s first Black graduate. Afterwards, she opened her beauty salon, where she became known for her prowess at setting Marcel waves, a popular style at the time. It so happened that when she tried to set her mother-in-law’s hair, she failed, which prompted her mother-in-law to pay for her to attend classes to learn how to work on Black people’s hair. As it turns out, that class was taught by Walker, and she was so impressed with Joyner that she offered her a job. But even though Joyner turned her down because of her new marriage, the two stayed in contact and eventually, Joyner became one of Walker’s demonstrators who traveled throughout the nation teaching others Walker’s famous hair tips.

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Joyner’s own history with the Marcel wave led her to create a new invention—the waving machine, which can set an entire head of hair at the same time. She applied for her patent in 1928 and the machine took off. She never made a dime from her invention, since the patents belonged to Walker’s company since Joyner was still an employee, but her career in hair launched her higher up the ladder in Walker’s company, eventually becoming the vice president of one of Walker’s salon divisions as well as becoming part of the board of directors. Joyner’s presence in American society is even more cemented in her philanthropy work, including co-founding Florida’s Bethune-Cookman College with Mary McLeod Bethune. It was at the college she co-founded that she earned a B.S. in psychology in 1973. Joyner died at 1994 at the age of 98. But the spirit of her invention still lives on in today’s contemporary wavers. Today’s wavers are handheld instead of looking like the intimidating apparatus Joyner invented, which was basically a hair dryer connected to several curling rods. But several handheld devices on the market still have the same multi-rod design embedded within its DNA, meaning that Joyner’s unique invention still has merit, even in 2019.

If you’d like even more information about Walker, I recommend checking out the Shadow And Act Facebook Q&A with A’Lelia Bundles, writer of On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker and Walker’s great-great granddaughter (and someone who now owns my book!). But regardless if Self-Made is getting all of the history regarding Walker right, it’s still amazing that the series has finally gotten made after so many years of seeing her story proverbially collect dust in history books. I can only attribute the interest in her story to the fact that there are more Black producers in Hollywood nowadays, producers who want to showcase all facets of Black American history, including the untold stories of Black American success, to the mainstream.

Let’s get into the Black excellence behind this production. The series is executive produced by Octavia Spencer, who stars as Walker, and LeBron James, NBA superstar and co-owner of SpringHill Entertainment. The series’ directors, DeMane Davis and Kasi Lemmons, are also on as producer and executive producer, respectively.

In her Facebook Q&A with Shadow And Act, Bundles talked about how the film could have been made many years prior, but she was glad the series wasn’t made until Spencer was cast. I will also add to that statement that I believe that the series couldn’t have been made without the current spirit of the Black entertainment Renaissance there is today.

I’m thankful that with the current climate of Black Hollywood, there is a renewed interest in exploring Black history and bringing under-explored narratives to the surface. Projects like Self-Made can only make audiences’ lives richer, hopefully piquing their curiosity and compelling them to want to learn more about Walker and more Black Americans who have made our country what it is today.