OPINION: It’s time we remember Madam C.J. Walker


Madam C.J. Walker’s contributions to history defied the expectations for Black beauty in society. Design by Jessica Carney-Perks

Jessica Carney-Perks

Hair is defined by being undefined. It’s unique and eccentric to each individual. Hair is an extension of identity. It can also be a declaration to the world that a person can undermine the norm. 

Africans who came from slave ports and were forced across ocean passages were taunted and demeaned for the texture of their hair, pitted against European standards of what was deemed clean or fashionable. 

What we today label as tight coils, thick and coarse was referenced to as “nappy” then. The label nappy carried down throughout the generations as an acceptable way to categorize Black hair. This term shut out the diversity and the beauty of Blackness. Black communities themselves began using it to describe their children and families’ tresses, which became detrimental to the self esteem and confidence of Black youth, particularly Black women.  

 The same tactics used by slave masters and traders centuries ago lingered in and haunted these communities, another way to control ideas of Black power and beauty. A lingering that has continued to stick around and has led people to be ashamed of themselves and their own race, vying to have a child with less textured hair, lighter eyes and lighter skin. Desiring their child to achieve acceptance in a world dominated by European standards. Even altering their own appearance to fit the mold. 

Hair often determined employment status and association, because hair represented to the public what type of employee you were, what type of representation that business accepted and supposedly how close to Blackness you were. European standards dominated the market of acceptable ideals and deemed professionalism, playing a downright haughty measure towards those with more textured locks. 

This pressure to conform was also inaccessible, as there were few inexpensive tools or routines that were popularized to ‘relax’ thick and dense hair. At least, until Sarah Breedlove introduced her hair straightening formula. 

Sarah Breedlove, otherwise known as Madam C.J. Walker, was born in Delta, Louisiana on December 27th, 1867. Despite being a free woman, the image of cotton fields wasn’t quite a speck in the distance, as prevalent racism and disregard for the Black community continued to rage throughout the country. 

Breedlove and her daughter A’Lelia moved to St. Louis, Missouri following Reconstruction, where she worked endlessly as a cook and laundress to make ends means for her family. Breedlove had her own experiences with hair struggles and the need to look pristine for employment and acceptance. 

She soon found relief to her hair woes after continuous application of Annie Turbon Malone’s The Great Wonderful Hair Grower, which was a hair pomade that promoted growth and protected against environmental hazards. She partnered with Malone to sell the products as an agent, in response to her discovery and loyalty to the product. 

Malone’s success with thousands of Black communities inspired Breedlove to create her own  product. Thus how she landed in Denver, Colorado, aiding Black women who struggled to protect their hair from the cold, dry terrain. .

She stepped out of the shadows of Malone and reinvented herself as Madam C.J. Walker in this new city, establishing her business with only the support of her daughter and her third husband.  Soon, Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower took off on the market.

Walker experienced some backlash from Malone supporters for the similarity in name and ingredients, although set herself apart with the addition of a French name and her marketing through independent Black newspapers.

It wasn’t long before she created her own major distribution center and factory in Indianapolis, Indiana. Walker cultivated customers into selling agents, providing the opportunity to expand her market while simultaneously helping Black women maneuver out of poverty with better wages.

Even though Walker experienced criticisms, questions of her fame and an overall lack of support, she popularized the idea that Black women had options. Options to rock straight hair or embrace their natural curls. This opportunity of choice developed the narrative to re-embrace Black beauty in its versatility and uniqueness, a step in reclaiming Black identity. 

Supposedly, Madam C.J. Walker was the first Black female millionaire, however, more evidence is coming to show that Annie Turnbo Malone may have indeed been the first. Regardless, both figures proved they wouldn’t be the last. Their great contributions to history have encouraged Black female entrepreneurship and the power of Black communal support for overall wealth and success.

Black hair continued to uplift and bind the Black community together, allowing for a re-embrace and reclamation of Black culture and identity. 

The Black Panther Party (BBP) revived the embrace of the natural afro, with a pick in hand and a fist in the air. Afros became a standard of community and show of support for BPP efforts against injustice, a symbol of solidarity to deny further pressures of conformity to white expectations. 

In addition to the Black Panther Party, afros became a popular image of Black media. Superheroes, movie characters and Black faces in cinema typically were drawn or dressed with traditional African beads, a large afro, a medallion and an afro pick to push these ideas of radicalism and power. 

The 2014 natural hair movement had a surge of Black women converting back to their natural hair, as motivation to reform pressures of conformity in the workplace and social media. 

Black hair has changed the narrative for the success of today’s fashion and has cultivated vanilla looks into flavored inspiration with the creativity and diversity of Black hair and styles. Madam C.J. Walker’s strides to live out her dream and rewrite the tale of Black beauty and success can be seen displayed across America today. 

Black female students throughout Jefferson County Public High Schools share the importance of Walker and moments of appreciation for their hair. 

“I had knew her name because of her millionaire status, but I never knew exactly what she did. It’s just cool to see that could be me or any other Black girl,” La’Riyah David, from Louisville Male High School, said. 

“She’s Black girl magic at its finest. Now we have Black billionaires. She [Madam C.J. Walker] paved the way,” Jaidyn Mitzo, from Atherton High School, said. 

Others share the struggles to embrace their hair.

“Washing my hair is an all day task. It’s not a get up and go. It never has been. You never know what you’ll get out of the bonnet. It may look like a masterpiece when you go to bed, but when you wake up, it looks like the style is two weeks old,” A’marri Thompson, from Southern High School, said. 

“It’s hard to have so many options. You don’t know if it’s pretty enough for a job interview or prom pictures. My hair is so unpredictable, I can’t risk it. That’s why I relaxed mine. It’s just easier to manage,” Kameron Wood, from Pleasure Ridge Park High School, said. 

“I love my curls when they act right. Doing a slick back ponytail feels like completing the Olympics when I have somewhere to be at a certain time,” David said.

However, through these tests of strength and courage to undermine societal standards, the appreciation of natural hair symbolizes a grandor beauty. 

“Being natural is a workout, but it’s the end result that makes the struggle worth it,” Britanee Calloway, from Southern High School, said.

“There’s nothing like making eye contact with another Black girl and smiling like ‘you ate that sis’,” Thompson said.

“Black hair is so different person to person. That’s what makes it beautiful,” Wood said. 

Madam C.J. Walker challenged the expectations of Black beauty and stimulated inspiration for Black female entrepreneurs. The fight to turn her dreams into a reality is what transitioned her from a mere witness to a prominent figure in history. 

Without her perseverance, the Black community may not have been able to have that sense of choice and diversity as early as it did. Madam C.J. Walker illuminated the beauty of Blackness that society refused to acknowledge and rejected to see. 

She was an entrepreneur, leader and powerful Black woman. She is to be remembered.