Happy Birthday, Madam C. J. Walker—and Thank You

LINDSEY NORWARD, NEW YORK UNIVERSITY GRADUATE SCHOOL OF ARTS AND SCIENCE

Born only two years after slavery’s official end, Madam C.J. Walker surmounted great adversity to become one of America’s first female self-made millionaires. By 1920, she had trained over 23,000 sales agents and workers to sell her pioneering black hair-care products. But she did more than teach us the importance of enterprise. She taught us how to celebrate ourselves.

Today marks the 151st birthday of Sarah Breedlove, known as Madam C. J. Walker. Born in Delta, Louisiana to former slaves, Walker was the first child in her family born into freedom. The start of her life during this era symbolized the destitution and chaos, the ambitions and promise, of a new beginning. Years later, thousands of people commemorate her contributions to society. Over a century later, it is notable to consider what makes Walker’s legacy continually relevant.

Walker was born into a world of picking cotton in the blistering sun alongside her family members. Both an orphan and a widow, Walker’s accomplishments, in the face of a racially-charged America, are incomparable. In 1905, she discovered a treatment to cure her hair loss, branding it the “Walker system”.  Walker took a personal approach to her sales, traveling door-to-door to both sell her products and recruit black women to become agents for the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company. She provided career opportunities and economic independence to thousands of black women who previously served as maids, cooks, seamstresses and farmworkers. She traveled to countries including Haiti, Costa Rica, Panama and Cuba, training and employing thousands of Walker hair culturists across the world. Black women learned of entrepreneurship, property-owning, and capital. When she died, her fortune was worth over $600,000, valued at over 6 million dollars in today’s currency. Walker did not begin a start with money, yet also did not begin her start with self-definition of her own beauty. Beyond her fortune, she was burdened with a society that did not value or treasure her and attempted to define her. She was constantly bombarded with messages in the postbellum South that she was unattractive. In the wake of this reality, a question arises: how do we value ourselves beyond what even money can offer us?

The burden of society’s gaze is one that, like Walker and others of the time, many black women still endure. The legacy of discrimination against black women bases its roots in the racist imagery of a colonial history. Today, this legacy still rings true. In today’s age of technology and social media, black women are increasingly told who they are, what they are worth, and who they should be.

When Forbes placed socialite and reality television personality Kylie Jenner on their July cover, the magazine dubbed her as being on her way to becoming “America’s youngest self-made billionaire”. This usage of the ever-contentious phrase “self-made”, for many, prompted a question: what does being self-made really mean? For black and poor Americans, it surely does not mean being born into a wealthy, famous family. For Madam C. J. Walker, though, being “self-made” meant even more than using her own resources—it meant creating a society in which black women had the power to create themselves, too. In a society that capitalizes off black culture and black features while diminishing their origins, Walker’s products held more weight than simply capital. These products meant the redefinition of black beauty standards, and the ability for black women to flourish. Walker’s entrepreneurial activism allowed black women to become self-made in their own right. 

Celebrating oneself means celebrating both the obstacles and the triumphs. Walker did not shy away from her past—she carried it with her. At the 1912 Negro Farmer’s Conference in Tuskegee, Alabama, Walker spoke of her business ventures not simply in terms of her personal success, but also of her confidence in black farmworkers to succeed themselves. In the same year, at the National Negro Business League annual convention in Chicago, she stated: “I am not ashamed of my past…I am not ashamed of my humble beginning…I have built my own factory on my own ground.” She founded an empire. An empire that stood for community empowerment.

Walker was troubled by what plagued the black community. Troubled by lynching. Troubled by segregated schools. She felt her first allegiance was to her community. With that, her entrepreneurship fell into sync.

How do we honor Walker’s legacy? How do we continue to remember her not only for her enterprise, but for her invaluable dedication to her community? In teaching our history, we can honor not only for her fortune, but her altruistic essence. We can practice self-care. We can support black-owned businesses. We can encourage our young, black girls to pursue their dreams—no matter how expansive. We can strive to uplift our own standards of beauty. And today, we can carry Walker’s history with us—remembering, in the face of adversity, what it means to love ourselves. As we face everyday challenges, we remember that defining our own beauty, self-worth, and our own journeys, is still relevant today.

So, thank you, Madam C. J. Walker. Today, we remember your goals, dreams, and aspirations, as we remind ourselves the importance of treasuring our own.