Madam C.J. Walker Is Turning Over In Her Grave
And Its Your Fault
Today (December 23) is the day that our ancestor Sarah Breedlove was born. To this day, Sarah Breedlove remains one of the most successful Black business owners in modern history. She went from being a lowly washwoman to earning $8,000 per month (in 2017 dollars) despite being born just two years after the American Civil War.
You know Sarah Breedlove as Madame C.J. Walker.
But before you head to Instagram to throw her image around, maybe you should take a second to read, understand, and draw lessons from her story.
Maybe if we all did that, we would bring an end to the disrespect that we have collectively shown her.
I will tell you what I mean by disrespect in a moment, but first, here is her story in 60 seconds or less.
From Sarah the Sharecropper To Millionaire Madam
Sarah Breedlove was the fifth child born into her family, but the first ‘free-born’. In the aftermath of the Civil War, her family migrated from Louisiana to
In 1904 Sarah lost her hair and found her million dollar idea. She invented an entire line of Black hair care products with the help of two mentors.
The first was her husband - a newspaper advertising salesman named Charles Joseph Walker. He would teach her the power of marketing, create her first advertisements, and gave her the name we know her as today.
Her second mentor was Annie Turnbo Malone — the first Black female Millionaire in the United States. Annie had developed a line of hair care products herself along with a mail-order process for beauty care products.
Sarah was hired on in 1904 to sell Annie’s products, but would separate from her shortly after to create the Madame C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company in 1910.
Madam Walker didnt just create products for the sake of profit. She created an international street team called the “Walker Agents” to promote Black self-esteem, organize clubs and conventions, and to volunteer in Black communities.
As profits soared, she reinvested the company’s earnings into a factory, a laboratory, a salon, and a school where she trained stylists in the ‘Walker Method’ of Black hair care.
By the time she died in 1919, there were more than 200 Walker beauty schools across the country.
And then the Black Community tricked it all off.
Sankofa is a word and an African principle that emphasizes the importance of learning lessons of the past. Sankofa stops us from falling in the same holes and running into the same walls that our ancestors did. We learn from their mistakes so that we dont make those same mistakes ourselves. At the same time, we learn from their successes so that we can build on them. As a result, every generation achieves higher heights that the last one.
Has every new African generation achieved more than the previous one?
While there are examples of Black Excellence, collectively we find ourselves still running into walls because we have failed to ‘go back and fetch’ the lessons of the past.
Which brings me back to the topic of Madame C.J. Walker shaking her head at us from the ancestral realm…
We have nearly forgotten the incident involving a Black woman in a Black hair care store owned by a Korean shop owner. In case you need your memory jogged, here you go…
Had we been following Madam C.J. Walker’s example from 1919 to today, it would never have come to this.
Sure, we know that in 1965 the United States helped Korea lock down the industry. We know that institutional racism has erected road blocks to Black progress.
But Madam C.J. Walker built her empire in an age when Blacks were still being lynched for reading.
As we head into 2018, here are the statistics:
- Koreans own more than 10,000 beauty supply stores
- The industry generates more than $10 Billion a year
- Black buyers make up as much as 96% of the consumer base
- Less than 3% of the stores are Black Owned
To add insult to injury, in March 2016, Sephora began selling the Madam C. J. Walker Beauty Culture line.
It should have never come to this. No one understands Black hair (or Black needs) better than Black folks. Yet we have failed to carry on the legacy of our Ancestors and find ourselves under the economic control of non-Black groups.
We have given away the inheritance that Madam C.J. Walker bestowed upon us. We have failed those who have come before us by allowing others to appropriate our achievements, or by ignoring those achievements altogether.
The best way to honor Madam C.J. Walker on this day and going forward is by learning from them and reclaiming their legacy.
Until then, we cant be mad when someone else builds on foundations that we have forgotten.