#Self-Made Syllabus: Uncovering the Context of Madam C. J. Walker’s Life and Contributions

Watching Netflix’s Self Made, a special series inspired by the life of Madam C. J. Walker, as a historian who specializes in Black women in work, business, and industry, specifically uncovering their struggles for economic justice I thought about the texts/contexts that would have helped clarify the life of Madam C. J. Walker. I assembled this list, some of which are classics in the subfield of African American women’s history, while others are new or soon to be published.

Credit for image above: A tin of Madam C. J. Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower, Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift from Dawn Simon Spears and Alvin Spears, Sr.

Alll of the books and articles provided here would add tremendous context and #herstory to #SelfMadeNetflix. While competition and ruthlessness may be a defining theme of capitalism, I was disappointed in how this framed the story.  Money matters in Black women’s lives, but so too does migration, relationships, access, justice, education, philanthropy-all of these got short shrift in this made for TV special. Good thing there is a field, Black Women’s History, that can provide us with the education we need. I know this list is not exhaustive. There are probably more texts/contexts (films, music, etc) that I could have added–feel free to contribute your additions in the comments! (*Special thanks to all who contributed books when I posted this on twitter. I incorporated them into this list!)

Also, wherever possible, I tried to link to the author’s bio page, where I could find it, so that you can also learn about the people who have committed their research agendas to study Black women.

Jacqueline Jones, Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work and the Family from Slavery to the Present (1985, 2010) examines Black women and their labor struggles and triumphs over time.
The Helping Tradition in the Black Family and Community by Joanne Martin and Elmer Martin for a look at the traditions of mutual aid, cooperation and philanthropy across the African American experience.”*
Darlene Clark Hine‘s, “Rape and the Inner Lives of Black Women in the Middle West,” (1989) uncovers Black women’s experiences of sexual violence and the strategies they used to protect themselves. In this essay Hine explains “culture of dissemblance,” a key theoretical concept in Black women’s historiography.
Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920 (1994), lays out the “politics of respectability,” which undergirded much of Black Christian women’s activism.
Tera Hunter‘s To Joy My Freedom (1997) is about Black women and work after the Civil War, and focuses on the lives and activism of washerwomen in the south, specifically Atlanta.
Darlene Clark Hine and Kathleen Thompson’s A Shining Thread of Hope: The History of Black Women in America (1998) is an overview of African American women’s experiences in the United States from the 1600s to the present.
Juliet E.K. Walker, The History of Black Business in America: Capitalism, Race and Entrepreneurship (1998) provides an overview of Black business and situates people like Madam C. J. Walker within a broader context, especially as it relates to business history.
Deborah Gray White‘s Too Heavy A Load (1999) is a classic in Black women’s history and tells the history of the organizations Black women created to defend, help, and protect themselves, including the National Association of Colored Women.
“Floris Barnett Cash’s African American Women and Social Action: The Clubwomen and Volunteerism from Jim Crow to the New Deal, 1896-1936 (2001) is a deep dive into the infrastructure of social services and education created by clubwomen.”*
Jualynne E. Dodson’s Engendering Church: Women, Power and the AME Church (2001) considers gender relations and women’s leadership in the church.”*
A’Lelia Bundles‘ engaging and accessible biography of Madam C. J. Walker, On Her Own Ground (2001, 2020) remains the definitive, biographical text on Walker.
Julia Kirk Blackwelder‘s Stylin Jim Crow: African American Beauty Training During Segregation (2003) explores Black beauty education during the Jim Crow era.
Stephanie J. Shaw‘s What a Woman Ought to Be and To Do (1995) considers the lives and labors of Black professional women during the Jim Crow era, including the messages they received in their upbringing that led them to commit their lives to uplifting Black communities.
Susannah Walker’s Style and Status: Selling Beauty to African American Women, 1920-1975 (2007) examines the social, political, and economic implications of how beauty products were marketed and sold to African American women.
Tiffany Gill’s brilliant Beauty Shop Politics (2010) explores Black women’s beauty activism, nationally and internationally, including their organizational and professional efforts.
Prove It On Me: New Negroes, Sex and Popular Culture in the 1920s by Erin D. Chapman considers the mingling of respectability, consumerism and New Negro Womanhood in Madam’s products.”*
Riché J. Daniel Barnes, Raising the Race (2015) analyzes how 20th century African American women reconceptualized ideas around marriage, motherhood and community.*
For a history of Black women in finance and their economic justice activism, Shennette Garrett-Scott‘s, Banking on Freedom (2019) is an important contribution.
For a history of the United States through the lives and experiences of African American women, Kali Nicole Gross and Daina Raimey Berry A Black Women’s History of the US is a text to begin with.
Forthcoming from Tyrone McKinley Freeman‘s Madam C. J. Walker’s Gospel of Giving (forthcoming, 2020) examines the philanthropic activism of Madam C. J. Walker and sheds light on an under researched aspect of Walker’s life. In so doing, Freeman expands our understanding of philanthropic giving.

“Inside the Circle”

Saidiya Hartman’s most recent offering, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals, stopped me dead in my tracks, or a better way to put it– it opened a portal to my writing I felt the pandemic had closed. For several weeks, the pandemic had arrested my words, locked them up inside me in a place I could not access. I even tweeted about it.

Hartman’s description of the subject and purpose of the book captured me: “At the turn of the twentieth century, young black women were in open rebellion. They struggled to create autonomous and beautiful lives, to escape the new forms of servitude awaiting them, and to live as if they were free. This book recreates the radical imagination and wayward practices of these young women by describing the world through their eyes. It is a narrative written from nowhere, from the nowhere of the ghetto and the nowhere of utopia.” (A Note on Method, xiii) Hartman focuses on New York city and Philadelphia from the ~1890s-1930s.

But, I am moving too fast…

I knew Hartman had published this new book, but I hadn’t gotten around to reading it yet, hadn’t even ordered it yet. Then, the African American Intellectual History Society and the Journal of African American History announced a round table on the book. Without first reading Wayward Lives, I read some of the round table entries because some of my favorite historians were participating. I especially appreciated LaShawn Harris’ contribution. [Harris’s own book, Sex Workers, Psychics, and Numbers Runners Black Women in New York City’s Underground Economy, also explores Black working women in New York City.] Harris wrote that one of Hartman’s major contributions is “to ongoing scholarly discussions concerning the collection and documentation of histories on the everyday lives of the unexceptional, unnamed, and well-known.” After reading Harris’ essay, I stopped, ordered the book and read it over a long weekend.

The first sentence that stopped me dead in my tracks, forcing me to underline AND dog ear the page was this one:

This story is told from inside the circle.

(Hartman, A Note on Method, xiv)

What did Hartman mean that the story would be told from “inside the circle”? How was she going to do this? I am trained as a historian and one of the major features of my early disciplining was adherence to “objectivity.” As a way to undiscipline and heal myself, I worked hard to trouble the meaning of objectivity, knowing that objectivity is impossible, and that the requirement of objectivity has been weaponized against scholars of color who dare decide to engage in research too “close” to home, especially if that home is somehow related to their identity.

Inside the circle


How does one get inside?

Hartman gets inside by culling through hundreds of pages of primary sources and engaging in methods, both literary and historical. Hartman presses at limits, speculates, imagines, amplifies, attends to, spending years paying attention to photographs, records,and fragments related to ordinary, unknown Black girls and women, careful not to inflict damage of her own from their future.

Getting inside–that is what I wrestle with my own work on everyday Black working women striving to actualize their economic Black freedom dreams in the urban Midwest. Part of me feels like I am an insider because this is the story of my mother, my grandmother, my great aunties. These women who came before me were working class, (mostly) single mothers, who butted up against a Jim Crow Job System in Chicago that devalued them as workers, limited their economic opportunities, and forced them to think of creative solutions to make a way out of no way, for themselves, their families, and their communities.

I study Milwaukee, 90 miles away from Chicago. I know the intellectual significance of Milwaukee and I write about it in the introduction to my book, but I know I also chose Milwaukee because it was NOT Chicago, it was NOT my hometown. No one in my family talked about the pain of economic struggle, and my mother did her best to shield me from it, but I saw it, I felt it, I understood it deeply. I thought that if I chose another city, I could claim objectivity, that it would not feel too close to home. I did not think I would see my family, myself, in the archives because they were far(?) away.

But, it turns out, 90 miles is closer than I thought, and even closer in the archive. In looking at Milwaukee, I saw/see my great grandmother, my grandmother, my grand aunts leaping from the texts, the articles, the records, the testimonies. And I struggle with that. I struggle with seeing scores of Black women underpaid, mistreated on the job, trying to find work that never turns up. Trying to add up the few dollars. Make it to the next day.

I have a hard time separating my personal herstory from herstory.

But the lines that open Wayward Lives open something in me: “This story is told from inside the circle.”

A portal has been opened.

I walk through.

Writing for/with the Revolution

What does one say about a revolution (historical) while in the midst of a revolution (now)? That is the question that animates my thoughts lately and it is why I have decided to restart this informal writing space. Over the years, I have started and stopped so many iterations of a blog because I couldn’t quite figure out the purpose of this space and also, honestly, because I was afraid that people actually wanted to read what I wanted to say. My perfectionism kicked into overdrive. At this moment, whether I have an audience is not so important. And whether or not these words are perfect, don’t matter so much either.

I have been writing my current book for a long time and while an external motivation (a tenure clock for 6 years) forced me to make a certain kind of progress, this progress was made under duress.

Now, I find myself in a space, writing a book I want to write because I want to write it.

Of, course this is/was/has always been hard work.

But this work, this writing for, and in the midst of, a revolution seems urgent right/write now (write now–a demand, an imperative).

At first I felt inadequate because I have always been prone to march and organize and then later, to teach, but then I realized, this is part of my contribution. I go to work everyday (a kitchen table) and I write and I am part of the revolution.

I am writing Black women not only into history, but into a future.

Black women in a just future.

“Revolution” on Plyboard, Black Lives Matter Plaza NW, Washington, DC, June 7, 2020