#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.

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