Now a Netflix series starring Octavia Spencer, Self Made (formerly titled On Her Own Ground) is the first full-scale biography of “one of the great success stories of American history” (The Philadelphia Inquirer), Madam C.J. Walker—the legendary African American entrepreneur and philanthropist—by her great-great-granddaughter, A’Lelia Bundles.
The daughter of formerly enslaved parents, Sarah Breedlove—who would become known as Madam C. J. Walker—was orphaned at seven, married at fourteen, and widowed at twenty. She spent the better part of the next two decades laboring as a washerwoman for $1.50 a week. Then—with the discovery of a revolutionary hair care formula for black women—everything changed. By her death in 1919, Walker managed to overcome astonishing odds: building a storied beauty empire from the ground up, amassing wealth unprecedented among black women, and devoting her life to philanthropy and social activism. Along the way, she formed friendships with great early-twentieth-century political figures such as Ida B. Wells, Mary McLeod Bethune, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Booker T. Washington.
Bundles, the great-great-granddaughter of America's first black woman millionaire, evinces great affection for her famous relative, even if she doesn't overcome a major hurdle: Madam Walker kept her intimate life so private that there's not much to say about it. In the first chapters, Bundles uses a lot of awkward "possibly"s and "perhaps"s as she speculates about her subject's motivations and feelings. Once into the swing of Madam Walker's career, however, Bundles sidesteps the problem by turning social historian, leaving questions of love and sex aside. Walker's trajectory from uneducated washerwoman to hair-care industry magnate becomes the organizing element for a larger mosaic of black life in America, from Reconstruction through the founding of the NAACP in 1909. There's solid business history here, too, as Madam Walker figures out how to make her kitchen industry into a national empire by franchising it. Walker's philanthropy and social consciousness (working for the antilynching and the African anticolonial movements, for example) made her an important powerbroker in the black community. With fascinating details on benevolent and fraternal organizations, urban churches, black colleges, political movements and government surveillance of those involved in them, Bundles takes readers on an engrossing tour of a neglected corner of American history.