“Hair is our heritage," said Madam C.J. Walker in the opening scenes of the Netflix series. "It tells us who we are, where we've been and where we're going...hair is power."
I don’t know about you, but I’ve never thought about hair that way. What I do know is that hearing those words made me feel empowered and nostalgic because I grew up in a hair salon. It was an unlicensed one, but a hair salon no less.
Many days, the smokiness of bacon mixed with a hint of Isoplus in the air got me and my siblings out of bed. That was especially true on the weekends. On school days, we were often greeted at the door by women whose hair my aunt was doing in our basement.
For us, that was the norm. And watching “Self-Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker” reminded me of my childhood. The images of hairstyles flashing across my screen transported me to forgotten memories like watching women leaf through the latest Jet and Essence magazines.
Seeing Addie Munroe and Madam C.J. Walker with their clients, reminded me of the smiles of the women who arose from my basement. I watched my aunt restore the confidence and mane of women for years. That’s why I know that there’s power in the relationship of a hairstylist and client. With the simple part of the crown or massage of the scalp, more than hair follicles can (and have been) nurtured. Netflix' decision to demonstrate that relationship was a powerful statement especially now.
What I enjoyed most about the series was seeing a force of a woman who understood purpose and the ability to rewrite her story. Born Sarah Breedlove, Madam C.J. Walker went from being a washerwoman to a self-made millionaire. Though the four-part series doesn’t shed light on every area of her life and may lean closer to fiction than fact, anybody can learn from the story. Here are four lessons I learned from the chapters of “Self-Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker:”
Chapter 1: Courage to Take on the World Starts with Feeling Good About Yourself
At first, when Breedlove shares her story, she's downtrodden about her lot in life. Over a washing pale, she describes the struggle of being a washerwoman. “I scrubbed my fingers to the bones for pennies,” she said. “Most days, I can’t even make ends meet.” The story continues in a marketplace in St. Louis where she shares the story about losing her hair. “After a while, I guess I just lost hope…I forgot how to dream,” she said. “That’s when my hair started falling out.” According to the series, that’s when things went downhill including her marriage.
With time, she explained to the gathering women, she regained her confidence. That's all because of Addie Munroe’s Magical Hair Grower. That confidence may have come from having a full head of hair, but it extended to her ability to do and be more than a washerwoman.
This chapter allowed the audience to witness Madam C.J. Walker’s transformation. She went from a hopeless woman to a woman on fire to change her circumstances – no matter the cost.
Chapter 2: Minorities Can’t Play by the Rules of the Majority if They Want to get Ahead
Watching a woman who understands that rules are meant to be broken is a special sight. Though Walker didn't want to live by the rules of her time, she tried to when it came to business. That was true every time she sought a new opportunity like funding for her factory. Because it was "a man’s world," she approached the richest men in town. When that didn’t work, she tried to get an endorsement by Booker T. Washington. Translation: she went to another man.
Seeing her can-do attitude and tenacity in this chapter filled me with pride. Watching her problem-solve to find funding for her factory were my favorite scenes. But what I enjoyed the most is that funding came from the most esteemed women (not men) of her time. That's proof that women are stronger together. What's more, sometimes, it's necessary to change the game to get ahead.
Chapter 3: Knowing Who You Aren’t is Just as Powerful as Knowing Who You Are
“Who represents the epitome of colored beauty?” said C.J. in his pitch for the Walker Girl campaign. From Indianapolis to Harlem, that question loomed throughout the chapter.
At first sight of the campaign, Walker knew something was off. Despite knowing that it didn’t align with her brand or who she was as a woman, she took her time to make a decision, which seemed to haunt her. It wasn’t until the end of the episode and she learned the truth about C.J. that she was able to stand firm in her decision with eight simple words. “You want a walker girl,” said Walker. “That ain’t me”
Chapter 4: Invest in the Growth of Those Who Have invested in Your Growth
“To paraphrase the great J.D. Rockefeller,” said Walker anytime she was going into a business deal. She admired the businessman so much so that she bought a home right next door to his estate. However, when she met him for the first time while on a stroll in her garden, she dismissed his advice. “Who cares what they want? You didn’t get where you are by letting people push you around,” he said. “They don’t like it, fire them.”
Walker could have taken his words for gospel like she did in other chapters. Instead, she chose the people who always chose her and her products. She chose the women who made her dream of Walker Manufacturing a reality. “I don’t need a chain store to grow my business. I have you, warriors, an army of strong, powerful women,” said Walker on the steps of her estate. “Stand with me. Stand with me and I vow to help each and every one of you take control of your lives…take control of your destinies. Stand with me.”
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Yasmein James is a freelance writer from Philly who loves a dope twist-out. Her love of storytelling began at the dinner table with her siblings. You can find more of her writing on her personal blog, She’s Facing Freedom.