Netflix looks to answer the Oscars debacle from earlier this year with an exciting new four-part limited series, Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker. Starring Octavia Spencer in the title role, Self Made utilizes the research of Madam Walker’s great-great-granddaughter, A’Lelia Bundles, who wrote a New York Times bestseller about her family’s legacy in Black hair care. A’Lelia, a former network television news executive and award-winning producer for 30 years at NBC and ABC News, authored On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker to inform a new generation about the importance of America’s first successful Black entrepreneur.
Madam Walker was the daughter of slaves, and a widow at the age of 20. Seeing a need for healthy hair alternatives that catered to the Black woman, Madam C.J. Walker and her family built a business empire that focused on cosmetic and hair care products for women of color. Many of her company’s employees were women, including Marjorie Joyner (co-founder of the National Council of Negro Women) and Alice Kelly (the first forewoman and manager of the Walker factory). Through hard work and effort, Madam Walker turned her wealth into philanthropy and made friends with “talented tenth” MVPs: W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington.
A’Lelia Bundles is also the president of the Madam Walker/A’Lelia Walker Family Archives, making her the oracle behind her famous ancestors’ speeches, publications, documents, photographs and past public initiatives. VIBE was fortunate enough to get the engaging public speaker and lover of history to talk about her great-great-grandmother’s impact on the Black entrepreneurial spirit, discovering her own revolutionary acts through her Black hair growth, and shares why she celebrates today’s stars for championing Black self-expression.
VIBE: Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker hits Netflix on March 20, during Women’s History Month. With those events in mind, I wanted to ask you about your involvement with the series and what message do you hope the show can convey to Black audiences?
A’Lelia Bundles: My book, On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker was optioned a few years ago by Mark Holder of Wonder Street [Productions]. Mark then approached Warner Bros. and then Netflix about turning it into a series. Once that went through, Octavia Spencer came on board, and we went through the process from then on. I’m considered a consulting producer, which means that I had some script review, but I really hope that what comes from this is that more people will know Madam C.J. Walker’s name, and that their curiosity will be pricked a bit so they’ll want to learn even more about her.
Obviously, with the show being a limited series, you can only scratch the surface of her legacy and impact. Add to that that I’ve done almost 50 years’ worth of research on Madam Walker and her life, and so I am renaming my book into Self Made with Octavia Spencer’s picture on the cover, as well as an audiobook that I just recorded a few weeks ago.
It is an interesting time in the world of content creation where people of color are able to inform others through the visual medium. Earlier this year, we had Who Killed Malcolm X, and When They See Us in 2019 had a new generation learning about the Central Park Five. You say Self Made only scratches the surface, but what do you hope people take away from this show when it compares to the rise of the Black haircare industry?
There is a core of people who know and love Madam C.J. Walker, but there’s a much larger audience who don’t really know about her. I think Self Made will give people a window into her life. Octavia Spencer is the right person to play this role. She has an understanding of the obstacles that Black women face and, in her own personal life, she has certainly overcome obstacles and dealt successfully with challenges.
The message I hope people get from this series is that a Black woman in the early 20th century not only started a business, but empowered other women, and went on to become the first self-made Black millionaire. By helping those women become economically independent, she created jobs and generational wealth for thousands within the Black community.
Switching braids a bit, I wanted to ask you about your own hair care journey. When did you learn that Black hair could be politicized?
I learned that my hair could be politicized when I was a senior in high school. Both my parents worked at the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company, with my dad eventually being hired by another company called Summit Laboratories that made chemical hair straighteners.
At that time, I’d see Angela Davis and Cicely Tyson with the big afro, plus the Black Power Movement was in full swing. People were getting rid of their processed and straightened hair, which awakened my political consciousness. I knew to have an afro was a sign of rebellion, much like how the white kids were growing their hair long, Black kids like me were using our hair to make a statement against the issues of the time.
To relate that to what’s going on with today’s youth, I wanted to get your thoughts on the struggles that kids like Deandre Arnold and others experience when trying to express themselves…
Companies like Sundial Brands and people like Matthew Cherry are making a statement by supporting young people while saying to the rest of the world that you will not shame our babies. It’s very hard to be a kid, especially in a predominantly white school or white town where other people want to police your body and hair. It is angering to me that anybody can be expelled from school because of the hair that grows out of their head. Our hair is beautiful the way it grows and the judgments that other people make need to evolve.
Speaking of evolution, I must ask what your own favorite hairstyles of today are that you’d rock if you could?
I love people who have really long locs. I love how they can go in different directions or pile it up into a big crown on the head. I love just really full hairstyles that have structure. My hair is pretty limp [laughs] and I’m not able to do that, but if I could, I would. At this stage of my life, though, it would take so much work and product and maintenance that I am really all about that easy life.
How do you feel about media places like Huffington Post’s Black Hair Defined project spotlighting stories about Black hair and the Black hair care industry?
It is really important that places like this make statements that our hair is beautiful and that there’s nothing wrong with our hair. People like Richelieu Dennis, founding CEO of Sundial Brands and now owns Essence Magazine, has created a $100 million VC fund called the New Voices Fund for women entrepreneurs of color. Support from companies and media places like these are uplifting Black hair, hair care, and cosmetic companies that make it plain that we’re not going backward and only are going to continue to express ourselves.
Last question, Ms. A’Lelia: What is the continuing impact Madam C.J. Walker’s legacy has on Black entrepreneurs?
Her impact is that of a great American rags-to-riches story. I hope that by the time people have finished watching the series, and doing some additional research, that they really see Madam C.J. Walker as a multidimensional woman. She was the first child in her family to be born after slavery, who was a millionaire by the time of her death in 1919 and made a difference in her community as a patron of the Arts and a helper of other women to become economically independent. I think this, her being an impactful inspiration to many, gives hope to others to follow in her footsteps.