An interview with Madam C.J. Walker

Illustration by Nikila Smith.

My roots show me growth
in myself growth that is uneven
I can straighten them roots out with a cut
my roots are getting old
they’re turning gray
guess I will be thrown away
maybe I can prolong this procedure
by hiding my growth
deep down in my roots
there is a story leading to wisdom
coming from wisdom
my roots started out cute, now they’re mature
my roots are my roots, yours are yours
I know I will be picked one day, by the one
who is meant to get nourished by my roots
I can feed, love, and grow more roots
but my roots will only grow for you

The following is an imagined interview.

Madam C.J. Walker: I came from the cotton fields of the South. From there, I was promoted to the cook. And then I promoted myself into manufacturing hair products. I built my factory on my own. Nikila: Wow. You are proof that how you start is not how you finish.

Madam C.J.: Let me tell you more about my upbringing. My father and mother are Owen and Minerva. My siblings, Louvenia, Alexander, James, Solomon, and Owen Jr, were all born into slavery. I was the first born into freedom. My mother died when I was six and my father remarried. Then he died a year later when I was seven. This made me an orphan. So, I moved in with my oldest sister Louvenia and my brother-in-law. Let’s just say that didn’t work.

Nikila: Can I ask you a question?

Madam C.J.: Of course, that’s what this interview is for.

Nikila: How did you get the name Madam C.J. Walker?

Madam C.J.: In January 1906, I married Charles Joseph Walker, a newspaper advertising salesman I met in St. Louis. That’s how I became Madam C.J. Walker. I founded one of the most memorable salons of the Harlem Renaissance. I entertained Harlem and Greenwich Village writers, artists, and musicians – as well as visiting African and European royalty. I was called the joy goddess of Harlem by Langston Hughes.

Nikila: Why did you create glossine and pressing oil, wonderful hair grower, cream cosmetic, the world’s first hair-straightening formula, and the hot comb?

Madam C.J.: Having hair loss myself, it made my self-esteem low. I figured out hair is beautiful and hair is power. The formula came through a dream.

Nikila: Now I can’t wait to dream. I believe you’ve been married three times and you have one daughter and a granddaughter?

Madam C.J.: That is correct. My daughter’s name is A’Lelia Walker and my granddaughter’s name is Fairy Mae Bryant.

Nikila: I too am a grandmom. We have a lot in common, minus the money. I’m just happy knowing I’m the first person to interview you from my time.

Madam C.J.: I moved to Pennsylvania in 1908 and opened a factory and hair school called Lelia College of Beauty Culture, named after my daughter. I accomplished all this in a highly segregated and sexist society.

Nikila: Walker died May 25, 1919, of kidney failure and hypertension. She was the first Black woman millionaire in America. She is still making history.

Issues |Lifestyle|Systemic Racism

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