Mission Statement for On The Same Page

On The Same Page is written by Maxine E. Thompson. She is the author of 2 novels, The Ebony Tree and No Pockets in a Shroud. On The Same Page is a column to inspire and motivate writers to take control of their literary destinies.

New Writer's Showcase

This week  On The Same Page has the honor of interviewing A'Lelia Bundles, Madam C. J. Walker's great-great-granddaughter, who is Director of Talent Development for ABC News in Washington, DC and New York. An Emmy Award winning producer, she served as ABC's Washington Deputy Bureau Chief from 1996 to 1999 when she left to complete the critically acclaimed, award winning biography On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker. A'Lelia spearheaded the campaign for the 1998 Madam C. J. Walker commemorative postage stamp and is at work on a biography of her great-grandmother, A'Lelia Walker, a central figure of the Harlem Renaissance.

M.T.:   Who or what was the inspiration for attempting such a monumental task of telling your great-great-grandmother’s phenomenal story?

A.B.:  I wrote On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker because I had to write it! Many, many people have told me that I was destined to be the author of my great-great-grandmother's biography. At times I felt as if the ancestors were standing with me as I completed this labor of love.

Even before I learned to read, I sensed the spirits of Madam Walker, her daughter A'Lelia Walker and my grandmother Mae Walker beckoning me--sometimes whispering, sometimes clamoring--with the message that I must tell their story. As a little girl I first "met" the Walker women as I explored an antique dresser filled with their belongings. Eventually that childhood curiosity led me on a three-decades long journey into the libraries, courthouses, historical societies and living rooms of more than a dozen U. S. cities.


M.T.:  I have read several versions of Madam C. J. Walker's life, but I must say yours is the most extensive and authenticated. How long did it take to do the research of "On Her Own Ground?" and what inspired such a fitting title?

A.B.:  I truly appreciate your kind words about my extensive research. When I look back on the process I realize that only a family member could have had the level of passion, dedication and access to people and information that was needed to do the research to tell this story.

To tell you the truth, I have always thought Madam Walker deserved the care and commitment it took to document all aspects of her life. I wanted readers to feel confident that they could trust every word that was in On Her Own Ground. And, frankly, I really was tired of reading the inaccurate and misleading accounts of her life that others had written. As a long-time professional journalist and network television news producer, I cherish truth-telling. I hope you will understand why, after years of trying to set the record straight, I have never been in favor of any of the fictionalized accounts of my great-great-grandmother's life. A few days before my mother died in 1976, as I was doing research for a graduate school paper on Madam Walker, I asked her what I should do about some of the myths I was discovering. "Tell the truth, baby," was her answer. Through all these years I have tried to honor her charge to me.

In one way or another I have been conducting research--interviewing people who knew Madam Walker and A'Lelia Walker, reading biographies and history books, studying late 19th and early 20th century newspapers, court records and correspondence, examining old photographs--since the late 1960s in preparation for this book. I know it must be hard to believe in the case of someone as celebrated as Madam Walker, but in 1991 when I wrote Madam C. J. Walker: Entrepreneur--a young adult biography for Chelsea House's Black Americans of Achievement Series--there were no other book-length biographies about her. Before that book there had been the occasional article or recycled paragraph, but a disturbing amount of the information that was printed and re-printed about Madam Walker up to that time was inaccurate. Six or seven children's biographies--which relied heavily on my Chelsea House research--were released in the 1990s.

The title for my recent, more comprehensive Walker biography--On Her Own Ground--comes from a truly rousing speech that Madam Walker gave at the 1912 National Negro Business League Convention in Chicago. In a bold move on the final day of the convention--after NNBL founder, Booker T. Washington, had denied her an opportunity to speak to the delegates, she pushed her way forward and dared to challenge him. "Surely you are not going to shut the door in my face," she declared as she began to describe her successful hair care products business and her impressive earnings . "I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South. From there, I was promoted to the wash tub. From there I was promoted to the cook kitchen. And from there, I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations. I have built my own factory on my own ground!" The next year Washington invited her back as a keynote speaker.


 M.T.:  As one of her descendants, were you aware of the importance of Madam C. J. Walker while growing up?

A.B.:  As I was growing up, there were reminders all around me that Madam Walker was, at the very least, a little different than the average great-great-grandmother. The silverware that we used everyday had her monogram. We ate Thanksgiving dinner on her hand-painted china. The Chickering baby grand piano that dominated our living room had belonged to her daughter. And no one else I knew had a grandmother with a building or company named after her. I often visited that factory, beauty school and office in downtown Indianapolis where my mother was vice president of the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company. I knew Madam Walker was important, but because my mother wisely took great pains not to overwhelm us with this larger than life figure and because no one else had really done the necessary historical research, it took years of learning American history, women's history, business history and African American history to truly put her contributions in perspective.

Most people pigeon-holed Madam Walker as a woman who had something to do with black women and hair. But a more expansive view reveals that Madam Walker--along with women like Helena Rubinstein, Elizabeth Arden and Poro Company founder Annie Malone--were pioneers of what is now a multi-billion dollar cosmetics and hair care industry. Think about this: In 1917--the year before cosmetics mogul Mary Kay Ash was born, Madam Walker already was having national conventions of Walker sales agents where she gave prizes not only to the women who had sold the most products, but to those who had contributed the most to charity and political causes. She was way, way ahead of her time. It's laudable that Madam Walker was an amazingly successful entrepreneur, but I believe what made her great was her vision to use her wealth and influence as a philanthropist and political activist.


M.T.:   I am very fascinated with the story about how Madam C. J. Walker prayed for an answer to her problems and dreamed the solution to this hair care product. We know there are so many myths around Madam C. J. Walker as a cultural and American icon. Could you tell me some of the family documentation you uncovered that substantiated this story?

A.B.:  I was very fortunate to have known and to have frequently interviewed one of Madam Walker's secretaries who saved thousands of pages of her letters and business records. Those documents served as the foundation of my research. I used late 19th and early 20th century deeds, wills, court records, city directories, Congressional testimony, newspaper articles, personal correspondence, etc. to re-create the times and to verify Madam Walker's activities.

You mentioned the dream story. Madam Walker was a very spiritual woman with a deep faith in God. A large part of her motivation for her philanthropy was the belief that she should return the blessings she had received. She prayed regularly and always insisted that the formula for her "Wonderful Hair Grower" had come to her in a dream. I believe that that was one way she came up with her hair care ideas. But through research of 18th and 19th century medicine, I also know that the basic formula for the ointment that healed scalp disease had been around long before Madam Walker had her dream and that there were similar products already on the market.


M.T.:   People like Madam C. J. Walker are agitators of social change. What do you feel was the biggest contribution Madam C. J. Walker made to American society and to the African American community?

A.B.:  During her lifetime Madam Walker exemplified the possibilities that lay before the first generation of African Americans after slavery. She was one of the most famous African Americans of her day and her success not only made other African Americans proud, but allowed them to believe that they, too, had a stake in the rags-to-riches American Dream. As one of the wealthiest self-made businesswoman in America during the early 20th century (many people believed she was a millionaire), she set an example for African Americans by showing them that they could be successful in business.

In addition to being a pioneer of the modern cosmetics and hair care industries, she was an early advocate of women's economic independence and provided a lucrative livelihood for thousands of women who otherwise would have been poorly paid maids, sharecroppers and washerwomen. I believe Madam Walker helped reconfigure philanthropy in the black community with her contributions to the YMCA, YWCA, and several black churches and colleges. She was courageous enough to use her wealth and power to influence political causes, most notably with her visit to the White House in 1917 to lobby President Woodrow Wilson on the lynching issue and her 1919 contribution to the NAACP's anti-lynching crusade.


 M.T.:  During the Black Revolutionary period of the late sixties, Madam C. J. Walker wasn't as popular because of people's misconception that she invented the straightening comb. Could you set the record straight?

A.B.:  It's true: Madam Walker did NOT invent the straightening comb. It seems that the myth began to develop in the early 1920s, after her death, when the Walker Company purchased a patent for a hot comb from the widow of a man who had been one of her main suppliers. And while Madam Walker and her sales agents used the hot comb, her emphasis was on healing the scalp disease that was so rampant in the early twentieth century when women washed their hair only once a month and sometimes not at all during the winter. Somehow that myth stuck and because so many people believe it, it continues to be a challenge to get them to examine the truth.

I give much more detail in On Her Own Ground about the straight vs. natural hair controversy that has raged in our community almost since we first set foot on American soil. Madam Walker was so aware of the debate that she told a reporter in 1917, "Let me correct the erroneous impression held by some that I claim to straighten hair. I grow hair. . .I want the great masses of my people to take a greater pride in their personal appearance and to give their hair proper attention." And remember, this was at a time when 90 per cent of African Americans lived in the South and most of them were in rural areas with no in door plumbing or electricity. As they began to move North and as they became more urban during the World War I era, grooming became more of a priority. As Du Bois said of Madam Walker, "It is given to few persons to transform a people in a generation." And while we may view her through our early 21st century lens, I think it's important to put in perspective what the life of the average African American woman was a hundred years ago.

M.T.:   Could you shed light on Madam C. J. Walker and her daughter A'Lelia Walker's  role during the Harlem Renaissance?

A.B.:  Madam Walker and her daughter, A'Lelia Walker, both derived a great deal of pride and satisfaction from introducing and supporting African American musicians and artists. Madam Walker commissioned portraits by several famous artists of her day and frequently showcased a number of well-known black musicians at her dinners and parties. Madam Walker died in 1919, just as the period known as the Harlem Renaissance was beginning. But the flamboyant A'Lelia Walker took over where her mother had left off. In fact, she gave such grand parties that poet Langston Hughes called her "the joy goddess of Harlem's 1920s." In 1927 she turned a floor of her Harlem townhouse into The Dark Tower, a salon where writers, artists and musicians gathered. The place was always jumping with the likes of Duke Ellington, Alberta Hunter, Countee Cullen, Noble Sissle, Eubie Blake and others. Today "The Dark Tower" is one of the most familiar settings in any historical account of the Harlem Renaissance.


M.T.:   Judging from the pictures in the book, Madam C. J. Walker lived an opulent lifestyle at a time when few Americans--white or black--possessed extra material goods. How do you think she was able to accomplish so much in such a short time?

A.B.:  Yes, Madam Walker did manage to live an opulent lifestyle. In many ways, I think she was making up for lost time. She had been born in 1867 into utter poverty on the Delta, Louisiana plantation where her parents had been slaves. By the time she was seven she was an orphan. At fourteen she married a man named Moses McWilliams, she later said, "to get a home of my own" and to escape the treatment of the cruel brother-in-law with whom she was living. At 20 she was left a widow with a two year old daughter to rear. She moved to St. Louis in the late 1880s and for nearly twenty years worked as a washerwoman, making as little as $1.50 a week. At the same time, she had been fortunate to come under the guidance of some of the middle class women of one of St. Louis’s AME churches and, through them began, I think, to have a new vision of herself. Once she discovered her "hair grower" formula and how popular it was with other women, she never looked back.

After she observed other women selling her products and developing franchises of her business, she set out on a mission to empower as many women as she could. Not a day went by when she was not thinking of a new sales or promotion strategy.


M.T.:   If there was anything you could have asked your great-great-grandmother, what would it have been?

A.B.:  Oh, there are so many questions I would ask. My main question would be: "Who were the people who sustained you through your most difficult days?" I'd also like to know more about both the joys and the emotional trauma of her childhood in Delta, Louisiana and about how she lived her life in St. Louis during the ragtime period of the 1890s. Through research I have been able to piece together details that I thought would have been lost forever. I can speculate but I will never know with a certainty how she felt on any given day during the first 38 years of her life about what was happening around her. Once she founded her business and started writing daily letters to her attorney, I have documentation of her thoughts and feelings.


M.T.:   From the research, what was Madam C. J. Walker's business relationship with Booker T. Washington? W. E. B. Du Bois?

A.B.:  Madam Walker was able to interact with both of these giants. Where many African Americans felt they had to choose between Washington's bootstrap philosophy and Du Bois’s political agitation philosophy (to oversimplify the matter), Madam Walker's wealth allowed her to be independent and to appreciate each man for the strengths he represented. Madam Walker admired Washington’s influential position. And although she didn't agree with every aspect of his politics, she very much wanted his endorsement of her business because she believed his word carried tremendous power in the black community. She contributed money to Tuskegee Institute, the school where Washington was the principal, and she was a supporter of his National Negro Business League. But she also admired Du Bois and the work he was doing with the more militant NAACP. She was one of the first advertisers in The Crisis, the NAACP magazine Du Bois edited. She served on the executive committee of the New York chapter of the NAACP. And when she contributed $5,000 to the group’s anti-lynching fund in 1919, it was the largest gift the organization had ever received.

I'd like also to mention some of the women who were Madam Walker's political associates--anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett, educator Mary McLeod Bethune and Mary Burnett Talbert (long forgotten, but one of the founders of the NAACP)--because I think many of the powerful black women with whom Madam Walker shared a sisterhood of political consciousness, have been overlooked, in part because men were writing the history for so long. Thankfully that has changed as more and more black women historians are writing our stories.


M.T.:   What have been some of the rewards for writing this book?

A.B.:  I am truly gratified when people tell me how much they learned not only about Madam Walker but about the history of America and of African Americans. Just today I was at the meat counter in my grocery store talking with the butcher, who happened to be a brother. He was giving me tips on how he seasoned and cooked steak. One thing led to another and I mentioned my book about Madam Walker. I handed him a postcard with the dust jacket art for On Her Own Ground. And as I was leaving, I heard him proudly say to a white colleague, "I'm going to give you a lesson in black history. Do you know who Madam Walker was? Did you know she was the first woman millionaire?” Moments like that make all the years of work worthwhile.

I have also been fortunate that On Her Own Ground has been recognized in a number of other ways. It appeared on the Essence, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Blackboard bestsellers lists. It was one of the few books by an African American author named a 2001 New York Times Book Review Notable Book and it received the Letitia Woods Brown Book Prize from the Association of Black Women Historians for the 2001 Best Book on Black Women’s History. I'm thrilled that it has become a favorite of women's reading groups, including the national Go On Girl! Book Club which chose it as the August selection.


M.T.:   What are some of your future writing plans or projects?

A.B.:  I'm at work on a biography about my great-grandmother and namesake A'Lelia Walker and her life during the Harlem Renaissance. Just like her mother there are many myths about her that I would like to dispel. And just like her mother, the true story is so much more interesting than any of the fictionalized accounts. I'm blessed to have files and files of letters and other documents that no one else has seen since her death in 1931.

Her parties were legend. Her loving, but complicated relationship with her mother, her three marriages, her trips to Europe, Africa and the Middle East and her talent for staging grand extravaganzas make her one very, very interesting person.


M.T.:   Is there anything you learned after the book was published that you wanted to add?

A.B.:  Not yet. But I'm always on the lookout for new information that might still be out there. One bonus of writing the book is that at many of my book signings someone will come up to me and tell me that their grandmother or aunt or mother attended one of the Walker beauty schools. Sometimes they even have diplomas signed by Madam Walker. They always have touching stories to tell. And one day I hope maybe I'll have a chance to compile them.


M.T.:   This is a bit off the subject, but what is your opinion of the new Black Renaissance of literature?

A.B.:  I'm absolutely ecstatic that black writers are getting so much attention both from readers and from the mainstream press. A magazine like Black Issues Book Review is a wonderful validation of the current success.

I enjoy well-crafted fiction. Among my favorite writers are Toni Morrison, Connie Briscoe, Patricia Elam, Bernice McFadden, J. California Cooper, Colson Whitehead, Ishmael Reed, John A. Williams, Helen Elaine Lee and James Baldwin. But I must admit that I think there's a lot of poorly written, poorly edited junk out there that's being passed of as literature.

I very much enjoy non-fiction and wish more of my sisters would challenge themselves a little and check out some of the interesting biographies and histories that have been written by other black women. I'd especially recommend Paula Giddings's When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America, Bettye Collier Thomas's Daughters of Thunder: Black Women Preachers and Their Sermons 1850-1970, Juliette Harris and Pamela Johnson's Tenderheaded: A Comb-Bending Collection of Hair Stories, Ayana Byrd and Lori Tharps's Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America and Deborah Willis's Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photography from 1840 to the Present and Velma Maia Thomas's most recent book, No Man Can Hinder Me: The Journey from Slavery to Emancipation through Song.

I know that most of us read for entertainment and escape. But if I can make a difference by helping more sisters get more interested in our rich history I will be happy. I've heard people say, "Oh, I'm not interested in history. I don't like non-fiction." But I'm convinced that part of the reason they say that is that they didn't see themselves reflected in the history lessons and textbooks of their youth. In On Her Own Ground, I have tried to make history interesting and to write our story in the way I wish it had been written for me when I was a student. I just want to urge my sisters to check out some of the nonfiction books that celebrate black women and our contributio>

M.T.:  How does Madam Walker' legacy continue today?

A.B.:  I'm always amazed that Madam Walker's story still has the power to inspire others, whether its powerful businesswomen at the top of their game in the corporate world or newly employed, former welfare recipients who see themselves in her struggle as an uneducated single mother. I'm proud to say that there are two National Historical Landmarks associated with Madam Walker: the Madam Walker Theatre Center in Indianapolis--the former Walker factory and a cultural arts center where we hold the annual Madam Walker Spirit Awards for Entrepreneurs each March--and Villa Lewaro--a private residence which black architect Vertner Tandy designed for her in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York in 1917.

We're also proud of that the Madam Walker commemorative stamp which was released in 1998 as the twenty-first stamp in the United States Postal Service's Black Heritage Series.


M.T.:  What is your website's URL and e-mail address for readers to contact you?

A.B.:  I hope your readers will visit my website at www.madamcjwalker.com, where they'll find my 2002 tour schedule and more information about On Her Own Ground., which has just been released in paperback from Pocket/Washington Square Press (a division of Simon & Schuster). I can be reached at ABundles@aol.com