Madam C.J. Walker and the Business and Meaning of Black Hairstyles

Historians in the News
tags: African American history, Netflix

“Hair can be freedom or bondage. The choice is yours,” Sarah Breedlove shouts to a growing crowd of black women as she shows off her homemade “hair grower” — palm-sized tins of hope — in the Netflix limited series “Self Made.”

In the scene, Sarah isn’t yet Madam C.J. Walker: the first female African American millionaire who employed nearly 10,000 workers, owned bustling factories run by women and built a mansion next to John D. Rockefeller’s. But even without the fancy name, Sarah has vision and quickly emerges as the loudest voice in what we now know as the Great Conversation about black hair. Should it be straight? Natural? Judged? Touched? Left alone?

A century later, society is still trying to answer those questions. And “Self Made,” an earnest zip through Walker’s extraordinary life told in four episodes released Friday, is part of a cultural groundswell about African American women’s hair that has been growing — like the Madam’s first miracle product — for some time.

“This conversation about hair has been going on five years, 10 years, 20,” said Jamyla Bennu, co-founder of Oyin Handmade, an organic product line for highly textured hair. “We’ve been having this conversation.” What makes this moment feel different, she said, is that the world — made smaller through the Internet — might finally be catching on.

In February, the animated short “Hair Love,” about a little black girl and her father learning how to care for her textured curls, won an Oscar. The CROWN Act, a bill banning natural hair discrimination, became law in California in January. That same month, Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), one-fourth of “the squad” who regularly showcased natural hairstyles on the national stage, revealed she has alopecia, an autoimmune disease that causes hair loss. “You are not your hair. And that’s true,” Pressley explained in an emotional video. “But I still want it.”

Read entire article at The Washington Post

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