Madame C.J. Walker is one of my models. The daughter of slaves, she was orphaned at seven, married at fourteen and widowed at twenty with a three year old daughter and one dollar a week. She spent two decades laboring as washerwoman. By her death in 1991, Madame Walker had built a storied beauty empire for hair products from ground up becoming the richest Black woman of her time and one of the richest Black women of all times. She devoted her life to philanthropy and social activism. In 1912, the legendary Madame told the National Negro Business League:
I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South. I was promoted from there to the washtub. Then I was promoted to the cook kitchen, and from there I promoted myself into the manufacturing hair goods and preparations.
Madame Walker was illiterate. She was a single mum like me struggling to become a mogul in a recession and amongst strangers who hated Blacks. How did she do it? And how could I do the same?
There were the platitudes: she focused, she persevered, she filled a need, she chased her passion. I wanted something more. Her sister died in poverty; what drove her onwards to obtain the impossible? I read her biographies and extracted three tools:
1. Circumstances and Qualities
Madame Walker objectively divided her experiences into Circumstances and Herself. She saw that what happened to her was Circumstances. She happened to be Black. People happened to hate Blacks. She happened to have no parents and then happened to have two children who died and happened to have a second husband who left her. These things happened to her. But she had qualities inside her! She was healthy. She could work. And so she sold what she had: reliability, skill, and herself. She held herself upright and behaved as Ladies Home Journal advised so that women could trust her. All of that was within her control. Couldn’t I do the same? Circumstances happen to me – I am divorced, broke, no high school educated but I have talents and qualities which I can improve so as to get myself the circumstances I want.
2. Attitude is rubbish
Work is all. Madame Walker nearly died of influenza. Sixty people were lynched that year near Vicksburg where she lived. Her husband died. She was only sixteen. She returned to her scavenging. She moved to St. Louis. She went back to her washing and the ironing scrubbing away on the ridged board with her hair falling out and her scalp itching. How did she do it? From outside in. She walked upright. She experimented with oils and steam. She trudged from door to door carrying her square black bag. People ridiculed her, but Madame held her head up and went on. My point: there was no such thing as ‘positive thinking’ or working on her self-esteem. Madame Walker locked herself into her work until she succeeded.
3. Madame Walker spoke to the people in their language
She never used White words of ‘kink’ or ‘straighten’. Madame Walker spoke of beauty and of health and the divinity of hair and told them of a dream that never occurred that gave her, she said, the hair remedy from Africa. More than that, she made herself their comrade. She told them: I am the same as you. I understand your problem and your needs because I have had them myself. I learned from Madame Walker to speak the words of the listener in order to use my talents to fill their needs. I think this can be applied to anything in life from teaching to marketing books to cleaning house to working in Walmart. Speaking the talk of the listener.
So what did I learn from Madame? To sift circumstance from personal qualities and talents. To wring out those talents to the very last drop and to thrust ahead with undying reviewed action whilst speaking the language of the people whom I want to persuade. Of course, perseverance, focus, pride is important, but these unwind as twine from the three. Said Madame Walker to the New York Times in 1917 “I got my start by giving myself a start.” It may help us to consider: Can we think of any way that we can do the same?