This Spring Break has been unusual, to say the least. Like a lot of us I presume, I spent a large portion of my time heavily procrastinating and watching a lot of Netflix. A few days ago I came across Netflix’s new mini series starring Octavia Spencer, Self-made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker. Per its title, the series focuses on the life of Madam C.J. Walker (born Sarah Breedlove), an African American woman who started her own hair products and cosmetics line the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company in 1910, eventually becoming America’s first female self-made millionaire.
Walker’s idea for her business arose from her own hair loss, and the lack of hair products available at the time for black women. Walker’s pitch was that of empowering black women through making them feel beautiful and advocating for more businesses owned and ran by black women. Hers was not only a fight for representation, but also a fight against Eurocentric beauty standards and breaking away from the traditional Gibson Girl image of the early 20th century. Beyond her business, Walker was a dedicated philanthropist and restlessly fought against racism, colonialism, imperialism and in favour of women’s rights.
I was particularly drawn to this series as my project for this class is focused on first wave feminist movements, happening at the very same time as Walker is starting her own business and becoming an activist. I am very much a visual learner and although I know that historical films or series are almost never accurate (even in terms of costumes, setting, mannerisms etc), being able to see these movements on the screen really helped me imagine what the lives of these women were like. It was very interesting for me to see these meetings and female led organisations on screen because often the challenges Walker found in bringing African American women into organised activism were very similar to the challenges that the women I have been researching for my project faced. The task was to create female led organisations which acted for the needs and experiences of black women – questions of activism relating to identity – which were dramatically different to those of white women in America at the time as in my project, the Latin American women I researched are searching for very much the same things.
With a little bit of research, I discovered that beyond her domestic endeavours, Madam C.J. Walker was very much a transnational actor, involved in projects of Pan-Africanism and self-determination. Walker provided much of the financial backing for the Universal Negro Improvement Association, founded in Jamaica, and contributed funds to education in African countries. Moreover, she founded the International League of Darker Peoples (ILDP) on January 2nd 1919, and international organisation committed to advocating the for the rights of marginalised people and fighting imperialism at a transnational level. Interestingly, the ILDP was not only committed to African Americans or Pan-Africanism but all racially marginalised people across the globe, leading a powerful initiative for Afro-Asian solidarity, working with S.Kurowia, a Japanese delegate to the Paris Peace Conference in raising questions of colonialism in the conference.
Although I haven’t dug deep into the research surrounding the life and endeavours of Madam C.J. Walker, I can see that there is a lot of relevant scholarship that could be produced on her life. From a quick search I realised that although biographical accounts on Walker are plentiful, there are few chapters or articles on her transnational work. This would be a great way for me to build upon my work on transitional first wave feminism after I finish looking at Latin America. Perhaps watching Netflix this Spring Break wasn’t only procrastination!