On stage and stream: the life of Madam C.J. Walker

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Born Sarah Breedlove in 1867, the woman who became known as Madam C.J. Walker lived an ordinary life. Beginning life just two years after the end of the Civil War, Walker worked as a washer woman. Likely overworked, Walker’s hair fell out reportedly as a result of stress. What she did in response created an industry that still impacts the lives (and hair) of black American women today. The life of Walker is celebrated starting today on Netflix as the streaming giant offers “Self-Made,” based on the life of Walker, that seeks to tell her story. And, for those who live in the Indianapolis area, Freetown Village presents “The Madam Walker Story.” The Freetown Village production is a one-character play that will tell Walker’s story from a “different” point-of-view.

Why Madam C.J. Walker matters

In an era when women of all ages hear quips about “bossing up” and YouTube is filled with videos about how to dress for success, and YouTube influencers give subscribers advice on how to become their own bosses, the life of a woman who became the first black American female millionaire is important.

Walker had no role models. No one who was doing exactly what she was doing. Today, hair care products for black American women constitute a multi-billion dollar industry. The humble roots of how this industry started, and the hard truths about why it was an idea whose time had come, make examinations of Walker’s life necessary. That Walker settled in Indianapolis should be a point of pride for all Indiana natives.

Moreover, the 21st century is an era in which black American women are fighting (often) for the right to wear their natural hair. There are a plethora of websites and videos dedicated to helping women find their curl type, hair porosity, strand density and other factors that determine how their hair should be cared for. All of this is relatively new to generations of black women because of the previous popularity of relaxers. Without its natural curl pattern, black American hair behaves differently and is arguably easier to care for, but not, sometimes, without risk to a person’s scalp or overall health.

The ability to care for a person’s natural hair with the products he or she deems acceptable should be a given. Even if not all of Walker’s techniques have stood the test of time, a lot of them do. And, more importantly, the idea of figuring out what makes the individual’s hair look and feel its best, is a concept pioneered by Walker.

“Self-Made” is a limited series on Netflix that began streaming today. “The Madam Walker Story” is a free program that examines Walker’s life and legacy. Performance dates begin in late April, and therefore, may or may not be affected by COVID-19 closures. Visit http://www.freetownvillage.org for showtimes and any announcements regarding performance schedules.

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Dodie Miller-Gould is a native of Fort Wayne, Indiana who lives in New York City where she studies creative nonfiction at Columbia University. She has BA and MA degrees in English from Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne, and an MFA in Fiction from Minnesota State University, Mankato. Her research interests include popular music and culture, 1920s jazz, and blues, confessional poetry, and the rhetoric of fiction. She has presented at numerous conferences in rhetoric and composition, and creative writing. Her creative works have appeared in Tenth Muse, Apostrophe, The Flying Island, Scavenger's Newsletter and elsewhere. She has won university-based awards for creative work and literary criticism.

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