"[An] exhaustively detailed account of the life of Madam C.J. Walker." Booklist, Starred Review
Madam C. J. Walker—reputed to be America’s first self-made woman millionaire—has long been celebrated for her rags-to-riches story. Born to former slaves in the Louisiana Delta in the aftermath of the Civil War, married at fourteen, and widowed at twenty, Walker spent the first decades of her life as a laundress, laboring in conditions that paralleled the lives of countless poor and working-class African American women. By the time of her death in 1919, however, Walker had refashioned herself into one of the most famous African American figures in the nation: the owner and president of a hair-care empire and a philanthropist wealthy enough to own a country estate near the Rockefellers in the prestigious New York town of Irvington-on-Hudson. In this biography, Erica Ball places this remarkable and largely forgotten life story in the context of Walker’s times. Ball analyzes Walker’s remarkable acts of self-fashioning, and explores the ways that Walker (and the Walker brand) enabled a new generation of African Americans to bridge the gap between a nineteenth-century agrarian past and a twentieth-century future as urban-dwelling consumers.
Erica L. Ball is a professor of History and Black Studies at Occidental College. Ball is the author of To Live an Antislavery Life: Personal Politics and the Antebellum Black Middle Class (2012). She is co-editor, with Kellie Carter Jackson, of Reconsidering Roots: Race, Politics, and Memory (2017) and co-editor, with Tatiana Seijas and Terri L. Snyder, of As If She Were Free: A Collective Biography of Women and Emancipations in the Americas (2020).
3. Madam Walker
5. Race Woman
A Note on Sources
About the Author
This is an exhaustively detailed account of the life of Madam C.J. Walker, an early twentieth–century self-made entrepreneur who built an international conglomerate by selling beauty and hair-care products specifically designed for African American women. In the early 1900s, Walker celebrated natural beauty during a time when other companies were pushing skin lighteners and straightening lotions. Like her contemporaries Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden, Walker shrouded her early life in mystery, but author Ball combines the few known facts with political and social history to create a credible backstory. Once Walker adopts her professional moniker in her mid-thirties, Ball relies on a profusion of testimonials, company advertisements, media releases, and interviews that document her business acumen, storied philanthropy, and copious work for racial uplift. Ball parallels Walker's life with national events, demonstrating how Walker's efforts supported young women of color as they explored their expanding options. An epilogue explores the evolution of Walker's legacy. The daughter of formerly enslaved people, Walker described her life as a journey "from the wash tub . . . to the boardroom." This addition to the Library of African American Biography tells the story of this remarkable woman.
. . . a concise and revealing biography of hair- and skin-care entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker (1867–1919) . . . Ball persuasively links Walker’s self-reinvention as a sophisticated entrepreneur to the transformation of formerly agrarian Black Southerners into a style-conscious and politically active urban Black working class. This brisk and informative account serves as a worthy introduction to a trailblazing businesswoman and social justice advocate.
Erica Ball has applied the keen eye of a historian through her meticulous research and the ability to extract what is hidden between the lines in archival records about Madam C.J. Walker's amazing life. Readers will understand how Sarah Breedlove, later Walker, wielded transformation as a tool personally, professionally, and politically. Walker's physical appearance, institution building, and strategic philanthropy allowed her to transform the lives of ordinary black folk domestically and abroad. In her short life, Madam C.J. Walker served as a flesh and blood exemplar of what was possible by centering Black women and ultimately, a Black nation.
Erica Ball has written the most nuanced interpretation of Madam C. J. Walker--a woman who understood the power of reinvention for public consumption and capitalist success.
The current struggle for Black entrepreneurship makes a new book chronicling the life of Madam C.J. Walker especially relevant. Ball has done a masterful job reconstructing the context in which Walker grew her company. The book shines a light on the world Walker lived in, the structural barriers she overcame, and the barely traveled pathways she utilized to arrive at icon status. If one wishes to learn marketing strategies from a true pioneer, Ball meticulously documents Walker’s playbook—one that Black entrepreneurs would do well to read at this moment in history. If one chooses to draw inspiration from Madam Walker’s commitment to Black institutions, Ball provides plenty of examples of it. As so many Black-owned businesses close up shop, Walker’s story is evidence that triumphant success is possible—and a reminder to support the Madam C. J. Walkers of the future.
This slim volume—147 pages—would be a wonderful addition to a high school class or an undergraduate course. And though there are no footnotes, Ball has included a thorough Note on Sources at the end with references to the significant historical and archival collections that she examined.
11/6/20: Publishers Weekly published interview with author; “Self-Made Icon: PW Talks with Erica L. Ball.”
2/19/2021: Author Erica Ball took part in a Q&A with a writer from her alma mater, Wesleyan University