On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker by A’Lelia Perry Bundles
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Self Made also known as On Her Own Ground by A’Lelia Bundles is an engrossing biography about Madam C.J. Walker, the Black woman behind a million-dollar hair care empire who became a Black History Month fixture yet the story of her life and rise to success is largely still shrouded.

Born Sarah Breedlove in Louisiana, Madam C.J. Walker lived in poverty for decades with marrying as a teenager after her formerly enslaved parents died, dealing with abusive marriages, then making pennies as a washwoman. At the time, she, like many other women, are dealing with severe hair loss, most likely due to the lack of daily cleanliness with the scarcity of water and soap. A hair care entrepreneur named Annie Turnbo helps Sarah grow her hair. With the success, Sarah makes her own products to help women grow their hair. She does everything in her power to hobnob with the wealthy in Indianapolis, where she ends up as the place to start her business with her third husband C.J. Walker and daughter Lelia from a previous marriage. One of the main people she tries to connect with is Booker T. Washington, the civil rights speaker, who believes Madam C.J. Walker’s hair care products are meant to straighten Black women’s hair to conform to Eurocentric beauty standards. It’s one of the fabrications about Madam C.J. Walker that she created the products, including the straightening comb, to straighten kinks out. This biography tries to decipher how this lie followed Madam C.J. Walker’s career as it derives from a newspaper article where a White reporter wrote the products are for straightening Black hair to be more like White hair.

The book is drenched in details. A’Lelia Bundles, an experienced journalist, is the great-great-granddaughter of Madam C.J. Walker, named after the daughter Lelia, who later goes by A’Lelia when she becomes a Harlem socialite. With the journalism aspect, there’s context on top of context describing the historical, geographical, and socioeconomic conditions around Sarah and her career as she moves around the country to grow her business. Indianapolis is the city of choice during the Great Migration for Sarah to make it the business birthplace until the blossoming Harlem in New York City becomes the spot as the home of Black excellence. A lot of these details had been omitted in the shortened bios that people are given about Madam C.J. Walker, so it’s refreshing to get the whole story along with the thousands of obstacles that this history-making entrepreneur endured, which is a main aspect missing from those bios.

Annie Turnbo Malone, the hair care entrepreneur who may have inspired Madam C.J. Walker to start her own business, is portrayed in the Netflix series as a nemesis. In the story, there is conflict between the two women as competitors, but it’s not all-encompassing like the TV series made it seem. In the series, Annie Turnbo Malone is turned into a fictional character who is color-struck and upset that Madam C.J. Walker is finding more success. Most never heard of Annie Turnbo Malone, and the TV series messes up her image as a nemesis rather than a natural business competitor since she’s also a part of Black history, particularly when it comes to entrepreneurship. Annie Turnbo Malone also had a monstrously large business spanning states and a résumé reflecting philanthropy. The biography clears up the relationship that Netflix chose to construe for dramatic purposes.

The book also shows how Madam C.J. Walker and her daughter A’Lelia worked so hard to get the business off the ground and running that their physical health deteriorated. Both women died relatively young from hypertension and not being able to control it because they refused to slow down. They both had similar marriage problems with Madam C.J. Walker’s title being named after her third husband she was only married to for about six years, which turned out to be crucial years in the business hence her title. A’Lelia also had three short-lived marriages like her mother. Surprisingly, the marriage tumult doesn’t seem to derail the women’s ambitions as the company grows and takes young Black women under their wings to spread the success.

Overall, the biography is very well-researched and elaborately tells the full story of a Black woman seen as the grandmother of the modern-day billion-dollar Black hair care industry. The book was originally published as On Her Own Ground in 2001 and casually renamed Self Made after the Netflix series of the same name.

View all my reviews