Photo: Michael Cunningham
It is certainly a rare opportunity when publishing an article to receive direct, positive feedback from people or groups who are personally involved in the topic of discussion. We recently published a list of 30 Black Female Leaders You Should Know About and were delighted to hear from A’Lelia Bundles, the great-great-granddaughter and biographer of Madam CJ Walker. However, we were even more honored when she granted us an interview to talk about the life of Madam Walker, her own career and the importance of the Walker legacy in the realm of African American women.
“She was a very resilient person because she had such a difficult early life.”
Speaking from Washington DC, Ms Bundles told HelloBeautiful that writing the biography of her great-great-grandmother was an opportunity for the world to learn of a real person whose character and life story was much more than that of just a millionaire businesswoman.
Madam CJ Walker was orphaned at the age of 7 and widowed by age 20, becoming a single mother. She was determined to make her daughter’s life better, says Ms Bundles, and like many single mothers became extremely driven and resilient.
“I used to play on her typewriter.”
Ms Bundles said that during her own childhood the constant presence of Madam CJ Walker was hard to avoid, but that her family attempted to make her great-great-grandmother’s memory seem as normal as possible.
“My mother was very cautious to not overwhelm me with Madam CJ Walker,” she said. “I was surrounded by things that belonged to her but I was never told you must be like Madam Walker.”
It was not until years later that Ms Bundles became interested in Madam CJ Walker’s daughter, A’Lelia Walker and developed an ironic resistance to her great-great-grandmother’s legacy, growing a large “Angela Davis” afro.
“I wanted a big afro,” she said, laughing. “My mother took me to the Madam CJ Walker Beauty Salon and they have me a big afro.”
Eventually a college professor insisted that Ms Bundles pursue the story of Madam CJ Walker in a course paper. This sparked a series of events, including the release of a stamp series featuring Madam Walker in 1998, and then the publication of Ms Bundles’ 2002 biography, ‘On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker.’
“It’s become my second career.”
Ms Bundles, who previously worked in the media industry, said the release of her book increased the exposure of Madam CJ Walker thanks in part to her connections and ability to share the book with a large mainstream media audience.
She said her own career had been influenced greatly by her parents. Her father had studied journalism in college but was unable to the penetrate the job market due to the small amount of positions available to black journalists.
Ms Bundles went on to work for ABC and NBC in Washington, Atlanta, Houston and New York City. With over 30 years of experience in producing, recruiting and reporting, she has undeniably set her own path to success.
But she said Madam CJ Walker’s legacy began to influence her professional life in the later stages of her career.
“Seeing how much she inspires other women has really shaped this part of my career,” she said. “It’s become my second career.”
In recent years Ms Bundles has been invited to deliver speeches in London and Jerusalem, and has also shared her stories with audience ranging from the women of Bedford Hills Correctional Facility to the students of the Harvard Business School.
She said the reason why Madam CJ Walker’s legacy applies in these settings is because her story is, “relevant and inspirational.”
“She’s the patron saint of those women.”
As a precursor to the successful black businesswomen of today, such as Oprah and Ursula Burns (CEO of Xerox), Ms Bundles said Madam Walker continues to receive much positive attention because of her symbolic importance as the first African American millionaire.
When asked about other black women who aspire to greatness, she said many women lack the self-confidence to get started.
“There are a lot of women who don’t see their capabilities,” she said.
But this is certainly not the case of Ms Bundles herself. Following the success of her book, she is now in the process of writing another biography about her great grandmother, the daughter of Madam CJ Walker, A’Lelia Walker.
She hopes to recreate a scene from the Harlem Renaissance that has yet to be explored by historians.
A’Lelia Walker was heavily involved in that movement as a socialite and businesswoman herself. But her mother’s legacy has often overshadowed the extraordinary life she lived. Ms Bundles hopes to increase the profile of her great grandmother in a similar way she did with the biography of Madam CJ Walker.
The interview with Ms Bundles comes as an honorary bill is addressed in Congress, paying homage to the achievements of Madam CJ Walker. The bill, H.J. Res. 81, was presented by Rep. Charles Rangles [D-NY] this year in March.
A’Lelia Bundles recommends that if you are interested in supporting the bill you write to your Congressional representative stating your support.
Profiles and more information on A’Lelia Bundles, A’Lelia Walker and Madam CJ Walker can be obtained by visiting the official homepage.
An additional link that you may be interested in is the Madame Walker Theatre Center, an Indianapolis organization dedicated to supporting the arts and honoring the legacy of Madam CJ Walker.