A quote from a 2020 Netflix series perfectly depicts the importance of hair in Black culture. Inspired by the life and character of one of the most influential women in history, it encapsulates her story as well the experience we share as a community.
“Hair is beauty. Hair is emotion. Hair is our heritage. Hair is who we are, where we’ve been and where we are going. Hair is power. You can’t imagine what it is like to lose it,” Octavia Spencer’s Madam C.J. Walker narrates in the opening minutes of the Netflix series “Self Made.”
Walker is largely responsible for establishing the foundation of an essential part of our culture, and her name should be common in all communities.
Born Sarah Breedlove in 1867, Walker was the first of her parents’ six children to be born out of slavery. After years of suffering from dandruff, baldness and scalp ailments from harsh hair products and work conditions, she experimented on her hair with various homemade and store-bought products. Deciding that being a sales agent for fellow Black entrepreneur Annie Malone wasn’t enough, Walker began selling her own scalp conditioner and healing formula.
Since then, hair products have only grown in production and importance in Black culture. Without Walker’s contributions, the natural hair movement would likely have progressed at an excruciatingly slow pace, and collectively, Black people would lack an essential part of our identity.
Learning how to properly take care of your hair is a journey for all people of color. It took years of my younger sister’s tough love to give my curls their perfect spring, and I’m still learning. My siblings, especially my sisters, and I gained a certain confidence after figuring out our hair care routines, and we take pride in our natural hair. That sense of pride drives the natural hair movement today.
For so long, Black hair has been frowned upon. It’s been labeled too wild, too animalistic or too unprofessional. Really, it’s just too much for some white people to handle. Oddly enough, an increasing amount of others have begun adopting Black hairstyles, but I digress. I wish I could say this was a Jim Crow era problem, but workplaces and schools are still refusing to accept Black hairstyles today.
Black people use their hair as a form of expression, self-love and activism. The Black community used to do hairstyles that helped it survive in a white society, but that’s no longer necessary. Angela Davis, once the FBI’s most-wanted activists, popularized the afro hairstyle in rebellion to 60s American cultural norms. Now, decades later, Black people should no longer be required to stick to the white status quo, and Walker should be credited more often with giving us the tools to break free when the time was right.
I wrote an article about Black film highlighting different aspects of the Black experience. Netflix’s limited series “Self Made” details the life and career of Walker, and it’s worth the watch. It not only shows Walker’s influence in the hair care industry, but it also shows her impact on how women are viewed in business. It’s an entertaining way to learn about the first self-made female millionaire for yourself.
Not all contributions to the Black community have to break down barriers for equality; some just need to create a sturdy foundation for others to plant their feet on. Walker’s efforts influenced generations of Black families, and with how far Black hairstyles have come, we should appreciate those who unknowingly constructed an essential part of our identity.