Madam CJ Walker

Although A’Lelia Bundles has no blood tie to the great Madam C. J. Walker, she is still referred to as the great-great-granddaughter because of the adoption—by A’Lelia Walker, (Madam C.J. Walker’s daughter), in 1912, of a little girl named Fairy Mae Bryant who is Ms. Bundles blood relative.

But that’s neither here nor there. Bundles does not have to be a blood relative (obviously) to help us understand the importance and the continuing impact of the late Madam C. J. Walker. She had access and a lot of it, so much so that (again) her deeply researched book — “On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker” — is what inspired the four-part Netflix series—“Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker” starring Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer.

A’Lelia Walker (Courtesy Photo)
Fairy Mae Bryant (Courtesy Photo)

I’m highlighting the word inspired because Bundle herself confirmed this in our phone interview. Pushing into the definition of inspired which means an extraordinary quality, as if arising from some external creative impulse.

Madam C.J. Walker is inspiring and larger than a four-part series. Yes, it’s a start and a good start but my point is that her story should be told again and better. I won’t accept the argument that one story is enough. To wit, there have been six film versions of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” the most recent version done in 2019 by director Greta Gerwig. See my point.

Black stories about powerful Black women need at least six versions—in my mind—as the years click on.

Here’s what I learned in my short, but informative phone conversation with Bundles. She’s a force-of-nature. A woman filled with determination and passion. I offer as an example the 50 years it took her to get Madam C. J. Walker’s story to the screen. Fifty years of having Hollywood executives say “yes” and then change their minds. It almost happened in the 1980s with a TV mini-series backed by “Roots” author Alex Haley before his death. Then the project slid into the development film “hell” bouncing to several directors, producers, and studios like HBO, and Columbia TriStar but the project always fell short.

“Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker” (premiered on March 20) caught a lot of criticism for having a weak script and questionable casting choices; all valid in my estimation.

But it’s a big deal to have the global platform that Netflix provides and I won’t underplay that impact.

It’s something Bundles is proud of as well. After a 30-year career as an executive and Emmy award-winning producer with “ABC News” and “NBC News,” Bundles is now brand historian for MCJW, a line of hair care products inspired by Madam Walker and created by Sundial Brands. She is a trustee of Columbia University and chair emerita of the National Archives Foundation. She’s the author of the biography of Madam Walker, is a New York Times Notable Book.

She founded the Madam Walker Family Archives and is on the advisory boards of the March on Washington Film Festival, the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute and the Smithsonian’s American Women’s History Initiative.

Currently, she’s at work on the fifth book, “The Joy Goddess of Harlem: A’Lelia Walker” and the Harlem Renaissance which will focus on A’Lelia Walker’s legendary parties, arts patronage and travels helped define the era.

Here is what A’Lelia Walker author of “On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker” which inspired Netflix’s four-part mini-series “Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker”had to say about the flawed production and what’s next.

LOS ANGELES SENTINEL: What did you think of “Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker” that’s now playing on Netflix?

A’LELIA BUNDLES: What do I really think about “Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker”?

LAS: Yes. What do you really think about this four-part series?

A’Lelia Bundles

AB: (inhale of breath) I read your review and I agreed with many of the things that you said. I think if famous people can have more than one movie story about their lives … I think that Madam Walker could be re-done. I’m almost done with writing the autobiography of Madam Walker’s daughter A’Lelia Walker.

LAS: Yes, I read about that. It’s called The Joy Goddess of Harlem: A’Lelia Walker and the Harlem Renaissance which will focus on Madam Walkers’ daughter whose parties, arts patronage and travels helped define the era.

AB: Yes.

LAS: Let me get back to that. I’m still on what you really thought about “Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker”?

AB: I hope to have a different relationship with the studio next time.

LAS: I should hope so. So I’m thinking you did not like the product very much?

AB: I agree with a lot of what you brought up in your review.

LAS: I’m not the only critic that expressed disappointment. I believe that there is room for another limited series on Madam Walker’s life. I can only hope that your entertainment lawyer structures your deal differently. But it’s, I feel, that the first one got made.

AB: Madam would be pleased that there are so many successful Black CEO and other successful entrepreneurs. Well, at least before what we are going through now [pandemic], but what she would be dishearted about is that less than three percent of venture capital goes to Black women. And that Black women are still struggling so much. Not being able to get venture capital is real because they could be providing jobs for many Black women as Madam Walker did.

LAS: What are some of the other things people should know about Madam C.J. Walker and her daughter that were omitted from the miniseries?

AB: For me, what’s important about her life was that she was nurtured, mentored, and empowered by other women. And part of that is how she got to the point of doing that for other women. When she was the poor Sarah Breedlove-McWilliams, widowed at 20, who moved from Louisiana to Mississippi, along the Mississippi River to St Louis. She had three older brothers who were barbers who were there. She began to learn the hair care business from her brothers. Their barbershop was very near Saint Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church, and it was the women of the church, like Jesse Batts Robinson, a schoolteacher, who began to give her a vision of herself as something other than an illiterate washerwoman.

These women were part of national organizations. So that’s where she got this idea of organizing women. So through that and carrying through the story, she starts a company. Yes, she works for [businesswoman] Annie Malone for a while, but for a short while, and then she begins to develop her own business, establishes a company, and trains thousands of women. She becomes a patron of the arts, a political activist who supports the anti-lynching movement and involved in so many other things. So that part, the philanthropy, and her political activism get telescoped in the series.

LAS: Now let’s talk about the new book that you are writing — “The Joy Goddess of Harlem: A’Lelia Walker and the Harlem Renaissance.”

AB: Yes. So I’m almost finished with the first major biography of A’Lelia Walker called “The Joy Goddess of Harlem: A’Lelia Walker and The Harlem Renaissance.” I’m so excited to be doing this book because when I was writing, On Her Own Ground, initially I thought it was going to be a double biography. That was very ambitions for me. I have hundreds of letters that Madam Walker and her daughter [A’Lelia Walker] and their attorney F.B. Ransom [Freeman Briley Ransom] wrote to each other almost daily and that’s why I can turn this story in such a rich and detailed way.

LAS: A lot of research.

AB: I’ve done additional decades’ worth of research. In the biography of Madam Walker, I develop the relationship between the two women. And what I found when I was writing that book is that most of the things that people knew about Madam Walker were incorrect. And I’m finding as I’m writing, most of the things people know about A’Lelia Walker are incorrect. She’s portrayed as a party girl. She’s very different from the character who appears in the series.

LAS: What did you discover?

AB: I have just discovered she [A’Lelia] knew everybody, all the artists and musicians and writers. She hosted the first art show for Augusta Savage, who was a very famous Black woman sculptor. She helped to underwrite some things; she hired a lot of Black musicians. She also was kind of an impresario and she knew how to have big events that would get attention. She traveled internationally to London, Paris, Palestine, Monte Carlo, Rome for the coronation of the Pope, Addis Ababa, where she met the Empress of Ethiopia. So she’s a much more substantial character. So it’s kind of painful to me to see people sort of over and over again, basically say, Madam Walker made the money, and A’Lelia spent the money. It’s so two dimensional.

LAS: Was she a queer woman?

AB: In the Netflix series they created [the character] Esther (Mouna Traoré). She did not exist and an affair that didn’t exist. The conflict between her mother did not exist. I don’t know exactly why they felt the need to do that but they did.

A’Lelia Bundles (Photo by Que Duong)

LAS: Say what now?

AB: The conflict between mother and daughter (Madam and A’Lelia]) was over two men. Two very handsome doctors. One who was a guy with a swagger and a bit of a bad boy. And the other that was a good guy so you know where that story goes.

LAS: So. She was not a queer woman?

AB: Well. I don’t know. I’m giving you a really honest answer. Here’s what I know. She [A’Lelia] was married three times. She had many friends who were queer. Some of her women friends had been married, heterosexual and then later had relationships with women. I know from the letters because I have these detailed letters, how heartbroken she was over the second husband. The second husband was the love of her life. The third husband was the good guy. The one her mother wanted her to marry.

LAS: So no queer anything in this story of A’Lelia Walker in Harlem in this period. A period and a place is known to welcome sexual expression?

AB: Well as I am doing my research I did find a friend of hers that may be more than a friend but I have absolutely no concentrate evidence of this. And I think when you are writing about people, I need facts.

LAS: Understood.

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.