In Madam C.J. Walker (Rowman & Littlefield, Jan.), historian Ball profiles the Black hair-care entrepreneur.
What surprised you about Madam C.J. Walker?
One thing, especially as I went through her papers, was how hard she worked—how relentless she was at building and promoting the business. Her business papers have short messages where she clearly has woken up in the middle of the night and scribbled them to her business manager. And she’s crisscrossing the country and she’s recruiting agents and she’s selling products long after she’s established the business enough that she could be running it from behind a desk. She’s both the head of this empire and a boots-on-the-ground kind of worker. She does this while she’s involved with several local and national civil rights campaigns. And she’s involved with philanthropy. It’s just a tremendous amount of work.
She lived and worked in many different American cities. Do you have a sense which one she identified with the most?
She loved the New York milieu. She loved the artistic scene and the political scene that was burgeoning there. She also maintained a deep commitment to Indianapolis, where her philanthropic work lived on after her death through the Madam C.J. Walker Theatre.
What makes her relevant today?
She pioneered aspects of African American women’s culture that young women continue to claim today. That includes going outside the traditional order to create your own business or institution. The importance of health. Self-care. I found myself digging into the history of celebrity culture to try to get a sense of how she fit into that emerging aspect of American society. And I would also add her political activism and her commitment to institution building. Sometimes we think of people who are into business as self-serving, but she was really focused on building a community and making the nation and the world a better place for people of African descent.
What do you hope readers get out of this book?
First, the life history of Madam Walker. Second, how well she fits into the sweep of African American history. You can really use her life as a lens to see these paradigm shifts, demographic changes, shifts in political perspective, and institution building. It’s really extraordinary to have a life that reveals so much about African American history. Third, I hope readers get a sense of why so many people have a response when they hear the name or see the image of Madam C.J. Walker. She meant things to people at the time, and she continues to mean a host of things to people today.