Madam Walker was a master marketer. But her brilliance was in taking it to another level by training women, by traveling, by making very motivational speeches and by providing independent income for women who otherwise would have to be maids and sharecroppers.
She was born Sarah Breedlove on a plantation in Delta, Louisiana, where her parents had been slaves. At 14, she married to get a home of her own, to get away from a cruel brother-in-law with whom she was living. At 17, she had her only child, A'Lelia, who I'm named after.
My mother was the fourth generation of women to have worked with the Walker company. As a little girl, I would go to her office while she worked. She was a very capable woman.
It's very hard to be a kid, especially in a predominantly white school or white town where other people want to police your body and hair.
From the beginning, Madam C. J. Walker's message was as much about hair and beauty as it was about empowering other women. She knew that confidence and self-assurance are key ingredients to success, and that true beauty comes from within.
For some people, success is a zero sum game. They think that if they push other people out of the way, fewer people can compete with them. That's one way of seeing the world. It's dog eat dog. It's, sadly, always going to be there.
And mothers and daughters - mothers need to help their daughters love their hair. And some mothers know how to do this, and some mothers help their daughters love their hair.
Both my parents worked at the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company, with my dad eventually being hired by another company called Summit Laboratories that made chemical hair straighteners.
You know the AME Church has a history of empowering black people and having an international outlook. So it was the women of the church who began to give Sarah Breedlove an image of herself as something other than an illiterate washerwoman, and she wanted to make her life better, and her daughter's life better.
DuBois - my intellectual hero - had written an obit of Madam, praising her... I began to see Madam Walker beyond the definitions others had given her.