I was really against watching the Netflix show Self-made: inspired by the of Madam C.J. Walker. Most of what I knew about Madam C.J Walker growing up was centred around the fact that she created the hair relaxer and as a result became the first black female billionaire. But having grown up and experienced my own hair journey- from being relaxed and then realising the emotional damage that caused me to relax my hair and the emotional and physical damage that had been caused as a result of it, I really wasn’t interested in watching a show that I thought would glorify, straight hair as the pinnacle of beauty and upward social mobility. So when isolation did finally force me to watch the show, I was, in many ways, pleasantly surprised.
The idea of straight hair being ‘good hair’ is really not emphasised at all. Instead, what is emphasised quite heavily is, ‘healthy’ hair, which I think is a nice change of narrative. Because the only hair that should ever be deemed ‘bad’, is damaged, unhealthy hair – anything else, no matter the texture, is ‘good hair’ as far as I’m concerned.
The show also makes the link between good mental health and hair confidence. When Sarah Breedlove (Walker’s maiden name) starts undergoing mental health issues as a result of the break down of her marriage, her treatment in the new post-slavery society as a darker-skinned woman, her hair begins to thin and fall out. The regrowth of her hair coincides with the regrowth of her self-esteem.
But Addie Monroe, Breedlove’s mentor, rejects her for the position of a sales associate because Breedlove’s darker skin and nappy hair do not fit the image that Monroe has for her company. This sheds light on the deeper social issues surrounding hair in Western black and white communities. So the show is about more than the economic advancement of a single woman, but the improvement of all black women as a result of Walker’s rise. Walker’s rise enabled a potential rise for the people that she represented, people who Addie makes it clear, that even though she is black, she does not associate with them. Monroe believes that Breedlove’s black face would devalue her products because people don’t aspire to be black- they want to be ‘light, bright’ like Addie-whether that is realistic or not.
Off the back off that, the show takes a lot of pains to emphasise that ALL black is beautiful. The show uses a light-dark rivalry, to show how light-skinned people can promote white supremacy to ensure that no social or emotional benefits can be accessed by dark-skinned women, who fight to be accepted in a world that prefers white. While a lot of this is to be expected from 1920’s America, it’s not specific to that time, and I think it is accurate to assume that light-skinned people-women in particular- still help to perpetuate the white supremacist narrative that is used to keep darker skin women mentally enslaved. So, in that sense, it’s a very current issue.
C.J Walker comes in and tries to eradicate this, by not promoting light skin and straight hair as a selling point for her products. Instead, she uses dark-skinned women for the door to door sales, proving that she understands what companies today still do not – that representation will always help to boost product and self-awareness because when you see people that look like you being called beautiful, you feel beautiful, and the products that they promote can be trusted.
However, some people found this issue of dark skin vs light skin to be problematic.
But I think that it’s good for people to see how light-skinned black people can be a part of the broader issues of white supremacy. I, as a light-skinned woman, know that white supremacy, in it’s purest forms, like slavery and colonisation, is the biggest problem of the world But I also understand that colourism, the offshoot of white supremacy, is equally as real and equally as detrimental. And rivalry based on which side of black you are on divides the whole black community. Walker wouldn’t have gone independent if Monroe understood the value of a unified female black enterprise, as well as the importance of improving the race as a whole rather than trying to separate it based on skin colour.
And a lot of people – women- who look like me can also be very problematic in their race to aid its preservation. And it’s a fact that a lot of people – light skin people in particular- don’t like to admit. They want to play the part of the ‘Tragic Mulatto’ and seldom see the role they play in promoting toxic narratives -so it was good to see a program acknowledge the part that light-skinned people play in bringing down the black race.
However, Addie Monroe is based on the real figure of Annie Malone – but Malone is not an accurate reflection of her real-life counterpart.
Malone was really Walker’s rival, but she herself was a philanthropist and activist. She was far from being the colour struck vacuous, money-grabbing, bitter, out to bring down the race, creature that Netflix made her out to be. And she wasn’t so much lighter than Sarah to be considered light-skinned.
I appreciate what the show was trying to do, but if they were really concerned with uplifting black women, they could have depicted an amicable rivalry between two successful women, both competing to better their people rather than fighting over who had the more socially acceptable appearance. You can’t uplift one, just because she’s the star of the moment and tear down the other because it suits your narrative. That’s not the narrative that history gave us. So if history tells you that there was no colourist hate in a relationship, why put it in? To boost views? Visuals? Or to divide the black people further?
It’s cunning. In the making Addie light and evil, they uplift the dark skin woman, which is what everyone wants, but the methods which they use are counter-productive. And then when people complain about it, it sounds like their complaining about light-skinned people looking bad, and given our real history – these complaints seem very problematic. But, the issue people have is not with the exposure of light-skinned privilege, but with Netflix creating a story of a type of division that never existed. Netflix took a real character (even if they did rename her) who was valuable to the black community for her mind and reduced her to her looks- which weren’t even hers.
All in all, the Netflix show is great to watch. It’s an inspiring piece of entertainment- and its overall messages can be useful when applied to other parts of black life. But it wasn’t C.J.Walker’s life, and it’s a piece of fiction that, as riveting as it is to watch, does nothing more than entertain, it isn’t a credible piece of historical television and can’t be taken as 100 per cent fact. It’s a good story- but that’s all.