A’Lelia Bundles on Her Great-Great-Grandmother Madame CJ Walker and that Netflix Miniseries

– Hey y’all, how are you doing? I’m great, thank you so much for asking. It’s me, Kim, and I’m
back for another video. This video is going to be an
interview with A’Lelia Bundles. She is the great great
granddaughter of Madam C.J. Walker. She is also Walker’s biographer. She wrote the definitive
history of Madam Walker. It’s a book called “Self Made.” It is so good, you guys. I highly highly highly recommend it, especially if you’re a little confused after that mini series. But it is beautifully written. It is thorough. I found it to be very very inspiring, as somebody who is
building her own business, but also as somebody who really really loves black women’s history, and the history of that
particular black woman. I spoke with Ms. Bundles
about the questions that I had about Madam Walker’s life, and things that I was interested in. And we also talked a little
bit about that mini series and I was quite pleased to know that we shared some similar concerns. I won’t give it away, I’ll just say that. Here is our conversation. Thank you so much for taking some time to talk to me.
– Yes! – I know that–
– Absolutely. – I’m sure you’re
fielding so many requests. So I appreciate it. – Well, but I’ve long admired your work, so I’m delighted to talk to you. – Oh thank you. So the first thing I
wanted to ask you was, I know that you have been
working on the biography of Madam C.J. Walker, your
great great grandmother, for many many years. How long has it been? – All my life. (laughing) I mean literally all my life. My first discovery was
when I was three years old and going through my grandmother’s dresser and I came across things that
had belonged to Madam Walker and to A’Lelia Walker. Like mother of pearl opera glasses and little miniature mummy charms that A’Lelia Walker had brought back from a trip to Egypt in 1922. My mother worked at the Walker company, so I would go with her to her office and our silverware had Madam
Walker’s monogram, C.J.W. But I wrote my first report when I was a senior in
high school, in 1970. – Wow, and you actually
took some time away from your actual career, your
profession, to work on this. Was that a hard decision? – No, I mean it really wasn’t. I did really very much
want to have my own career. My life was, you know,
did not start out with, I’m going to write about Madam Walker, and that’s going to be an
important part of my life. In fact, it was really
very important to me to follow my dreams to be a writer, that my parents encouraged me to do. And so I became a journalist. And I was on that path
as a producer with NBC. But this story kept cropping up, and I started writing
about it on weekends, at holidays and vacations. And I did take nine months off from my job as a producer
at NBC in the 1980s. And then I finished a Young Adult book, and I worked on some other things. And then when I was Deputy Bureau Chief at ABC News in Washington, I took six months off to do research. And then finally I left my
corporate job altogether. But after 30 years. – Right right right right. Was there one fact that you
learned during your research that really surprised you? Something that really stood out to you? – Yes, because when I
started doing my research in graduate school at
Colombia in Journalism, when I wrote the first
sort of serious report beyond something that
I’d done in high school, I knew the basic story
that most people knew. Madam Walker was born Sarah Breedlove on a plantation in Delta, Louisiana; and transformed herself into a millionaire with a haircare company. But it was really the deeper
search that revealed to me that she had so many more
dimensions as a philanthropist and a political activist
and a patron of the arts. But the thing that was really, the sort of mind-blowing piece for me, is to discover that she was so
much of a political activist, along with her friend,
Ida B. Wells-Barnett, that she was spied upon by a black spy, and called a negro subversive
during World War One. So that made me love her even more. – Yeah, oh I loved this book. I thought it was so good. There are parts where I
literally could not put it down. It was so thorough, it was exhaustive, and also you’re a wonderful writer. But then I learned that
you were a journalist, and it just made perfect sense to me. And so something that
really struck me was, I have grown up hearing lots of things about Madam C.J. Walker. And one big critique that
people often had of her is that she peddled
European beauty standards, and she preyed on the
self-loathing of black women. And this book really completely
changed my mind about that. Could you talk a little
bit about her work. It’s a lot more nuance than that. Her work in beauty culture is not just about black women’s
feelings of inferiority. – Well you know, this
was an important hurdle that I had to get over because that was what a lot of
people believed about her. And so I was, you know,
when I was growing up, as I said, my mother was Vice President of the Madam C.J. Walker
Manufacturing Company. And my dad was President of a company, Summit Laboratories, that made
chemical hair straighteners. So I went through the same journey that a lot of women my age went through when we went from perms to naturals, in the late 1960s and early 1970s. So I was very much a
part of the generation where having your hair
straightened was the norm. But I also went through the period of time really feeling a lot of
militancy and black pride, and wanting to express myself. In my household, where
hair put food on the table, this was a real big deal. So when I wanted to have an afro, I knew that that was, you know,
most people at that point, your parents were like,
you’ll never get a job, you know, so that kind of thing. But my father was very
very much opposed to this. He was like, you know, who’s gonna pay your tuition
for college, you know, if nobody’s buying these products? But my mother, who was Madam
Walker’s great granddaughter, had a much more sanguine approach to this. And she took me to the
Walker Beauty School where the students rolled my
hair up on permanent wave rods, so that I had, you know,
my perm became a big afro, until it grew out. So what that first lesson for me was that Madam Walker, that it was about healthy hair. So that seed was planted. Then when I was in college,
I was doing research, in Widener Library, looking
at old issues of the crisis. And W.E.B. Du Bois was
my intellectual hero. And he had written an
obit about Madam Walker in August of 1990, praising her, and saying that she
helped transform people. So I said, well if my
intellectual hero thinks this, maybe I need to revisit it. And then when I started doing the really deep research about her, I discovered that her real issue was that she was going bald, at a time when most Americans
didn’t have indoor plumbing, people didn’t bathe very often, they washed their hair even less often, you know, even less frequently. And she was going bald because she had really
bad scalp infections. So that for me, that’s
why her hair product was “Wonderful hair grower,” not
“Wonderful hair straightener.” So then I began to understand
what she really was about and what problem she
really was trying to solve. – Hm mm, I also grew up hearing that she invented the hot comb. That’s not true? – That’s not true.
– But she made some alterations to it? What was her relationship to the hot comb? – I keep reading that Madam
Walker made the spaces bigger between the little tongs on the hot comb. So, Madam Walker did
not invent the hot comb, and I had to learn that
just like everybody else, because people were saying that. And for a long time, I was just, you know, I was trying to sort that out. And I actually did write
in the first edition of Darlene Clark Hine’s
“Black Women in America,” that Madam Walker may have
altered or redesigned it. But as you know, when
you write journalism, and you write history, sometimes you find out that what you’ve written isn’t correct. So that’s not really correct. But that is viral, and
I’m probably partially responsible for that from
something I wrote 30 years ago. But I have since corrected that. She did not do anything with the hot comb, except buy it from a supplier. So Madam Walker did not do that. Now, it’s very interesting, you know, in this Annie Malone,
Madam Walker competition that continues on today, you will see people say, well no Annie Malone really
invented the hot comb, and she has a patent for it. And I can’t find any patent
that Annie Malone has for it, so people make stuff up, in order to fit their own narrative. And Madam Walker doesn’t have a patent. The patent that I did find, there are many people who did hot combs, starting in the 1870s, but the woman from whom
Madam Walker bought her combs was a woman in Ohio named Louisa Cason, who has a patent for the hot comb, a version of the hot comb. Now another thing that I
learned in my early research was that Madam Walker used the hot comb because she thought it was
an improvement over pullers. So pullers were like flat irons. And in my research, it seemed that Annie Malone actually used pullers, which if people could imagine, like two hockey pucks
on the end of scissors, and you flatten the hair. So she thought that’d flatten the hair. But my research is
different from what other, I mean I deal with facts, (chuckling) I deal with documents, so my research shows Madam Walker didn’t invent the hot comb, doesn’t have a patent. Annie Malone didn’t invent the hot comb, doesn’t have a patent. Part of the reason Madam
Walker used the hot comb was she thought it was an
improvement over pullers. – Yes, I also read about the pullers in either Tiffany Gills’
book, “Beauty Shop Politics,” or Noliwe Rooks’ book. I’ve definitely heard about that as well. – Right, and those are books
that are just, you know, my hat is off to them. They have done fabulous scholarship. – They were great books! There were so many scenes,
portions of your book that I could literally just, they were so cinematic, and one of the stories that I really loved was the real relationship between Madam Walker and Booker T. Washington, and how they became more than associates, more than acquaintances. Like they developed a real relationship. Could you talk a little bit about how Madam Walker ended
up getting his attention? – This is one of those situations where relationships evolve, because it really started
off in a very rocky way. Booker T. Washington,
who pulled the strings on a lot of different institutions, including black newspapers, really was opposed to these advertisements especially that white companies
were putting in the papers. And the papers needed money,
so they took these ads. But the kinds of companies
that were selling skin lighteners and hair straighteners. And he really opposed that. And, you know, good for him,
that was something to oppose. But he lumped Madam Walker in
with those kinds of companies. And she very much wanted to show this was not what she was doing, that she was trying to help
women have healthy hair. So she was trying to get to him, she very much wanted his endorsement, he was the most powerful black
man in America at the time. And to have his endorsement, she thought, would be helpful to her business. She met him at one of
the National Association of Colored Women conventions, and then she saw him at
another one of his conventions but she was very much in the background. And then she wrote a letter to him, and asked if she could come to Tuskegee for his Farmers’ conferences, Annual Farmers’ Conference. And he wrote back a very
condescending letter to her, or at least maybe Emmett
Scott, his Chief of Staff, wrote back to her and say, well you know, this isn’t really an
appropriate place for you, and maybe you shouldn’t come. But a woman not to be denied, she had one of her friends, the head of the Black YMCA in Indianapolis write a letter of introduction, and she arrived in Tuskegee
campus with that letter, and hoping that she
would be able to speak. So she was really sort of pushed aside, but Emmett Scott arranged
for her to speak at Chapel. So she won that little battle, but still Booker T. Washington
was keeping her at bay. And then she made a contribution to the Black YMCA in Indianapolis, a big contribution, $1,000. And people were writing
about her, talking about her, not just because of her haircare products, but about her philanthropy. So she decided she was
gonna go to his 1912 National Negro Business
League Convention in Chicago. She arrived at the convention, in her chauffeur-driven car, and sent word to Washington that she wanted to be included on the program. And he ignored her request. On the second day of the convention, one of her good friends, George Knox, the publisher of the Indianapolis Freeman, stood up and said, we should
hear from Madam Walker, she gave $1,000 to the Building Fund of the YMCA in my hometown. And she has an incredible story to tell. So long story short, Booker
T. Washington said no again. And then on the third and
final day of the conference, as the last banker was
completing his report, Madam Walker stood up at her seat, looked toward Washington
and the podium and said: Surely you are not going to
shut the door on my face? I am a woman who came from the
cotton fields of the South. From there, I was promoted to the washtub. From there, I was promoted to the kitchen. And from there, I promoted
myself into the business of manufacturing hair
goods and preparations. And I have built my own
factory on my own ground. The next year, he invited her
back as a keynote speaker. And then when he came to
the dedication of the YMCA, she sent her chauffeur to the
train station to pick him up, and he was a guest at her home. – I mean it’s like a movie. I found that to be so inspiring. It was so so good. I also loved your discussions of class stratifications in St. Louis. And how Madam Walker navigated that from her days as a washerwoman. That was some of my
favorite stuff in the book. Could you talk a little bit about how she, even as she became a very rich woman, she was still very deeply concerned with the plight of
working class black women. – I think she had been
a woman who benefited from the generosity and mentorship of some of the more middle
class women in her church. The women who truly mentored
her like Jessie Batts Robinson, who was a school teacher, who was also an officer
in the women’s auxiliary of the Black Knights of Pythias. So those women who were club women, the National Association of Club Women, that club women’s movement, were middle class, more educated, women, who really felt a mission to help others. And so she wasn’t, you know, where some people have said, oh Madam Walker wasn’t
part of the black elite, she didn’t want to be part
of the snobby black elite, but she was very much a part
of the club women’s movement and those women who felt this sense of, as their motto said,
“Lifting as we climb.” – Getting this mini series
made, it was quite a journey. The book has been optioned, and the rights reverted
back to you a few times. When you finally found out that it was gonna end up at Netflix,
did you have any concerns? – I didn’t have any
concerns because I didn’t, you know, I just was glad
that it was being made. I hadn’t really watched
enough Netflix to know what Netflix’s target audience was. And I love the things that Ava
Duvernay has done on Netflix and so, you know. So I was thinking that I would be, you know, I was thinking “Hidden Figures.” (laughing) – So the Netflix series, they focus primarily on her adult life, but her young life was really
really interesting too. Was there anything about
her upbringing that you wished maybe might
have been incorporated into the series, that we didn’t see? – Yes, so if it had been 10 parts, and I had had more influence
over the storyline, some things that I would do– Her childhood was interesting. Now this is like not the
journey from cradle to grave, and I get that, that
Hollywood needs to, you know, enhance things or exaggerate
things or do creative license. But I do think there was
something very informative about those early years. Being born on that same plantation where her older siblings
had been enslaved, well maybe you couldn’t
do everything there, but at least a key moment for me is that her family minister, Curtis Pollard, was a black states senator. That area of Louisiana, Madison Parish, Louisiana, had been one of the wealthiest parishes, wealthiest counties in America, because it was such a
lucrative cotton growing area. That meant at the end of the Civil War, 90% of the residents were black. – Right, we’re talking Reconstruction Era. – Reconstruction! And so that meant they
could do a reconstruction, have black-elected officials. So her family minister, Curtis Pollard, was a state senator. And he became very militant
and very outspoken, and around the time of the 1876 election, which is when the Ku Klux
Klan was getting in control, and white Confederates were
taking back political power from the black people
who had been elected. Curtis Pollard was chased at gunpoint, out of Madison Parish. And all of this is in senate hearings. And her brothers apparently, if they didn’t leave right at that moment, they left shortly afterwards
because they were part of what was called the
Exodusters movement, where black people were leaving Louisiana and Mississippi in droves. You know, just like we see people coming from Central America right now, same kind of movement, 1879, 1880. So that by 1880, 1881,
her brothers were listed in the City Directories
in St. Louis as barbers. – There has been so much talk about this rivalry or competition between Annie Malone and Madam Walker. I don’t really have a deep
desire to get into that. But one thing I thought
was quite fascinating was, when I was comparing the advertising. The Poro company’s advertising versus the Walker company’s advertising. And could you talk about how revolutionary it really was for Madam Walker to put herself on her products, and to put herself in those ads? – You know I actually
haven’t studied the Poro ads. So tell me what you observed
and then I’ll talk about this. – So we see Madam Walker’s ads, we see her and she’s brown skinned woman, long textured hair. The Poro company’s ads were very much lighter skinned women, maybe even ethnically ambiguous women with their sleek hair. Just a different kind of
aesthetic, a lighter aesthetic, maybe white.
– So that’s– You know, that’s interesting. That’s really interesting. And you can see my
little aunt right there, this is the original product. It was revolutionary for Madam Walker to put her own image on her products. And I love that she did that. It’s in contrast to the
white-owned companies that were also advertising, and truly were trying to
go at the insecurities that women of African
descent would have felt, with all of this sort of, what I think as a tyranny
of European beauty standards that were going on. But she made a conscious decision to put herself on her original product, and to put her pictures in her ads, so that she was saying to women, this is beauty. This is who we are. And you can have long hair. Because women didn’t want
their hair breaking up or going bald, but you
can have healthy hair, and it can also be long
and it can be textured. So that was a conscious
decision on her part. That she was trying to
say to other black women, this is beauty, we are creating
our own standards of beauty. Interestingly to me, and Noliwe Rooks points
this out in “Hair Raising,” after Madam Walker’s death, there was a man who was
the advertising manager. So you see a distinct difference between the ads during her lifetime and the ads that were designed by a man, who actually happened to be
a very light skinned man, and what he thought would
be appealing to people. – The big controversy was about, you know, did Madam Walker steal from Annie Malone. You have outlined in your book, and other researches have shown that a lot of these haircare products have been around for a
really really long time. I am wondering, exactly how long did Madam Walker work with Annie Malone? – Somewhere around one to two years, as I try to add this up. She moved to Denver in July of 1905, and she had been selling Malone’s products for probably six months
to a year before that. I don’t have an exact date. And then after she moved to Denver, she continued to sell Poro products until sort of March or April of 1906. And then she started taking
out ads, Mrs C.J. Walker. And then she became Madam C.J.
Walker with her own products. – So Malone was obviously aware of what Madam Walker was selling
when she began her company. Was this an active rivalry
or was it just like a, we’re in competition
as business owners now? – You know, I think there
was some kind of rift, and I don’t know exactly what it was, but there’s actually even
a letter to the editor in a black newspaper in Denver, where some of Madam Walker’s customers had written in there saying, we didn’t know who Annie Malone was before Madam Walker got here. She’s grown our hair
and so she’s our girl. So there’s a little bit of
shade going back and forth with some of the customers. Again, I don’t know exactly why
they fell out, but they did. And that resulted in Madam
Walker going on her own. So the rivalry, there was a rivalry. They were competitors. I have always tried to
present them as equals and women who were both very successful, and who both did a lot
for their community. But there was some shade going on where they would sometimes
end up in the same place and Madam Walker would write
to her attorney and say, I saw the Poro woman. But I think Madam Walker was trying to, in her own way, at least
from letters that I can read, trying to de-escalate it. And she offered an olive
branch a couple of times. Madam Walker created a consortium of other black-owned haircare companies, and Malone did not participate in that. So I think that there was
bitter feeling that was there, but I don’t think Madam
Walker was fueling that fire. – All right then my
final thing on this was, there is a lot of talk about the first self-made
woman millionaire thing. I have seen in a couple of places that Annie Malone’s estates
asserts that she was the first, and you have mentioned elsewhere that you actually have receipts. (laughing) Receipts that maybe
other people don’t have, that Madam Walker was the first female self-made millionaire
in the United States. Could you talk a little
bit more about that? The records that were kept.
– Sure. So I think the first
thing I need to say is, I don’t really care. (laughing) – We have an obsession with firsts. – Right, exactly. But I know this matters
to a lot of people, and I know people feel a
certain amount of pride, whenever we can make claims about African Americans, African American women, that we do want to feel
proud of the accomplishments. For me, what matters about Madam Walker is the jobs she created
for thousands of women, her philanthropy, her
involvement in politics, and the generational
wealth that she created. That said, you know, the conversation about who was the first, there are other women, Mary
Ellen Pleasant, Biddy Mason, black women in history who
have made a lot of money, who had real estate investments, who were very accomplished. There are no records for them, but their wealth certainly
would be in the millions, if you were to calculate it today. In the specific issue about
Madam Walker and Annie Malone, I’ve done a ton of research, and looking contemporaneously, in newspaper articles, when the various claims that each company and each individual is making, and I’ve primarily focused on up to 1919 when Madam Walker died. Because that’s the period
of time, who was first. And my research and the details, because we do have the receipts, we have 10s of thousands of pages of Madam Walker’s letters
of business records, showed to me that on the
day she died in May 1919, her personal assets, jewelry, clothes, real estate et cetera, were somewhere between six and $700,000, and the value of her company was somewhere between one and $2 million, based the sales from the last two years and the year after she died. So I can say with confidence, when Madam Walker died on May 25th 1919, she was a millionaire. When I looked at contemporaneous
accounts and claims by Annie Malone and the Poro company, I do not see them making similar claims about her being a millionaire. – Again, we have to keep our receipts. We have to archive things, I think it’s really important. Things get lost. You actually had scripts review, which a lot of authors
do not get script review, when they’re making films
or television series or mini series of their books. And I was wondering if there was a note that maybe you gave
during that review process that you would have
loved to be incorporated into the final product? (laughing) – Oh my, so very many notes. Because I’m the kind of
girl that I do detail notes. Two things in particular. I mean some things that I
suggested did get incorporated. Some of, what was really cat fighting, is less than it would have been. But it’s still there. But the things that I– I really wanted to have
a close girlfriend. I wanted a Jessie Batts Robinson, the school teacher from St. Louis, or Alice Kelly, the manager
of the Walker factory, who had been dean of girls at a black boarding school in Kentucky. A composite character, a something that really showed a close friendship with another woman, and a mentoring relationship. And there was no accommodation for that. The other thing that I really
wished had happened is, the real conflict between
Madam Walker and A’Lelia was over two boyfriends. Now Ester is a made up character and that was a decision on the part of the head writer and
the showrunners that that was something they wanted to develop. That really didn’t happen. The real conflict for me
is much more interesting. It would have required two more characters and another episode, but I would have loved to have seen that. Because that’s what I’m writing about. That and the detail in developing these, you know, they’re people, but characters, in the “The Joy Goddess of Harlem, “A’Lelia Walker and the
Harlem Renaissance,” the book I’m writing now
that will be out next year. So I would have loved to have seen that. These, you know, two
doctors, both handsome. One kind of a bad boy, one a really upstanding, straight arrow. You know, it’s made for television, it’s made for the movies. – Well, that was my
frustration, Ms. Bundles, because when reading this biography, there were so many scenes where I’m like, it’s so easy, you guys just could have, you literally just could have
just plucked it right out. I did not understand, I did not understand some of those liberties that were taken. And so you’re a journalist
and you’re a historian. Are you concerned that
a significant portion of the people who watch that mini series, are not gonna read your book, they are not going to watch
Stanley Nelson’s documentary. They’ll walk away from
that series thinking they’ve learned it. Does that concern you at all? – Yeah it does, it does. Some of my best friends,
you know, are, oh! And I love that people are entertained, and I love that some people
will want to know the facts. I think Octavia Spencer did a great job. Literally, every time I have
watched it and I see her, she embodies what I think what we should see of
Madam Walker in Hollywood. I think Octavia Spencer shows Madam Walker’s courage and tenacity. And in a general sense, you get what it’s like to build a business and the struggles and sacrifices. But when it gets down to the specifics and the historical inaccuracies, yeah, I mean it does bother me. I’m a journalist. As you said, I’m a person
who really cares about facts. And I think especially because so many of our stories are unknown. We, as black people,
don’t know these stories, the larger world doesn’t know the stories, and so this is sometimes
the first and only pass that people get at these stories. So I think that we have an
obligation and a responsibility to help people understand. And I know that the dynamic
in Hollywood traditionally is, you know, a writer writes a book, and as someone has said, you throw the book over the fence and take the money and run. And I just couldn’t do that but I don’t really think
it has to be that way. And I think there are at
least a small group of people who really do care about
trying to get things as close to history as possible. Understanding that, you know,
you can’t watch paint dry. And you can’t tell every
single thing that happens. But I think there is a way. And especially now that so many
books by black women writers are being optioned. How are those stories going to be told? So I’d really like to see, and I’m trying to help
facilitate a conversation, between friends of mine, who write this original
non-fiction material, and the handful of folks
I know in Hollywood, who really do care about that, to see what we can do, at least on projects that
we may be working on, to try to help people
with this first draft of our history, our journalism, our books, tell the core of the people. And even with some creative license. – Is there any documentation of Booker T. Washington being sexist? Like I imagine most people
at the time were sexist, but do we have anything on record of him expressing those kind of views? – You know, certainly not
in the way that you saw the character in the film. You know, he did shade. (phone ringing) There is actually a– (keypad beeps) Sorry, telemarketer. Was Booker T. Washington a sexist? So yes, in that generation, many men were misogynists or sexists then. But Booker T. Washington
was married three times. His first wives died. His third wive, Margaret
Murray Washington, was a very strong woman who, you know, was not going to be a wallflower. So he was accustomed to interacting with a strong woman who was a leader, who was head of the National
Association of Colored Women. But he had a particular concern about Madam Walker. And he treated her, in part, maybe because she was a
woman but also in part because she was not part
of his inner circle. And when he was speaking at
the dedication of the YMCA, or at one of his conventions, he said something after
Madam Walker spoke and said, “Well if we don’t watch out,
the women will outstrip us.” But it was more of a kind of a backhand compliment to her, than a put down, like, you
have to stay in your place. He was beginning to see
the power that she had. So that conversation, there’s no documentation of a conversation like that happening. – Have you had any conversations
with the filmmakers since the film’s released, or the series’ release? – Yes, we did a couple of
screenings in New York. We actually had a big screening in LA, and a big screening in DC, that was planned the week
after everything shut down. And I have read their interviews. And we had conversations all along. So I know that they were very clear on the themes that they wanted to develop, and the storyline and the characters that they wanted to develop. And that is what they did. – You don’t have to answer but I find it to be maybe a little ethically dubious to paint people who actually
lived with the brush, maybe that doesn’t fit them. So I understand that Addie
Monroe is a composite character, that’s the assertion. Despite the fact that we are obviously going to associate Annie
Malone with Addie Monroe. And maybe Booker T.
Washington didn’t actually say that overtly sexist thing, but now people are gonna come
away from this film thinking he is an over-sexist. And people are gonna come
away from watching this series thinking that Annie Malone
was actually like that, that kind of caricature. Do you think there any
ethical implications of painting people in a way that maybe didn’t fit
who they actually were? – For me, when people
use creative license, this is me speaking as a journalist, I think that a composite character, I think that a character in a film, there’s something about
the core of the person that I would maintain, if I were writing these things. For instance, F.B. Ransom,
Madam Walker’s attorney, was a straight arrow. One of his granddaughters, Judy Ransom, was one of my best friends growing up. His grandchildren, Stanley
Nelson, Jill Nelson, are very good friends of mine. And they have many cousins. And the story that they all grew up with, listening to their parents, is that Mr. Ransom was a straight arrow. He had taken a pledge to
not drink, smoke or curse, when he was a young man. And he didn’t do those things. So for me, the Sweetness character, and the idea of him
betting on the numbers, was something that would have
been anathema to Mr. Ransom. But that was a device that the
writers and the showrunners decided that they needed
in order to tell the story that they wanted to tell. – J.F.K. gets five biopics, right? I mean Queen Elizabeth gets five biopics. Do you think that there is an opportunity for another biopic of
Madam Walker to be made? – I would love that. I’d love another pass at this. The fact that this has
been a rating success, that it was number one the
first weekend that it was out, and still in the Top 10, I think shows that there is
interest in Madam Walker. And I would love to
see another pass at it, with some emphasis on
different characters, and you know, relationships
that actually existed, and the people who were really
important to Madam Walker. I think this gets it out there, people know her name around the world. And I hope that there’s room for one more, at least one more. You know, I’m writing this
biography of A’Lelia Walker. That certainly is
automatically a kind of a made for television
cinematic kind of treatment, and I would love for that to happen. But I will tell you, I will have a very
different approach to it. And whether I would option my book, really depends on the partners, who I’m working with, and what people think
about fidelity to history. It is important to me. And having been through this, this has been a really
interesting journey for me. I’ve learned a lot about
how stories are told. And I think there’s
room for a conversation between people who write
history and write non-fiction to be able to understand translating the things that we want to see, and for people with whom we partner, who are having to put it on the screen, to understand why it matters when history is altered a great deal. – Okay, so my final thing that I wanted to ask you about was, we’re talking about a mini series about your great great grandmother, and she worked close with Alex Haley, who wrote a book that produced possibly the most famous mini series of all time. (laughing) He wrote “Roots,” I hope people know that. Maybe they don’t. What was Alex Haley like? – He was a great mentor. It’s almost like the universe– You know, the universe does
work in wonderful ways, and it puts people in your path. And Alex Haley came to
us in the early 1980s, and actually it was Stanley Nelson, his mother and I, who
had dinner in New York with Alex Haley and with,
I think, George Sims. George Sims who was his researcher. And we sat down and it was
like Under the Stairs, I think, on Columbus Avenue. And I even remember I had
shrimp piccata, I think. (laughing) I was remembering what I had that day. Lemons, shrimps with lemon. Or shrimps scampi, one of them. But anyway, we sat down. Stanley Nelson, his mother, Alex Haley, and one of Alex’s researchers. And we sat down and Alex
was painting this story, because, you know, he had
this big booming voice, and “Baby, I’m thinking about that!” And he was saying, here’s
what I’d like to do, I’d like to do a mini series
and I’d like to do a book, which would have been a novel. And I had written my Master’s
paper on Madam Walker a couple of years earlier,
in fact five years earlier. So at the end of the dinner I said, “Mr. Haley, I would love to
do the research for you.” So that’s when I took nine
months off from my job, and I spent three months in New York, and I read through all of the
letters and business records that we had from Madam Walker,
from the Walker company. And then I proceeded really for the next six or seven years to work with Alex, as he was finishing other projects. I would send notes and we met
a couple of times on his farm. And he would come to
wherever I was living, in Atlanta or Houston. I would listen to him speak, I learned a lot about
storytelling from him. On his farm when he assembled
a great group of people, I learned about how a famous person can be very gracious and very generous, and not distant and not
difficult to deal with. So he was a great role model for me. You know, I really feel that Alex was, in some ways, put in my path. Even though he was
supposed to write a book, he never wrote a book about Madam Walker. But I met his editor, Lisa Drew, while I was staying on his farm, outside Knoxville, Tennessee. And Lisa became my editor for the book that became “On Her Own Ground.” So I just feel that my
relationship with Alex was a great mentoring relationship, and a relationship that in some ways created a path for me to
get to where I am now. – Right, it’s so fortuitous
that you guys connected. That’s like amazing. Thank you so much for taking some time. I, again, loved, I loved– Well it’s called “Self-made” now. I loved it. It was so great. I was so inspired after reading it. You did a wonderful job. Thank you guys so much for watching. Be sure to Like, Share and Subscribe. Leave a comment down below. I know you have thoughts. I wanna hear them. Or hit me up on Twitter or Instagram. Shout out to all of the patreons, shout out to all of the members, I appreciate your support so much. Patreons and members get access to all of the bonus content. My live streams, my wayward thoughts, my podcasts. It’s all over there. Buy some merch at ShopForHarriet.com. Sign up for the email newsletter, which is still coming! It’s still coming. We got delayed by the pandemic but we’re still working on it. We’re ready for a big rollout. I’m super excited. Life is still crazy, life is still a little bit hard. Take care of your health. I’ll talk to you next time, bye.

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