March 22, 2016, BY Paula Cogan Myers

What class? English 221: Crafting Black Women

Who teaches it? Professor Maria Velazquez, Africana studies

"This course approaches African-American history in the U.S. through material culture and entrepreneurship. Very few courses look at black women as entrepreneurs — we read the biographies of four black businesswomen who were innovators in their fields.

"We begin with Eliza Potter, a hairdresser and small-business owner in Cincinnati, whose scandalous tell-all autobiography, A Hairdresser's Experience of the High Life, sent shock waves through the society pages when it was published in 1859. We then move on to Madame C.J. Walker, America's first female self-made millionaire. We contrast their lives and their approaches to business and entrepreneurship with the work of Miko and Titi Branch, the sisters who started the popular Miss Jessie brand of curly hair products in 2004. 

"We take it to the next level by spending time in 7th Street Studio, making versions of the flagship products that these women sold when they were first starting out. For example, Madame C.J. Walker's first product was not a relaxer or a hot comb, as is commonly assumed. Instead, it was a hair salve/pomade with antifungal properties that incorporated copper sulfate and violet extract. Our version uses activated charcoal instead of sulfur, lavender extract instead of violet, and tea tree oil. We also use lye, in homage to Walker's later product line, so that the students can observe the kinds of chemical reactions Walker was exploring. 

"I want students to see how their passions can empower them to gain financial and personal independence while they gain context for the kind of everyday expertise that undergirds stories like Madame C.J. Walker's. We talk about the role of race and racism in framing how these women approached their entrepreneurial work — you can't separate any of them from their historical moment or their geographic location. Every aspect of these women's lives is specifically and wholly American. 

"A lot of this class is about empowering the students. It's collaborative, and as much about their interests and ideas as mine. I deliberately chose to focus on women who are complicated and dynamic, which means you can't easily say if they're 'good' or 'bad' people. The students challenge each other and me to really grapple with the material in new and interesting ways."

See what else Bucknell offers in the Africana Studies Program.