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black utopia: hair salons as gateways to the diaspora

April 12, 2019
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Black hair comes with so many universal rituals that it could be considered a religion; every space dedicated to it, from a chair on the street-side to sprawling salons, act as its dominions. Throughout the African diaspora, African women sustain themselves through skill and dedication to Black hair, and whether you are in Johannesburg CBD or somewhere in depths of Brooklyn, these women provide a singular, Black space that, although tedious in its aim, carry a familiarity stacked in one of the most intimate parts of Blackness — our hair.

Of my earliest, hair-related childhood recollections, I remember a salon trip that took so long I fell asleep on the way there. Clinically white porcelain floors that contrasted the abandoned wisps of Black hair with such intensity that those strands never stayed on the floor for long. My mother sat to the side while my small frame swam in the noisy polyester of the salon frock. I was being braided by Cameroonian lady who owned the establishment and although I cannot remember her name — likely something Black regal, like Patricia — I do remember that she made an effort to hide her annoyance at my 6-year-old tender-head. A kindness, really. Since then, I have sat in the chairs of salons draped in magazine covers, salons with wall-to-wall mirrors and every other possible imagining of an African salon. They were run by Nigerians, Coté d’Ivoirians, Malawians, Zambians and more – each and every one varied in their accommodation of my sensitive follicles.

I am one of those pathetic Africans who is always talking about visiting other parts of the continent more without actually following through. Until I change for real, the ubiquitous nature of the ire towards tender-headed folks like me turned the salon-going experience into a negative Pavlovian dog reaction of anxiety and pain. When I got much older, with (barely) less-sensitive follicles, seeking out hairdressers that I didn’t inherit from my mother or sisters, some of the anxiety subsided because I chose the spaces I went into and  was met with this realization that my hair had taught me more about the continent and I didn’t even have to book a plane ticket. I had a mainline to what various African women were thinking about politics, The Royal Wedding, Black men, Black hair while also wading into the heavy anti-Black ideologies that permeated those environments, often without having to be said. The Black women that worked there and passed through were also therapists, guides and life coaches. It all depended on the seat you ended up in and whether you wouldn’t be waiting for an hour or more after you sat in it — an experience every Black woman has had to go through for at least one stylist.

I was taught that Black women should know how to respect their men and I was taught that only true independence from men, outside of physical needs, would make me happy. I was introduced to the Jolloff wars and watched (and enjoyed) as an outsider with no skin in the game. I listened to treacherous stories of survival and migration that brought many of the women who did my hair and the families they left behind. I learned that there was a narrative of the African women I had missed in the mainstream media, that I had been privy to every time I did my hair. For all the valuable things I witnessed and learned, my ill-disciplined little self was taught that my hair was a hurdle — something to be overcome instead of protected and nurtured.

To be fair, I doubt there isn’t a Black woman alive who wasn’t taught that, and this was South Africa in the late 90s and early 2000s. The beginning and end of hair care was all Dark & Lovely. Afros were sacrificed to the flat irons and the smell of burning hair, and that’s if your hair grew long enough. Length and sheen took on a different meaning to the curl-craze in our modern Black era of natural-hair love. Without having the language to articulate it, it was the first place where I could witness white supremacy work in the depths of Black ritual. These were hubs of Blackness operating at a grassroots level of information dissemination. They were also one of the first examples of Black ownership that little Black girls could bask in the energy of unfiltered African female entrepreneurship — it’s one of the continents most underused resources.

Movies upon movies have been created to acknowledge the value of hair institutions in the Black community. From Nora’s Hair Salon and The Salon, to The Beauty Shop and its male equivalent, The Barber Shop. The first time I heard Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Women” recited in a film was when Alfre Woodard performed it with gleeful abandon in The Beauty Shop. It was a film that also touched on the intricate struggles of Black female entrepreneurship.

As much as these movies are widely known, one cannot undersell the impact of hair salons on the African continent have on the Nigerian film industry. My introduction to Nollywood came with the impassioned commentary of African women horrified of the shenanigans of the Beyoncé’s, Jay Z’s and Rihanna’s of Nigeria’s Tinseltown. Nollywood is the third biggest film industry in the world and I will attribute more than half of its success to African haor salons. I stand by the claim wholeheartedly.

There are numerous lessons and gifts I may have left behind each time the chore of doing my hair was over but those that still sit with me, sit deep. I am able to take for granted that I know my continent because I grew all around its life force. When I moved to Brooklyn in 2016, I found the same hustling African women I left back home and, suddenly, I wasn’t as far away as it had felt when I first landed. Me, my frowning self and I still had to hide my tender-headed woes and the Zambian woman doing my hair didn’t bother hiding her frustration. That made two of us. There was no Nollywood playing on the TV but the channel was on LifeTime, which I argue is Nollywood for white people and African hair-dressers who need something adjacent. It was as at-home as I was ever going to feel, all thanks to my hair.