“Wherever it erupts, this Funk, they wipe it away; where it crusts, they dissolve it; wherever it drips, flowers, or clings, they find it and fight it until it dies. They fight this battle all the way to the grave. The laugh that is a little too loud; the enunciation a little too round; the gesture little too generous. They hold their behind in for fear of a sway too free; when they wear lipstick, they never cover the entire mouth for fear of lips too thick, and they worry, worry, worry about the edges of their hair.”
-Toni Morrison, “The Bluest Eye“
When I was seven years old, my mom took me to a black hair shop to get my first press-n-curl. I was excited to be around other women who looked like me, but I quickly noticed how many of them didn’t sound like me. They used new words I had never been exposed to and spoke really fast and laughed really loud. Later I learned that these women had just been “throwing around” Ebonics, also known as Vernacular English.
(Black) appreciation for verbal jousting or “trash talking” unites (black) people (from various socioeconomic backgrounds) in hair salons that are usually located in working class areas. Even better, this collective sense of humor that exists in (black) hair salons is a way for (black) women to form relationships based on shared experience, rather than the skin color complex. Many news outlets have referred to the preservation of (black) hair salons as “self-segregation,” but these reporters must realize the significance of what it means for (black) men and women to be able to go to (black) salons and barber shops.
ALSO SEE: “Check All That Apply”
In my teenage years, my hair became the most important part of my body image. As a (black) woman living in a predominately white suburb of Los Angeles, having (black) hair meant “the straighter the hair the better.” (black and non-black) People have judged me for refusing to add additional hair to my head, simply because I liked my own hair the way it was. But I was still encouraged to have my hair done every week, because having straight hair essentially signified how much I valued myself, how much money I was willing to spend, how much money I could spend on material things, and how much free time I had to sit back and let someone else style my hair.
But no matter how much I could actually afford to spend on my hair, I had been taught to always go to a black salon. And I preferred the shop to pretty much any of the predominately white salons in my affluent, “so white,” hometown.
Many of the stylists at those salons didn’t fully understand the complexity of (black) hair. How it looks, how it feels, how it can be a pain, how it’s flexible, how to style it, where to do it, when to do it, who should do it, what not to say about it, that (black) hair is incredibly diverse, and that it will always be beautiful. The diverse types of (black) hair that I’ve seen, and the statements I’ve seen women make about (black) hair, have essentially influenced my perception of self, and my acceptance of self as a (black) woman. I can honestly say that a huge part of my confident transformation into womanhood must be attributed to my frequent visits to (black) hair salons.
My hair stylists have acted as: business role models, family friends, comedic characters, and even love gurus. Like my great-grandmother, my grandmother and my own mother, I will also take my daughters and sons to (black) hair salons and barber shops. Going to a (black) salon and barber shop is like a family reunion, where all of the frequent visitors contribute to an overarching sense of unity. Certain cultural references and language is thrown back and forth, a part of (black) satire that can’t be experienced at a (non-black) salon.
For me, the (black) beauty shop is a physical escape from a university gushing with children born to represent what it means to be: privileged, entitled, rich and preoccupied with the concept of the self. What I do (or don’t do) with my hair represents a deeper purpose, and the many characters who contribute to the body of the hair salon, will always be like family.
Here are some of the people you might meet at a (black) salon in Los Angeles.
This is the client who has recently had a baby, and decides to bring the little one along. The pair is likely seen rocking shades, sweats, or really any attire that is comfortable and cute. This Mom is probably returning for her first appointment since giving birth to her little angel, and wouldn’t dare leave him/her at home. Other clients might be seen playing with the baby on their laps while Mom gets her hair washed. This baby will likely be a future client at the shop, and the baby’s own kids might even get their hair styled and curled here too.
This little diva is in the shop for her first hair cut, press-n-curl, or set of “individuals,” also known as braids. She is excited to be around grown up women who look just like her, but is probably afraid to have heat and large combs in her hair. She might make some silly faces or say “owe, this hurts,” over and over. But her squeamishness will just cause the other women to laugh, and ask if she is “tender headed.”
Ms. “Let Me Tell You How I Went Natural”
This is by far the best person to meet at the salon. She will give you a full-on hair lesson, based on her personal experience with “going natural.” This means that she no longer uses any heat or chemicals on her hair. She might sport twists, dreadlocks or even an afro, and is incredibly confident about her natural hair. She probably uses Miss Jessie’s or Shea Moisture products, or spends hundreds on olive and moroccan oil.
Sometimes going to the (black) hair salon means waiting — for hours. But the waiting doesn’t seem as long when that beautiful man strolls in. You know, that man who is selling local, organic fruit, or delivering a UPS package. His suave nature is overwhelming, and the former chatter that buzzed about the shop hums down to mere “hello (insert name)” and “how you been (insert name)?” This man is usually in his 30s or 40s, but his “just so handsome for his age,” like No Good Deed’s Idris Elba.
The go-to assistant has probably worked at the shop for years. She is probably the person who takes the clientele over to wash their hair prior to the styling. Regardless of the salon, she is (usually) friendlier than the other stylists. The go-to assistant has probably worked at the shop for years. She is probably the person who takes clientele to “the shampoo bowl.”
You may find yourself swapping stories with the assistant each time you go in, and eventually, you will probably develop a friendship. Film and television producers have turned the black beauty assistant into a pretty stereotypical typcaste. They are depicted as an overfriendly, large Carribean man or woman. Because hundreds of predominately Dominican, Senegalese, and Jamaican salons exist across the country, visual representations of black hair salons may include a character “from the islands,” with a thick accent and authentic dress. Like many stereotypes re-enforced by Hollywood’s visual media, this broad generalization is a loose interpretation, based on the fact “that many Africans are forced to create their own employment niches as taxi drivers, restaurant owners, hair braiders, etc,” as a result of the language barrier.
This stylist runs the shop. She has done hair for big companies and people with big names. She might not answer her phone for a week because she was asked to do hair for a Hollywood awards show last minute. If your family has lived in the same part of LA for multiple generations, this is likely the person who did your Mom and Aunts and Cousins hair for weddings. Your Grandma might get discounts on trims when she visits this stylist. You can even remember her styling you for your first dance.
Because the Pro values customer service, and knows everybody, especially in the (black) entertainment and (black) elite crowds in LA. Despite the Pro’s association with the (black) rich and famous, her shop is most likely located on some corner, on some block, (in that hood) that every body knows. She brings (black) women, men and children from the inner city, the suburbs (and even the valley) together to spend saturday afternoon getting done up in the Pro’s chair.