Tenderheaded: A Comb-Bending Collection of Hair Storiesby Pamela Johnson
What could get a hardworking employee fired from her job?
What could get a black woman in hot water with her white boyfriend?
In a word...
When does a few ounces feel like a few tons? When a doctor advises a black woman to start an exercise program and she wonders how she can/b>
What could make a smart woman ignore doctor's orders?
What could get a hardworking employee fired from her job?
What could get a black woman in hot water with her white boyfriend?
In a word...
When does a few ounces feel like a few tons? When a doctor advises a black woman to start an exercise program and she wonders how she can do it without breaking a sweat. When an employer fires her for wearing a cultural hairstyle that's "unprofessional," and she has to go to court to plead for her job. When she's with her man, and the moment she's supposed to let loose, she stops to secure her head scarf so he doesn't disturb the 'do.
Yes, definitely. All black women are, in one way or another.
The issue is not only about looking good, but about feeling adequate in a society where the beauty standards are unobtainable for most women. Tenderheaded boldly throws open the closet where black women's skeletons have been threatening to burst down the door. In poems, essays, cartoons, photos, and excerpts from novels and plays, women and men speak to the meaning hair has for them, and for society. In an intimate letter, A'Leila Perry Bundles pays tribute to her great-grandmother, hair-care pioneer Madam C.J. Walker, who launched a generation of African-American businesswomen. Corporate consultant Cherilyn "Liv" Wright interviews men and women on the hilarious ways they handle "the hair issue" between the sheets. Art historian Henry John Drewal explores how hairstyles, in Yoruba culture, indicate spiritual destiny, and activist Angela Davis questions how her message of revolution got reduced to a hairstyle.
Tenderheaded is as rich and diverse as the children of the African diaspora. With works by Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, bell hooks, Henry Louis Gates Jr., and other writers of passion, persuasion, and humor -- this is sure to be one of the most talked-about books of the year.
Boston Herald An outstanding volume!
The Washington Post Because of the variety of voices in Tenderheaded...the book has a feeling of breadth and nuance.
Heart and Soul A must-read that unravels our deep-rooted history and relationship with hair.
The Boston Herald Peter Harris' piece...is just one gem in this outstanding volume.
The Times-Picayune (New Orleans) Perfectly captures black people's progress (or lack of it) on the hair issue....Valuable and enlightening to anyone who is tenderheaded in one way or another.
Black Issues Book Review It's time to get down to the nappy truth about all the pros and cons of black hair. Harris and Johnson's 'comb-bending collection' is a tell-it-like-it-is compilation of essays that give insight into what we and others think about it, the history behind our hair, and how it affects our lives.
Publishers Weekly This remarkable array of writings and images illuminates black women's hair and its cultural meaning....Beyond the variety of contributors and the provocative quotes and historical tidbits sprinkled between the entries, it's the wealth of feeling rooted in hair that makes this volume so compelling. With its (s)nappy jacket and generous helpings of art and photos, this mini-encyclopedia should attract an avid audience.
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Read an Excerpt
From Tenderheaded: Pillow Talk
We try to create hair that is touchable -- like the commercials tell us we should -- while secretly hoping he won't touch it. Often our hair is an illusion -- a look achieved with gobs of gook, or an imported tress, stitched in like the hem of a dress. A guise we put on and take off. Intimacy is a high price to pay for it.
LOVE ADVICE FROM THE EBONY ADVISOR
In the September 1988 issue of Ebony magazine, a woman sought counsel from the publication's "Ebony Advisor." In her letter, "K.A.G." of Copperas Grove, Texas, said that she had a good marriage, but a problem threatened it: after nine years of having her hair chemically straightened, she wanted to let the perm grow out. But her man resisted. "My husband feels that I will become undesirable to him and has said that he might leave me if I do [let my perm grow out]. I'd hate to lose him or leave him because of this, but I dislike the trouble and illusion straightening my hair brings me. I long to be free of chemicals and I wish he would accept me 'naturally.'"
The "Ebony Advisor" conceded that the woman had the right to change her style but recommended that, since exercising her right would jeopardize her marriage, she should continue with the chemicals. The advisor reminded the reader that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and told her that if her husband said, "Don't go changing," she should mind him. It's not much to pay to "keep the gleam in his eye gleaming."
On the one hand brothers have made a transition [to natural styles], and yet they don't expect the same of their women. They still want their women to be Asian women dipped in chocolate.
-- Peggy Dillard Toone, Natural Hair Care Pioneer
IF YOU LET ME MAKE LOVE TO YOU, THEN WHY CAN'T I TOUCH YOUR HAIR?
Cherilyn "Liv" Wright
In 1970 Ronnie Dyson, the precocious black teenage star of the counterculture Broadway musical Hair, recorded the Top Forty hit "If You Let Me Make Love to You, Then Why Can't I Touch You?" While the irony and poignancy of the lyric might have been lost on some, at the time it struck this black college junior as profound.
It was from the dustbin of memory, then, that I heard the now-late Dyson singing in my ear as Angie, the twenty-something black receptionist at my client's office, told me that she had trained her boyfriend not to touch her hair while they were making love. I had complimented her on her freshly done, magazine-ready hairdo, which had been chemically straightened, tinted light brown, and augmented by straight, shoulder-length human hair that had been tightly woven to her scalp. Just brushing her forehead, and barely touching her eyebrow, was a flirtatious wisp of a curl.
"Can I touch it?" I asked.
"Sure," she said.
The wisp was as hard as a rock! "How did they get it to go like that?" I blurted.
"I dunno," she shrugged. "I guess they used gel or something, and then put me under the dryer to bake it in."
"I'm going to see my boyfriend for the weekend."
"Well, what are you going to do about your hair when you and your boyfriend are doing 'the wild thing'?" I continued to probe. "Won't he think your hair is too stiff?"
"Oh, no, no, no, he knows he'd better not touch my hair!" she replied emphatically. "It costs me too much money. Oh, no, no, no, you have to train these men right away."
I couldn't believe my ears! Was it her tender age that caused her to place such a high priority on her hair? And didn't this hands-off-the-hair policy offend her boyfriend? Perplexed, I cornered an older black female associate for a sanity check.
"I'm worried about Angie," I said. "She's got a guy she's serious about, and she won't let him touch her hair when they make love! How does she expect to be really intimate with him?"
"Where have you been?" my colleague responded brutally. "There's nothing wrong with Angie. She's got a strategy that's working for her, and she's got plenty of company. You've obviously never talked to your girlfriends about what they do when they get together with their men. Black men do not expect to have their hands in our hair when we make love. Ask them."
She was right. I didn't have a clue. How many of my friends had given the hands-off message to their sex partners? And what did the menfolk have to say about all this? I picked up the phone and called one of my closest friends.
Trudy, a legal secretary, has been my friend since the fifth grade. We got our ears pierced about the same time, started menstruating about the same time, and debriefed one another after our "first time" with a boy. There isn't much we don't know about each other. Or so I thought.
"No, Mike doesn't touch my hair. I don't tell him not to in so many words, but I know he gets the point. The trick is to make your hair look touchable, but to make sure they don't actually touch it."
I was a maid of honor at Trudy's wedding ten years ago. Her husband, Mike, is a big lug of a guy who absolutely adores her. Long ago, I encouraged her to choose him over the other men she'd been dating. I told her that when they were both a hundred years old, and she forgot to take out her dentures before falling asleep, he would be the kind of guy to take them out for her and put them in a cup on the night table beside the bed.
"You have no idea what I went through to get a style that would work for me on our honeymoon," she said. "I wanted my hair to look free and playful when we were on the beach. But I wanted it to look elegant when we dressed for dinner on the ship. Remember how I had it done for the wedding?"
I confessed that I didn't. All I could remember was that the sweltering heat had ruined everyone's hairdo.
"I asked the beautician to give me some extensions because Mike and I were going on this honeymoon cruise and I didn't want to have to worry about my hair. I wanted to be able to use the pool and enjoy the beach when the ship stopped at one of the islands. I told her I wanted braids that would take me from the wedding ceremony to a sexy afternoon on the beach with my husband. She said she'd give me extensions that I could either pin up or wear long. For the wedding, she pinned the extensions way up on my head to give me height and a very regal look, remember?"
In the wedding pictures her hair is swept up into a Madame Pompadour-like tower, making Trudy, who normally stands five-foot-two, look almost as tall as her six-foot-four husband.
"The hairdresser also showed me how to remove the pins and wear it in a long style. I wanted to be able to fool around with Mike on the beach, make love with him in the water, and not have a problem. You know what I'm saying?"
I pictured Trudy as a bronze-toned cross between Bo Derek and Esther Williams, skipping across some Caribbean beach with Mike lumbering behind in hot pursuit.
"So the beautician braided extra hair into the extensions to make them a little thicker, and to hold them in place. If my hair got wet, no big deal, right? Well what she neglected to tell me was that when those extensions get wet, you're carrying another twenty pounds of weight on your head! And 100 percent human hair, when it's woven into heavy braids like that, doesn't dry for a real long time.
"So there I am that night dining with my husband at the captain's table, trying to sit up straight and keep my head from falling into my swordfish. It was a mess, girl!"
I called Harriet next. Trudy and I used to hang out with her in high school. She was always one of our more glamorous friends. Harriet knows all the "in" places to get your hair done and always has the trendiest style.
She likes to think of herself as a seductress.
"I love the feel of a man's fingers massaging my scalp, but you can't let him do that when you have a weave," said Harriet when I put the question to her. "You want the intimacy, but you just can't. If the men like all this long hair, they need to be appreciative of what you've done to get it to look that way. But, don't get me wrong now, they don't need to know every little thing!"
"What do you mean when you say every little thing?" I ask.
"You know what I'm talking about. You have this fabulous weave, and he starts to run his fingers through it. But what it feels like to him, though, is that you have these tracks in your head! And then you hear him say, 'Oops.' And when you feel him slowly pulling his hands away, you know you've been found out! And you know what he's thinking. So then I start thinking about what he's thinking."
With all those imaginary voices in her head, I'm wondering if Harriet has ever had a real orgasm!
"When it comes to my hair," she says, pulling me back into the conversation, "I believe that some things are better left unsaid. My philosophy is to deal with the situation on a need-to-know basis only. If he's talking about marriage and giving me a ring, then okay, I'll take him backstage and show him how the hair routine was put together."
"You've really thought this whole thing out, haven't you?" I prompt her.
"Look, whatever it takes. My cousin Lossie's been married three years and still hasn't told her husband that that's not her real hair!"
It was time to get a male perspective on the situation, so I called Mark, a bona fide husband of more than twenty years. A suburban, Republican business owner, Mark is married to Jean, a public-sector administrator, who chemically relaxes her hair and never misses her semimonthly salon appointments. Mark and I have been friends for a long time and can talk about anything. I asked him about the hair rules in his household.
"The fellas always say that there are two things you can't get a black woman to do in bed: one is to perform oral sex and the other is to let you touch her hair. I'm very clear that I'm not supposed to touch my wife's hair."
"How do you feel about that?" I ask.
"I don't know, but I can tell you -- and don't hate me for this, Cherilyn -- that all black men basically want the same thing: light skin, light eyes, and long hair." (Don't hate me for this, Mark, but take a hike! Just because we can talk about anything, doesn't mean you should!)
"For some reason, though," he continued, "I've always been a little different. I prefer dark-brown-skinned women like my wife, but I've got to have the hair, see? And my wife knows it. She has beautiful hair, and it always looks great! So she can really play me, see? When it looks like I'm going to touch her hair, she'll say, 'C'mon, Mark, I just had my hair done, and I want it to last for a while. You want me to look nice for you, don't you?' So I leave her alone."
I'm curious now. Mark and his wife have four children, so I know that they have had a connubial liaison or two over the past couple of decades. "What does she do about her hair when the two of you finally get together?" I inquire.
"She puts on a scarf so her hair doesn't get messed up."
"All the time?"
"Yeah, mostly. Sometimes, if it's the day before her appointment with the hairdresser, or if we're on vacation, she'll make love without the scarf. It's almost like a concession from her, though."
"Is that all right with you?" I probe.
"Not really, but it's not worth it for me to make a big issue out of it. After twenty years of marriage, I've learned to pick my battles. If I'm asking her to give me all 999 positions in the Kama Sutra, I'm willing to settle for the stupid scarf."
I ask Mark how many scarves his wife has in her bedtime repertoire and if he knows what any of them look like. He says she has two, and yes, he kinda knows what they look like, but no, he can't exactly describe them to me.
I try to picture a romantic scene in Mark's household. I know that when couples make love (at least the way they show it on All My Children), there is a certain heightened emotional moment. The two lovers -- lying side by side, gazing deeply into one another's eyes -- pierce through those liquid windows of the soul to seduce each other with the "look." I ask Mark what he's thinking when he gazes at his wife during their concupiscent moment, and sees these scarves.
"It's funny," he says, "but I don't even notice the scarf. What I'm really looking at when I gaze into her face is its impeccable symmetry, the perfect brown depth of her skin, and her eyes locked into mine. My wife doesn't always want to make eye contact with me when we make love, but when she does, and when we really connect with each other, Lord, I'm a happy man! No, after all these years of marriage, I don't even see the scarf anymore. It's just always been there."
A neat, two-decade-long ménage-à-trois, I think to myself: Mark, his wife, and her scarf.
STEPHANIE'S HIGH-MAINTENANCE LOOK
My Generation X friend Stephanie, who has just turned thirty, has her own headwrap strategy. She has an exciting job in the entertainment industry in Los Angeles and spends her evenings after work at "listening parties" hosted by record producers and at screenings hosted by film companies. She's looking for a husband and would prefer a love connection with a man in her field. She tells me that because it is so "competitive" out there, any woman who is serious about her marriage-mission needs to be serious about looking good.
When I told her about Angie training her boyfriend not to touch her hair, Stephanie told me about her efforts to "break in" a new boyfriend. "I'd had my eye on this man for a long time, right? We kept running into one another at some of the parties I go to after work, and eventually we started to date. I'd already had him over for dinner, and this was going to be my first evening at his place. We hadn't been intimate yet, but I had the feeling that this might be the night. So I knew that everything had to be correct. Manicure. Pedicure. Massage. Waxing. And, of course, The Hair.
"It took me all day to get my hair the way I wanted it. I had to drive to the salon. Wait my turn. Shampoo. Condition. Trim. Set. Dry. Style. Drive home. That's eight hours. A whole day! So I knew that, no matter what happened at his house, it was going to be a don't-touch-my-hair evening. So, when he and I started to fool around in his living room and I told him not to touch my hair, he said, 'You've got to be kidding!' And, of course, it killed the whole mood."
"What happened then?" I asked.
"Nothing. We just sat and listened to music. I had brought some ice cream, so we ate that and watched a video."
"Was there an encore? I mean, did you see him again?"
"Yeah. We were basically all right with each other. So, the next time, I brought my do rag with me."
"The one with the magic powers?" I giggle because all black women have a faithful servant that holds our hair in place like nothing else.
"Yeah, that one. I've had it since college, and I took it in case I wanted to tie up my hair," she said, grinning from ear to ear. "But my date saw the do rag and broke out with 'What's that thing for?'
"I said, 'Never mind,' and put it away. It was funny though, because when I unwrapped the condom and started to put it on him, he said the same thing, 'What's that?' And I had to really tell him that if we were going to hang together, he was gonna have to wear his rain boots! I told him that I might be willing to compromise on the do rag, but definitely not on the boots."
At sixty-two, Al is divorced from his wife of thirty years, and dates only the twenty-something Angies and Generation X Stephanies. "Women over forty want to talk," he explains, "especially the ones who went to college. But the younger ones? They'll sit and listen to a guy like me as long as I keep buying things for them."
I realize that with Al I have descended much lower on the food chain than I had intended. But I do want to hear what he has to say on the subject of hair and the art of making love. I know that Al's wife would have been part of the press 'n' curl, pre-chemical-straightener generation, and I ask him whether she'd had rules about not touching her hair.
"My stuck-up wife? Noooooo, you couldn't touch her hair!" He gestures wildly.
I ask whether he thinks this rule about hair is widespread and whether the younger women he dates let him touch their hair.
"No, I haven't had a problem with that, and I don't really think it's too widespread. Lemme see. Of the five hundred women I've slept with [Is he trying to impress someone?] only about five wouldn't let me touch their hair. Yeah, that's about right."
I'm preparing to build my statistical model from Al's sample (5 out of 500 is 1 percent). Then a pang of humility strikes, and Al begins to scale back his Wilt Chamberlain pretensions. "Well, maybe it was closer to four hundred. But I know it was definitely more than three hundred, 'cause one time I counted."
(If you say so, Al.)
He starts talking about his wife's hair again: "Nope. Could not touch it. She was so uptight about it that when we were lying there in the bed next to each other, she would actually ask me not to breathe so hard in her direction! Told me it would mess up her hair."
Of course! I totally understand where Al's wife is coming from. It's right there in any high school chemistry book. You can look it up. The chemical composition of human exhalation is CO2 and H2O, or carbon dioxide and water vapor. There is no scientific term, however, for the chemical reaction that occurs when water makes contact with African hair that's been pressed and curled. So, for generations, black women have settled for the prosaic expression, "My hair went back."
I wasn't sure where our hair went when it "went back" until I read a health and beauty book written in the mid-1970s by black supermodel Naomi Simms. She concludes her brief discourse on "The Heat Method of Hair Straightening" by informing the reader that, if the straightened hair is exposed to water, steam, or excessive humidity, it will return to its "original configuration."
So there it was. Al's wife was trying to keep the excessive humidity of her husband's breath from returning her hair to its original configuration! I asked Al what he said when she told him not to breathe on her. He grinned devilishly, as if enjoying some private joke. "I told her that if she'd just stop talking, and put her head down to a place where it could really do me some good, she wouldn't have to worry about my breathing on her hair."
LORNA'S HAIR ROLLERS
Unlike Al's wife, my friend Lorna is a black women who loves oral sex. She grew up during a time when a teenage girl was able to remain "technically" a virgin while giving blow jobs like crazy at the drive-in movie. She's been married to Craig since she was in her early twenties. They are in their forties now and haven't lost any of their heat.
"I don't know where that character came from," said all-the-way-from-New Orleans Lorna, after I told her Al's story, "but these men complain even when you do go down there to try to make them feel good."
Lorna has slept in hair rollers every night since she was in high school, and her good-natured husband, Craig, has accustomed himself to conjugal bliss with a human porcupine. "He calls it my 'bedroom furniture,'" Lorna says, sucking her teeth and mocking offense. She's referring to her inventory of curling implements that reads like a quarter-century of discount hair-care catalogs: wire mesh rollers, large juice cans, small juice cans, sponge curlers, metal rollers, magnetic rollers, pastel-colored plastic rollers in graduated sizes, rollers with Velcro, rollers that twist, rollers that bend in half, rollers with teeth. And Craig's privates have had their share of violent encounters with them all.
"I try to be real careful," Lorna insisted, "but it seems like somehow something's always happening. Craig keeps asking me why all the things I put on my head have such a sharp edge, but they really don't. It just depends on how you move around."
For years, Craig's nemesis was the pink plastic pin made by the Goody Company to hold the wire mesh rollers in place. "He was always fussing with me about how these little pink pins kept getting stuck in his creases. I had no idea what he was talking about! What kinda creases? All I know is that when I was down there foolin' around, these little pins seemed like they always wanna fall out. Shoot, here I was gettin' him off! I know he didn't hardly think I was gonna let him go limp on me to try and track down some pins to see where they went."
Yvonne never rolls her hair. She's a wig person. And now that I think about it, I may never have seen her real hair. Yvonne is the kind of woman who sends her wigs out for shampooing as often as she sends her silk blouses to the dry cleaners. I asked her about her lovemaking strategy.
"You must never let them touch the Wendy," Yvonne said, preening.
"What's the Wendy?" I asked.
"Your Wendy, girl! Your hair. I always name my wigs Wendy. Every generation of black women has had their Wendy, and, like American Express, you don't leave home without her. Wendy used to be a fall, a long braid, a chignon, a wig, even (Lord have mercy) an Afro wig! Today, Wendy can be a weave, extensions, locks."
I never knew Yvonne to be an armchair philosopher, but I was compelled by her thesis.
"A black girl learns very early that she is either a 'hair-have' or a 'hair-have-not.' And when your hair doesn't grow quickly, you have to attract the man you want by any means necessary. You have to learn to hold your own because you're competing with all the other girls -- black ones, white ones, Asian ones, Spanish ones, Native American ones -- who have hair."
This is the second time in my little survey that someone has mentioned competition with other women as one of her motivating concerns.
"So when I was at the Rhythm 'n' Blues Foundation Awards last winter, I noticed that everybody was wearing a Wendy, and said to myself, 'This is my crowd.' Yeah, this was the wig crowd. We grew up knowing that that wasn't Tina Turner's real hair, or puh-leese, Diana Ross's! These women have been our models since we were kids. They're stars. And when you're wearing your Wendy, you're a star, too. I know I feel like one. You tell yourself, my hair is my little secret. And if a woman is good in bed and puts a freak on for her man, he won't even think about touching her hair!"
Indeed, Yvonne had earned somewhat of a reputation for putting her legendary "freak" on a roster of men that read like the Rhythm 'n' Blues Hall of Fame. As a teenager in Harlem, she was a regular visitor backstage at the Apollo Theatre, where she was permitted to stand in the wings while the major attractions performed. At first her innocent flirtations led to teen fantasies that Smokey Robinson and David Ruffin were singing their love songs just for her. By the time she was in her early twenties, however, she had become a regular in the stars' dressing rooms and in their hotel suites. After the midnight show, wearing Wendy like a crown, Yvonne would strut out the stage door, escorted by her conquest du jour, and duck into one of the black limousines parked along West 126th Street.
"When I used to make bubble baths for a romantic evening, especially when my date wanted to relax in the tub after the last show, I'd be sure to hold Wendy just above the water line -- like an invisible barrier -- to keep her dry. With both of us having such a good time, why would he need to touch the Wendy? Really. Hey, I could freak in a tub full of water, and not wet a single strand! I'd be thinking that whoever used to own this hair can't possibly be having as much fun as I am!"
WALTER'S MORNING AFTER
The latter-day Wendy, the weave, seems not to have survived the marathon night my friend Walter spent with his date, Janet. Walter is the garden-variety "nice guy" who is always complaining that he can't find a "nice lady." He's an easygoing, laid-back type who says that he's looking for a steady companion. He thought that Janet was the one.
"I know that some women are funny about their hair. But this one time when Janet and I were really getting into it, she stopped cold and told me that if I messed up her hair, I'd have to pay for it. I thought she was joking, and I tried to say something smart like: 'Oh, so now it's dinner, a movie and a trip to the hair salon!' She didn't laugh, though; she was serious. I didn't want to be the one to ruin the whole night, so I went with the flow and said, 'Okay, baby, no problem.'"
I asked Walter how he felt when Janet told him that he'd have to pay for her hair. Frankly, I was surprised that he had been caught off guard by her straightforward request for reimbursement. I'd have thought that, at this stage in their relationship, she would have already "trained" him, or they would have somehow handled the issue. Walter told me that by the time Janet presented her ultimatum, he was too aroused to negotiate better terms for himself, and he was prepared to concede whatever was necessary to score the touchdown.
"It was great, though," Walter mused, savoring the memory. "We were into each other all night long, having a real good time. But when we woke up the next morning, I felt something funny on the sheet. I reached underneath my behind, and there was all this hair! Everywhere! All over the bed, all over the floor. Wads of it! I looked at her and she looked at me, and we both started laughing. Next thing I know we're crawling around on all fours scooping up hair. I never felt so stupid in my whole life. Here I was picking up all this hair, and putting it in a pile on my dresser! So, I looked at her, and asked her what she wanted to do with it."
She went ballistic:
"What do I want to do with it? No, no. It's not what I want to do with it, it's what I'm going to do with it. I'm going to pack it up and take it to my hairdresser so she can sew it back on my head. What did you think I wanted to do with it?"
"I was just asking, baby."
"I hope you have a shopping bag? You don't think I'm going to walk down the street with my hands full of hair, do you?"
Walter told me that, at that moment, the whole scene began to feel like punishment for some bad thing he had done a very long time ago.
"So, in my bare feet, I go into the kitchen to look for a large bag. The floor's cold. I'm feeling guilty. I just want to pay her the money and go back to bed. I can't find a shopping bag but I figure that if I can give her one of my old shirts to use as a makeshift bag, I can calm her down. I go back to the bedroom to find a shirt. We wrap the wads of hair in the shirt, and tie the shirttail and sleeves together."
Even now, as Walter tells me the story about the wads of hair, it's still hard for him not to laugh. What was not so funny for Walter, however, was the conversation he had with Janet about paying for her hair. He's an honorable guy, and meant it when he promised to pay for it.
"How much do you need, Janet?"
"Two hundred dollars."
"No, I'm not. This is 100 percent human hair. Sterilized. This is quality, Walter!"
Walter told me that he believed this was God's way of telling him something. But he wasn't sure exactly what. Two hundred dollars, he said, is a little less than the annual premium for his fire insurance. It was one hundred fifty gallons of gas for his car. One hundred Big Macs. A premium ticket to the NBA playoffs. A couple of shares of Microsoft stock.
"But two hundred dollars to sew on some hair?" Walter asks me rhetorically. "That's ridiculous. I wouldn't care if it was hair from Her Majesty the Queen that had been sterilized in holy water drawn from the sacred fountains of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome!"
I asked Walter what he said to Janet after she told him how much it cost.
"I said, 'Okay, baby, no problem.' But I thought to myself, This is the last time I'm gonna pay to sew some hair into somebody's head. From now on when I meet a woman I think I could get interested in, I'm gonna say, 'Hi, my name is Walter. Excuse me, but do you mind my asking if that's your real hair?'"
My friend Arlene told me that she learned her lesson about hair weaves the same way Janet did -- the hard way. She teaches business English at a junior college, and always had a gift for styling her hair. Over the fifteen years that we've been friends, her hairstyles have ranged from natural to relaxed to cornrows to weaves. She says she's through with weaves forever but still likes to protect her hairstyle when she does the wild thing.
"What I notice more than anything about my lovemaking is that, no matter what kind of style I have, I always keep my eyes open to make sure that my partner isn't coming for my head! I never let my head get in the way of the action."
I ask Arlene what it feels like to be a sentry-on-duty while she's making love. It seems impossible to enjoy yourself while maintaining that kind of vigilance over your partner's moves.
"It's not a problem, really," Arlene explains. "You learn to protect your hair by moving your neck back and forth, and swinging your head from side to side to avoid contact. You stay on top, and learn to master the superior position, that's all."
"I see." I nod affirmatively with each of her well-orchestrated countermoves and wonder whether Arlene is a participant or an observer in this activity.
"You mount and use your moves in a way that keeps the mood going," she continues. "Oh yeah, you really get into it. You're on top swinging around and around, and he ain't hardly thinking about touching your hair!"
*LOVE POTIONS 1-4*
Collected by Constance Johnson
Ain't no reason to be lonely when you can draw a man right to you with these tried and true Love Drawing Spells. They come from the same folks who worked High John the Conquerer and invented seven varieties of mojo:
- Take a strand of his hair and put it in the Bible. After five days, take it out and put it in a perfume bottle. He will fall madly in love with you. (Now, after you get him, don't do nothing silly like taking the hair out of the perfume bottle!)
- Take two strands of hair from the man you be wanting and place each hair in the heel of each of your shoes. Now wear them for nine days. The hair will continue to grow, and just as it do, so will his love for you.
- Love relations been going poor lately? Take a pair of his old shoes and put some of your hair in 'em and wear 'em. That'll bring him on back to you. Remember now, the spell only last if you continue to wear the shoes. Take away the shoes or the hair from the shoes, he gone leave you again, so be careful.
- This one is a little trickier. It require that you know someone that got a mole on they head, and the mole gotta have hair growing out of it. Now what you do is to take some graveyard dirt and mix it with some hair from that mole. Now put it all in a little sack and carry it in your pocket. This also is a good luck charm. Adding a dime in with the graveyard dirt and a lock of a hair (from a woman if your intended is a woman, the opposite if your love object is a man). This will also make the other person want you.
BATTLE OF THE WIGS
George C. Wolfe
In The Colored Museum, playwright George C. Wolfe personified the "good hair/bad hair" dialectic by pitting an Afro wig named Janine against a straight-haired wig named LaWanda, in an argument about which should be worn by a bald-headed woman. The woman, whose hair is a chemical casualty, is preparing for an important date with her boyfriend and needs all the help she can get.
What do mean you ain't made up your mind! After all that fool has put you through, you gonna need all the attitude you can get and there is nothing like attitude and a healthy head of kinks to make his shit shrivel like it should!
That's right! When you wearin' me, you lettin' him know he ain't gonna get no sweet-talkin', comb-through-your-love without some serious resistance. No-no! The kink of my head is like the kink of your heart, and neither is about to be hot-pressed into surrender.
That shit is so tired. The last time attitude worked on anybody was 1968. Janine, girl, you need to get over it and get on with it. (Turning to the Woman.) And you need to give the nigga a good-bye he will never forget.
I say give him hysteria! Give him emotion! Give him rage! And there is nothing like a toss of the tresses to make your emotional outburst shine with emotional flair.
You can toss me back, shake me from side to side, all while screaming, I want you out of my life forever!!!
Miss hunny, please! She don't need no Barbie doll dipped in chocolate telling her what to do. She needs a head of hair that's coming from a fo' real place.
Don't you dare talk about nobody coming from a "fo' real place," Miss Made-in-Taiwan!
Among the Maroons of South America's Suriname, one popular hairdo of the past was known as "come this evening" or "husband and wife"; a woman would create the pattern of intertwined braids only for a man she loved.
-- Sally and Richard Price, Afro-American Arts of the Suriname Rain Forest
"When I was in high school, I used to get girls by telling them, 'Come over to my house: I'll mess your hair up and fix it back again.'"
-- Fred Parnell, Hairdresser, Brooklyn
If he hadn't rushed me, I would have packed my favorite curling iron, the medium-size silver one with the black handle. It was too early in the morning to be running around looking for things. I was still too drowsy and irritable, moments after he got me out of a toasty bed on a chilly dawn. I didn't need to be hurried.
We had planned a three-hour drive along the coast and a leisurely day at the ocean. Though I had looked forward to it the night before, by morning I had turned grumpy. So when he asked me at the blush of daybreak if I wanted to get dinner and a hotel room later that evening, I agreed, but wasn't clearheaded enough to pack a bag for the evening. I grabbed only a dress, a slip, some soft sandals, and some lipstick, and scurried behind him through the front door. When we had driven about a mile from the apartment, I remembered the curling iron, but he refused to go back for it, and we argued.
It was the hair argument all over again. I couldn't count the number of times we'd had this discussion during our years together, but it was probably at least once a week. He was always curious about things like why African Americans didn't go to Woody Allen films, and what made our skin ashy, which he called "chalky." It was a black thing, and he was white. When the conversation turned to hair differences, he was so perplexed by what we sisters did to ours. "Why can't you just wash it and let the sun dry it?" he'd ask.
He likened his hair to a dirt attractant, a repository of all the vehicle exhaust, air pollution, cigarette smoke, and ventilator dust that he encountered daily as he romped around San Francisco, where he lived. It disgusted him that I put a substance such as pomade that attracted dirt into my hair, and then didn't wash it out for several days. Obviously, he didn't understand black hair.
"I can't get into bed at night without showering and washing my hair," he'd say, trying to make me feel dirty. "How can you go all week without a shampoo when you know all this greasy dirt is getting on your pillows and sheets at night?"
To him, my use of a shower cap was contrary to cleanliness. "You step into a shower to wash up all over," he reasoned, "so it's stupid to cover up some of your dirty parts with plastic."
As I would go on the defensive, explaining why I was dependent on the curling iron, or why my roots had a different texture from the hair on top, or why humidity is such a terribly destructive force, his message was seeping in. I heard him, I really heard him, and I felt the shame of what I was doing to myself. Why couldn't I simply step out into the world with my hair the way it was?
HAGAR'S BLUES Toni Morrison
In a small town in Michigan in the early 1960s, Hagar, a young woman from an all-female family of social outcasts, desperately loves her well-to-do cousin, Macon ("Milkman") Dead. If she can make herself beautiful, she thinks, then maybe he will love her. So she sets off on a shopping spree.
She bought a Playtex garter belt, I. Miller No Color hose, Fruit of the Loom panties, and two nylon slips -- one white, one pink -- one pair Joyce Fancy Free and one of Con Brio ("Thank heaven for little Joyce heels"). She carried an armful of skirts and an Evan-Picone two-piece number into the fitting room. Her little yellow dress that buttoned all the way down lay on the floor as she slipped a skirt over her head and shoulders, down to her waist. But the placket would not close. She sucked in her stomach and pulled the fabric as far as possible, but the teeth of the zipper would not join. A light sheen broke out on her forehead as she huffed and puffed. She was convinced that her whole life depended on whether or not those aluminum teeth would meet. The nail of her forefinger split and the balls of her thumbs ached as she struggled with the placket. Dampness became sweat, and her breath came in gasps. She was about to weep when the saleswoman poked her head through the curtain and said brightly, "How are you doing?" But when she saw Hagar's gnarled and frightened face, the smile froze.
"Oh, my," she said, and reached for the tag hanging from the skirt's waist. "This is a five. Don't force it. You need, oh, a nine or eleven, I should think. Please. Don't force it. Let me see if I have that size."
She waited until Hager let the plaid skirt fall down to her ankles before disappearing. Hagar easily drew on the skirt the woman brought back, and without further search, said she would take it and the little two-piece Evan-Picone.
She bought a white blouse next and a nightgown -- fawn trimmed in sea foam. Now all she needed was makeup.
The cosmetics department enfolded her in perfume, and she read hungrily the labels and the promise. Myrurgia for primeval woman who creates for him a world of tender privacy where the only occupant is you, mixed with Nina Ricci's L'Air du Temps. Yardley's Flair with Tuvaché's Nectaroma and D'Orsay's Intoxication. Robert Piguet's Fracas, and Calypso and Visa and Bandit. Houbigant's Chantilly. Caron's Fleurs de Rocaille and Bellodgia. Hagar breathed deeply the sweet air that hung over the glass counters. Like a smiling sleepwalker she circled. Round and round the diamond-clear counters covered with bottles, wafer-thin disks, round boxes, tubes, and phials. Lipsticks in soft white hands darted out of the sheaths like the shiny red penises of puppies. Peachy powders and milky lotions were grouped in front of poster after cardboard poster of gorgeous grinning faces. Faces in ecstasy. Faces somber with achieved seduction. Hagar believed she could spend her life there among the cut glass, shimmering in peaches and cream, in satin. In opulence. In luxe. In love.
It was five-thirty when Hagar left the store with two shopping bags full of smaller bags gripped in her hands. And she didn't put them down until she reached Lilly's Beauty Parlor.
"No more heads, honey," Lilly looked up from the sink as Hagar came in.
Hagar stared. "I have to get my hair done. I have to hurry," she said.
Lilly looked over at Marcelline. It was Marcelline who kept the shop prosperous. She was younger, more recently trained, and could do a light press that lasted. Lilly was still using red hot irons and an ounce of oil on every head. Her customers were loyal but dissatisfied. Now she spoke to Marcelline, "Can you take her? I can't, I know."
Marcelline peered deeply into her customer's scalp. "Hadn't planned on any late work. I got two more coming. This is my eighth today."
No one spoke. Hagar stared.
"Well," said Marcelline. "Since it's you, come on back at eight-thirty. But don't expect nothing fancy."
"I'm surprised by you," Lilly chuckled when Hagar left. "You just sent two people away."
"Yeah, well, I don't feel like it, but I don't want any trouble with that girl Hagar. No telling what she might do. She jump that cousin of hers, no telling what she might do to me."
"That the one going with Macon Dead's boy?" Lilly's customer lifted her head away from the sink.
"That's her. Ought to be shamed, the two of them. Cousins."
"Must not be working out if she's trying to kill him."
"I thought he left town."
"Well, I know I don't want to truck with her. Not me."
"She don't bother nobody but him."
"Well, Pilate, then. Pilate know I turned her down, she wouldn't like it. They spoil that child something awful."
"Didn't you order that fish from next door?"
"All that hair. I hope she don't expect nothing fancy."
"Call him up again. I'm getting hungry."
"Be just like her. No appointment. No nothing. Come in here all late and wrong and want something fancy."
She probably meant to wait somewhere. Or go home and return to Lilly's at eight-thirty. Yet the momentum of the thing held her -- it was all of a piece. From the moment she looked into the mirror in the little pink compact she could not stop. It was as though she held her breath and could not let it go until the energy and busyness culminated in a beauty that would dazzle him. That was why, when she left Lilly's, she looked neither right nor left but walked on and on, oblivious of other people, street lights, automobiles, and a thunderous sky. She was thoroughly soaked before she realized it was raining and then only because one of the shopping bags split. When she looked down her Evan-Picone white-with-a-band-of-color skirt was lying in a neat half fold on the shoulder of the road, and she was far far from home. She put down both bags, picked the skirt up and brushed away the crumbs of gravel that stuck to it. Quickly she refolded it, but when she tried to tuck it back in the shopping bag, the bag collapsed altogether. Rain soaked her hair and poured down her neck as she stooped to repair the damage. She pulled out the box of Con Brios, a smaller package of Van Raalte gloves, and another containing her fawn-trimmed-in-sea-foam shortie nightgown. These she stuffed into the other bag. Retracing her steps, she found herself unable to carry the heavier bag in one hand, so she hoisted it up on her stomach and hugged it with both arms. She had gone hardly ten yards when the bottom fell out of it. Hagar tripped on Jungle Red (Sculptura) and Youth Blend, and to her great dismay, saw her box of Sunny Glow toppling into a puddle. She collected Jungle Red and Youth Blend safely, but Sunny Glow, which had tipped completely over and lost its protective disk, exploded in light peach puffs under the weight of the raindrops. Hagar scraped up as much of it as she could and pressed the wilted cellophane disk back into the box.
Twice before she got to Darling Street she had to stop to retrieve her purchases from the ground. Finally she stood in Pilate's doorway, limp, wet, and confused, clutching her bundles in whatever way she could. Reba was so relieved to see her that she grabbed her, knocking Chantilly and Bandit to the floor. Hagar stiffened and pulled away from her mother.
"I have to hurry," she whispered. "I have to hurry."
Loafers sluicing, hair dripping, holding her purchases in her arms, she made it into her bedroom and shut the door. Pilate and Reba made no move to follow her.
Hagar stripped herself naked there, and without taking time to dry her face or hair or feet, she dressed herself up in the white-with-a-band-of-color skirt and matching bolero, the Maidenform brassiere, the Fruit of the Loom panties, the no color hose, the Playtex garter belt and the Joyce Con Brios. Then she sat down to attend to her face. She drew charcoal gray for the young round eye through her brows, after which she rubbed Mango Tango on her cheeks. Then she patted Sunny Glow all over her face. Mango Tango disappeared under it and she had to put it on again. She pushed out her lips and spread Jungle Red over them. She put baby clear sky light to outwit the day light on her eyelids and touched Bandit to her throat, earlobes, and wrists. Finally she poured a little Youth Blend into her palm and smoothed it over her face.
At last she opened the door and presented herself to Pilate and Reba. And it was in their eyes that she saw what she had not seen before in the mirror: the wet ripped hose, the soiled white dress, the sticky, lumpy face powder, the streaked rouge, and the wild wet shoals of hair. All this she saw in their eyes, and the sight filled her own with water warmer and much older than the rain. Water that lasted for hours, until the fever came, and then it stopped. The fever dried her eyes up as well as her mouth.
She lay in her little Goldilocks'-choice bed, her eyes sand dry and as quiet as glass. Pilate and Reba, seated beside the bed, bent over her like two divi-divi trees beaten forward by a wind always blowing from the same direction. Like the trees, they offered her all they had: love murmurs and a protective shade.
"Mama." Hagar floated up into an even higher fever.
"Why don't he like my hair?"
"Who, baby? Who don't like your hair?"
"Milkman does too like your hair," said Reba.
"No. He don't. But I can't figure out why. Why he never liked my hair."
"Of course he likes it. How can he not like it?" asked Pilate.
"He likes silky hair." Hagar was murmuring so low they had to bend down to hear her.
"Silky hair? Milkman?"
"He don't like mine."
"Silky hair the color of a penny."
"Don't talk, baby."
"Curly, wavy, silky hair. He don't like mine."
Pilate put her hand on Hagar's head and trailed her fingers through her granddaughter's soft damp wool. "How can he not love your hair? It's the same hair that grows out of his armpits. The same hair that crawls up out his crotch on up his stomach. All over his chest. The very same. It grows out of his nose, over his lips, and if he ever lost his razor it would grow all over his face. It's all over his head, Hagar. It's his hair too. He got to love it."
"He don't love it at all. He hates it."
"No he don't. He don't know what he loves, but he'll come around, honey, one of these days. How can he love himself and hate your hair?"
"He loves silky hair."
"And lemon-colored skin."
"And gray-blue eyes."
"Hush now, hush."
"And thin nose."
"Hush, girl, hush."
"He's never going to like my hair."
"Hush. Hush. Hush, girl, hush."
TRADITIONAL BLUES LYRIC
She's a kinky headed woman
And she keeps a combin' it all the time.
She's a kinky headed woman
And she keeps a combin' it all the time
I can't stand nothing she done,
She keeps good lookin' women on my mind.
For twenty years Dekar Lawson has stroked black women's hair, admired their beauty, and lent an empathetic ear to their stories. I first met him a few years back when I needed my ends trimmed. At the time, he was working in Harlem at Peggy Dillard Toone's Turning Heads, one of the nation's first natural hair-care shops.
A thin, attractive man with angular features, Dekar, forty, is a charmer. His manner -- catching my eye and gently stroking my hair -- was so seductive that I went home and wrote a short story (not knowing the spelling of his first name) called "The Wives of Dakar." For a hot moment, I wondered if he was really sparking me. Then I decoded it: His way was to make women feel wanted,
special, beautiful under his touch. I figured he flirted with everybody, and that he'd cultivated a harem of customers, swirling around him, eager for their weekly fix. Some, I imagined, had no one else in their lives to touch them but Dekar.
The next time I went back for a trim, easily a year later, Dekar had moved on. Still, I remained curious about him. Then one day I was talking to a friend and, oddly enough, Dekar's name came up in the conversation. He and Dekar were related. I got the number and called. Once again I needed a trim, but more than that, I wanted to hear a male stylist's insights about women.
Dekar met me at the downstairs door, wearing a black-and-white-striped sweater, black slacks, and stylish Italian loafers, and escorted me up to his second-floor shop, Dekar Salon. I liked its exposed brick walls, smart black-and-white tiles, and floor-to-ceiling glass windows, which look out on a cluster of boutiques on Lexington Avenue on Manhattan's Upper East Side. Dekar and I sat in opposing chairs, and then he snipped my ends, telling me what I'd come to hear....
My clientele is mostly black women. But about 10 percent of my clientele is European American. I've got a couple of Spanish girls, and a couple of Jewish ladies who come in to get relaxers. I've got a few men, a couple of them are Spanish; they get texturizers because they have that wavy, nappy hair, and they want to smooth it out.
My clients don't usually confide in me, I'm more observant. You learn that with professional women, you don't ask them questions. I think it's because of the environment they work in; there they have to constantly watch their back and that [kind of caution] spills over into other relationships. But you can tell when they're kind of edgy; you can tell something's happening in their lives. Women who are blue collar, they'll talk to you. But I think in having this salon, which is more private [than the places I used to work], I have more intense conversations here....
I love details, I love gossip, but I don't pry. Besides, some of the stuff they tell you hurts. They may be getting divorced or the husband or boyfriend is acting up. It hurts to see someone not treating them right.
Sometimes things can get really emotional. During one period, when I worked in another shop, every Friday for about six months, at least one of my clients cried. My coworkers looked at me like, 'What are you doing to them?' I said I don't know. I thought something was wrong with me. I'd be talking to somebody and say something that hit them, maybe I'm massaging their scalp, and suddenly they were in tears.
I think sometimes people hold it all in and then get in a situation where they can relax and somebody's stroking their head, and they start to think about [the incident that disturbed them] again....I've seen people really boo-hoo. Me, I'm very discreet, I just go get the tissue, turn them away from the mirror, and stand in front of them. I'm thinking, After this, I'm going to need a drink, because I don't like to see people cry.
SOME LIKE IT SWEET
I notice that women enjoy being fawned over. I guess we all do. I try to keep that in mind, and I try to go places where they do that for me, so I remember how good it feels. When I was younger I would tell my assistants that I was going to act annoyed when they interrupted me, like "Can't you see I'm busy taking care of this very important person?" But I stopped doing that; it was corny. Still it's true: I don't like to be interrupted; when I'm doing you, I'm just doing you. I don't like to be all over the place. If you want me to tell you some jokes about me, to take your mind off your world and just put it in my little frivolous one, fine. Or you can talk and I can listen, I like to listen. What I don't like is when there's tension around here because one woman thinks I'm paying another woman more attention than I'm paying her. Some people want all your attention. Bottom line is, I'm just doing a service.
I do flirt though. But you can't flirt with really young women. They think you're serious. I'm like nah, I ain't serious -- I'm flirting. I didn't call you at home, did I? But married women or older ladies, they know, and they flirt right back, because it's all within a safe confine. Some people are waiting for you to make the next move, but it's really in a box; it doesn't move any further than that. I don't flirt as much as I used to. People can confuse things. The way I look at women, and I do like looking at women -- it can bring out certain emotions, I appreciate natural beauty and they can see that I like it, I'm not joking around about that, and some women are really beautiful.
Some women use their beauty to get what they want. I tell them you better get something upstairs because if you're walking down the street and you fall and break your face, and you ain't getting paid, you're screwed. That's a really competitive world out there -- people who play people by using their looks to get what they need. You're gonna get hurt in that game, because you play with a lot of guys who've got it like that. You're just a number. They can spend $500 on you a night; that's no money to them. You think you have the upper hand because he's spending money on you or giving you things, but he's got a couple of girls, and you're nothing to him. When you figure that out, it hurts.
BLACK WOMEN AND WHITE WOMEN
White women feel freer to say, "I want to look sexy. Make my hair sexy." Black women don't say that; they just say, "Make me look beautiful." White women use color as much as black women use relaxers. But they don't have as many options as black women. All they have is cut and color -- the perm thing for them went out of style. Black women have got it all over them. There's nothing they can't do: wear it straight like them, wear it nappy, pin it up, roller set it, achieve all these different textures. It can be really short and natural or really short and permed. Black women can use color. They can get a lot of different looks, just by twisting the hair differently.
Still, some black women really hate their hair. They go from salon to salon, trying to get it to do something it's not ever going to do. My opinion comes after I put my hands in your hair. I say, "This is what your hair says it likes to do. If you follow it, you'll be happy with the least amount of struggle." The more you make your hair do something it doesn't want to, the more you've got to work. It's best when someone comes to me and says, "Make my hair look better," because then I can just do what it takes.
Most black women think white women got it easy; I personally think white people got more issues. They try to be more Anglo. They could be Polish, Italian, Greek, but they're trying to have a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant look. White women love blond because it's the color of youth, the color their hair was when they were five or ten. A lot of black people like Jada Pinkett Smith and RuPaul just use blond hair to have fun. They're not trying to be white. Neither are most black women who straighten their hair. For some black women, that's all they know; they've had their hair straightened since they were twelve. We're on that second generation of women who didn't grow up braiding their hair. They're eighteen, nineteen years old, and they can't braid or cornrow. They're not even familiar with their hair in its unpermed state. Some of them let the perm grow out for the first time as adults and go, "Wow, this is what it is? Give me the perm."
KEEPING IT ALL COORDINATED
The most I can do at once is three or four people. If I'm running behind, I call as many people as I can ahead of time and say, "Take your time because I'm not moving that fast today." The key to being able to take care of other people is to take care of your own personal needs before you come to work. If you don't take care of your needs, it's hard to be there for somebody else, 'cause you're trying to get soothed, too.
Mostly I listen to my clients, but I'll also talk about myself. Some people like that sharing; it's all frivolous for me. I'll talk about something that happened to me. My daughter is definitely a topic; she hates that, though. But women like to hear about what I go through as a single parent. Also, anytime I have a big decision to make, I ask everybody's opinion all week long, and then I make my decision. One time I did it after the fact, though. I had bought my daughter this crazily stupidly expensive Gucci bag. It was a purse she could have at eighteen years old, twenty years old, twenty-five years old. It was a special design they did, and it was on sale. It was still expensive. I didn't know that purses cost that much money.
So anyway, after I bought it, I took a survey with my clients. Half the women said, "You're foolish"; the other half were like, "See, your daughter's going to know that when some guy comes up to her, he's got to offer her the best because her father set the standard." The majority of the women who told me that were very confident. They don't take mess from nobody. A guy can't roll up on those women and say, "Oh, I'll let you ride in my Mercedes." They'd be like, "What does that mean? It might not even be yours."
What I learned was that a woman who is not treated really special as a girl works through that her whole life. And there are so many guys out there that know her number and they use it. It makes women mistrustful. So I think my daughter knows now that a guy's got to come with the best. He's got to come with some smarts, some grace, some charm, some sincerity. He's gotta come like that.
ON DATING CLIENTS
I've dated a few clients. Two of them turned into long-term relationships, and we're still best friends. Except for one person, I'm still friends with everybody. I still do their hair. Some got married, some are in relationships, but we can still hang out. I don't like to date clients anymore, though, because if you happen to break up, she's out of here, and her friends go with her. It doesn't matter what happened. It doesn't matter how good you did their hair, they'll stand by their girl.
There was this one lady who was gone for a while for another reason. When she came back, she was talking to me about coloring her hair. She was very particular. She asked a lot of questions, like, What is this you're using? I didn't catch it right away. But then I noticed that her hair had gone from curly to straight -- and also that she had never asked me these kinds of questions before. Then it occurred to me that she was undergoing some kind of medical treatment.
You have to be really sensitive to people, because they could start asking you all these questions, and you could start getting defensive and annoyed. They may not want you to know what's going on with them. Or they may not be sure that you'll be sensitive to it. For some people, I've actually gone to the hospital to do their hair. Usually you're just cutting it off.
When my best friend died, I did her hair for the funeral. She was only thirty, and I didn't know she was that sick. I don't know whether it was cancer or what; she didn't want people to know. Doing hair under those circumstances is a special skill. The hair doesn't move the same. Death -- it's a complete thing. It really touched me. It's very emotional. She was so cold, so cold. My hands were cold working on her. I tell you, enjoy life.
A HAIR-FREE FUTURE
I used to do my [four] sisters' hair when they came home for Christmas. Now they don't even ask me because they know I'm tired. On holidays, my usual position, before and after dinner, is asleep on the couch. So far I haven't had any health problems, but I have [hairstylist] friends who do. Their veins have fallen [in their legs] or their back gives out, because you're always working in a bent position, that's why I'm sitting in this chair like this. (He leans back against the chair with his feet up.) I require one day a week when I do nothing. Usually it's Sunday after church. I don't know how people do it -- run seven days a week. I need to sit still.
I think I've got another ten years left. Then I'll be ready for my second career. Maybe I'll go on to be a teacher or a therapist. Something where I can sit down. I think I want to sit down for the next twenty years.
DON'T CHANGE A HAIR FOR ME
In the 1920s, during the sculptor Augusta Savage's stay in Paris, she straightened her hair with the flame from a Sterno cup and the straightening comb she'd brought with her from the United States. One day, a black girl from the Caribbean island of Martinique observed Savage and asked the artist to help her straighten her own bushy hair. The girl was getting ready for a big date with her French boyfriend, who seemed on the verge of proposing. Savage was happy to oblige.
Later that evening, however, there was a frantic pounding at the sculptor's door. There, the Martinican girl stood sobbing on the threshhold. Her Frenchman, she told Savage, had been furious about the appearance of her straightened hair, and had refused to be seen with her on the street. Now, she lamented, she was ruined forever.
Savage soothed the girl and told her not to worry. With a quick dunk of the girl's head in water, her hair was back to its original, bushy state. The next day the girl was singing a happy tune again.
-- Blanche Ferguson, Countee Cullen and the Negro Renaissance
Copyright © 2001 by Pamela Johnson and Juliette Harris
Meet the Author
Juliette Harris (right) is the editor of International Review of African-American Art, published by Hampton University Museum in Virginia. She has also written award-winning television and film documentaries.
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