The first time I “got my hair done” beyond school nights sitting between my mother’s cocoa butter legs while she combed through my hair with grease soaked fingertips, or Saturday morning hot comb rituals in front of the stove, was in the house kitchen of a church lady who did hair on the side. She was not professionally trained or licensed but her clientele graced her threshold every other Saturday and she worked from sun up ‘til sundown, frying, dying, twisting and curling our hair into beautiful masterpieces on our head. I felt grown up and welcome when I “got my hair done.” The sweet smelling shampoo and used utensils made me feel special and grown up, I felt like one of the girls which was all I had ever wanted.
Women of all sizes, colors, backgrounds and religions gathered together at the salon, waiting patiently, all day if needbe, for their two week fix. In between appointments they would talk in hushed tones, cross their legs, flip through black hair magazines and shoot the breeze. It was the only time in my childhood when I was not banished from the room full of grown folk talk. The all-woman space, smelling like Jean Naté and scorched hair, made me feel empowered. It was nothing for women to share secrets, give advice, get into friendly debates, laugh, and listen to each other while offering a bite from their plate or a drag of a cigarette while we all sat around, watching the transformations from new growth to relaxer, split ends to goddess braids, or bald spots to hair pieces. “At the shop” we were sisters, even when we were strangers, because being without a done ‘do was like being naked in public. But between our sing alongs and gossip, no one noticed. The salon was a meeting place, the great equalizer—like church, but without the judgment.
It was a place where you would hear “girrrrrrrrrrrrrl” and “honey chile” between sweet smiles and heartfelt compliments. “Girrrrrrrrrrrrrrrl, you’re so pretty,” or “Honey chile, your hair sho’ look good like that.” These (unsolicited compliments from one black woman to another) were things you would rarely hear between black woman strangers out in public. But in the salon we saw each other as beautiful and said so—out loud and proud like. I think that was part of what drew me to it, and still does. For me, hair salons are not places for competition between women, but rather bonding. Salons have, over the course of my life, served as safe spaces for talking through everything from heartache to home remedies, recipes to religion. It is a safe space for social critique and casual conversation, a place where women gather together in one place unseparated by their difference (i.e., education, class, orientation, ability, age, relationship status, religion, etc.). These public-private spaces, almost exclusively occupied by black folk (this is equally true for barber shops) transform strangers to sister-girls, if only for a few hours, every two weeks.
So imagine my surprise when I realized, after a recent visit to the hair salon, that upon my exit I was verbally assaulted by another black woman. A black woman who I did not know and who did not know me, and whose shared presence in the room may have lasted all of five minutes. If I noticed her I would have smiled, because that is what I do to every black woman I see in the salon, but I didn’t notice her, but evidently she noticed me. In the brief time period that we shared space she walked in on an ongoing conversation I was having with another black woman in the salon. Granted, I do not remember what we were talking about, but I routinely initiate and/or participate in provocative hot topic discussions in the salon. The stylists and I, along with various other patrons ranging in age from mid-twenties to mid-seventies, have shared laughs and wisdom about topics ranging from politics and sex to interracial relationships and popular culture. While I don’t remember the specifics of the conversation I know two things for sure about any and everything that I ever say publicly: 1) it was truthful (at least my truth); and 2) it was not (intentionally) offensive (I am very intentional with my words, and mindful of correcting myself, immediately, if I feel I have spoken out of turn, or inappropriately). I am also a communication professor who has had years of training in public and professional speaking so I imagine that despite codeswitching and my country drawl (which comes out when I am especially comfortable) I am easily outted as an academician.
I was warned, when I returned to the salon a few weeks ago, that this unnamed black woman (who I had never seen before) had announced her intention to “get me in trouble” on my job for the things I said in the salon. Her assertion was, in addition to being ludicrous, absolutely inaccurate. What, I wonder, could I have said in the hair salon that would warrant some kind of reprimand at work (especially when I work at a public institution where I study, research and teach on taboo topics, and as an auto/ethnographer, part of my job is to write about and critique social encounters)? My stylist was apologetic and concerned as she explained what happened. I was grateful to know that in my absence, the beautiful black women with whom I spoke stood up for me and defended my right to say whatever I wanted to say. I assured her, with a full heart of gratitude (that these women are indeed my friends, and have my back when I am absent) that my job was not in jeopardy, and that any clout that this person pretended to have could not affect me. Still, I was bothered, albeit temporarily, by the audacity and nerve, and even the seeming need, for this woman to try to reduce me, an educated, progressive, empathic and down-to-earth black woman to the status of a child who can be chastised into conservatism or at the very least punished (hence, getting me in trouble) for having an opinion (or look or voice or intellect, etc.) that she may have found distasteful. She disrupted my narrative of support and jeopardized the ethic of care I had come to expect (and need) in the hair salon.
Unfortunately, I have had dozens of such experiences with black women in my lifetime, and most especially in my professional life. I have had black women roll their eyes at me, disconfirm and ignore me, refer to me as “that girl,” or “that bitch,” and stare at me without speaking. When I first moved to Alabama a black woman professor who sat across from me at a welcome dinner refused to even shake my hand. Many of these slights occur with perfect strangers who, like the unnamed black woman at the salon, decide, immediately that I am _______. (I don’t know what the blank represents, perhaps different things to different people).
I have learned, though, that in small towns, like the one I live in currently (and the one I grew up in) I relish in the precious moments I have in the beauty salon being around and among beautiful black women who just let me be. There is no jealousy or competition, no nuance of attitude and resentment, just us having magic blackgirl moments and seeing each other beautiful. And smart. And glorious. And enough. It is one of the few places/spaces where I feel at home with my non-academic-no makeup-thick glasses wearing–no need to be politically correct- hair all over my head-chipped toenail polish-wearing yesterday’s clothes and flip flops- self. A space where I can bounce ideas off of other women and ask them about their experiences compared to mine. A space where I fit in without trying. A place where instead of feeling ganged up on, I feel supported and understood.
In two weeks I will gather together the money I put aside to pamper myself and make my way back to the salon. When I open the door I will be greeted with the warmth and welcome that radiates from the women who are there and who are not looking to judge or scold, but to listen, be heard, and to just be. There is no guarantee that there will not be another interloper who resents my presence or my hair style, but I refuse to give up the very necessary experience. It’s blackwomanlove at it’s finest!