The Strongest Signifier of Blackness: The Mission of the Hair Salon

“Black [hair] is the Crown of the Head.” — Yoruba proverb

Like most Black women, I too have a “hair story.” When I was around eleven or twelve in the mid-seventies, I attended a Girl Scout camp in Citronelle, Alabama – a rural community just outside of Mobile, Alabama. During the school year, my hair was pressed straight with a hot comb and I, like many most girls at the time, aspired to images of what the media told society was beautiful and in the mid-seventies that was primarily the wing tipped hair of it girl, Farrah Fawcett. During the summer months though, I was quite content with my braids – I could run through an impromptu rain shower with reckless abandon or swim for the entire week at camp with no concern for my hair. There were only a handful of Black girls attending the camp, but I never felt particularly isolated until one afternoon upon emerging from the water after a swim, a camp counselor (who must have been a college student at the time), approached asking, “Don’t you wish your hair was like mine, so you didn’t have to do that to it?” I was too stunned to respond – All I could muster was a faint, embarrassed chuckle as I quickly walked away.

Although I grew up in the deep South, my parents had done remarkable job of shielding my siblings and me from encounters with overt racism. I knew the insult was not directed at me alone – I knew it was an insult that addressed not only my own hair, but the hair of the entire Black race. As I trudged up the hill towards the camp’s mess hall, I considered several responses I could still make after dinner, but my twelve-year-old brain was doing the mental calculus – say something to make the counselor angry and kiss any shot at the Camper of the Week award goodbye. What I didn’t realize at the time was that I was never going to be considered for the award anyway. The same mental calculus I made as a twelve-year-old Girl Scout is the same calculus Black women must make every day in job interviews, with co-workers, bosses, teachers, doctors, nurses, and the police.

Do I choose my authentic self, or do I choose to re-make myself into a still marginalized, but acceptable presence for a world that does not value my natural hair or me. In Straightening Our Hair, Bell Hooks writes:

The reality is that straighten hair is linked historically, and currently, to a system of racial domains that impresses upon black people, and especially black women, that we are not acceptable as we are, that we are not beautiful.

Bell Hooks

Citing her experience in the television news/entertainment industry in the documentary, Hair Tales, journalist Oprah Winfred says: the value society places on your hair is the value society places on you. Black hair attracts so much anti-black sentiment because it is the signifier of Blackness. Unfortunately, Black hair is seen as a problem not only from without, but also from within the Black race itself. The tragic protagonist in Morrison’s The Bluest Eye reveals “this need to look as much like white people as possible, to look safe is related to a desire to succeed in the white world.”

But what if the strongest signifier of Blackness– our coiled locks along with its care practices could become a generative force gathering the creative energy of African female diasporic cultures to reconceive the world as one that supports, nurtures, and celebrates Black life in? What would that look like?

This is the aim of The Hair Salon: Black Hair as Architecture as an exhibition, as a publication, as a platform is to generate awareness of the rich legacy of black hair and its care practices as a powerful source of indigenous knowledge that can help to solve complex problems of the built environment today.

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