I am known amongst my family to have very bad hair. It is usually pulled back in a bun, with the front half looking busted and sticking out everywhere. Tired of looking at my crazy look is how I ended up on my way to a house on Crenshaw Boulevard a few weeks ago. A friend of mine had offered to do cornrows for me; a kind of hairdo that looks similar to the one Atse Tewodros is famous for. For me, the visit was supposed to be a quick stop in my busy day to get a temporary break from my usual look. But it turned out to be more than that for me. First of all, I realized how much hair is a big business in America, and how it affects everyday life. Second, I am now interested in learning the history behind different styles.
As soon as I got to my friend’s house, I felt like I had left reality and stepped into a movie screen. Complete with the friendly grandmother at the stove, the quiet and a little overweight grandfather in the living room, and a score of children, the Madea movies came to my mind. I later learned that the kids were there because the house also served as a day care. After greeting and smiling at everyone, I was led to the kitchen. I stood uncertainly in the middle waiting for someone to direct me to the place where I would get my hair done. But my friend Sheri pulled out a chair for me right there, just a few feet from the stove. “Sit down girl, whachu looking all wide-eyed for?” It took me just a few seconds to snap back, shrug, and just slide into the chair.
The kitchen, just like any home with a large number of people living in it, has a lot of stuff. There are several pictures of mugs with hot coffee steaming out of them on the walls; I imagine to induce a feeling of warmth and welcome to whoever is in there.
At this point, Sheri starts doing my hair, and I just sit there and look around me. Her grandmother is boiling sausages for the kids, and her mother is sitting right in front of me. We all launch into a conversation about hair, and the different styles and textures out there.
Sheri’s mother is a doctor by profession. That day, she had her hair in an afro. She told me she likes doing afros and other hairstyles whose names escape me now. “But even if I like those styles, I don’t do them much because I don’t want to scare my white colleagues”, she told me. She then told me her experience once when she had started a new job:
Upon arriving on my first day at a new job a few years ago, I made my way to the receptionist to announce myself. As soon as I said good morning, she said ‘Hi. All the patients are waiting upstairs for the doctor, second door to your left.’ I smiled politely and told her that I was not a patient, that I was actually the doctor and was starting work that day.
She gave my afro a quick look upon hearing that, and was looking so incredulous and shocked that I could feel myself getting angry. I had to exercise a lot of self control and take deep breaths to calm myself down and just let it go. I did not want to say something bad that I would regret later.
After hearing her experience, I realized hair is not something most people take lightly here. The style you choose can and will affect how other people regard you. The hair business is a multi-billion dollar industry. Most women could have a busted car or apartment, but their hair is always on point. I am going to do a lot more research and will come up with a more comprehensive background on the history of African American and Ethiopian styles. For now, you can watch the documentary movie Chris Rock made on hair, below is a short clip from it.