The long waits. The double-booking. The general “unprofessionalism.” The cost. I had a lot of reasons to give up on hair salons, specifically black ones, more than 10 years ago.
In the early years of the recession, there was story after story of black salons struggling as more and more black women moved away from the shop, citing every reason I listed above, to do their own hair or go to Dominican stylists who easily could “blow-fry” their scalps for half the cost and time.
And who could blame anyone for leaving or me for leaving? How many Saturdays of my youth did I lose to the creamy crack? Me and a roomful of women, waiting the length of The Godfather II to get a perm, reading old Jet magazines and eating Chinese takeout while sitting in a gossipy, dingy salon that hadn’t been remodeled since the 1980s.
And yet, three years ago, I, the prodigal scalp, returned to the black hair salon.
Like many women, I left the salon to go back to my roots—literally. I went natural and started doing my own hair in the kitchen as my mother had done for me when I was a child. It was much better than enduring snide remarks about how my hair seemed “hard” or “matted” simply because some perm-addicted stylist had no clue how to handle nonchemically-induced curls.
“I’ll do it myself!” I said, feeling empowered.
Unfortunately, though, since I had gone natural, I, too, had little clue as to what to do with my own hair. I’d had a perm from age 13 to age 21. Meaning, I spent about a decade experimenting on my own head trying to re-create curly looks to which my natural hair had no interest in conforming.
My hair went through a brittle phase, a dry phase, a brittle and dry phase. (Thank you, clear hair gel!) I cut it off a few times to start all over. I didn’t figure out how to do my own hair reliably and consistently until about 2009 and the results were awesome, but as has been documented on this site before, the only person who hates doing my hair more than rude, overcharging stylists is me. But at least my own personal dislike of doing hair came free. The only thing I lost turning my hair from dull to Chaka Khan-dazzling was time.
But it was time I didn’t want to spend.
So I began the journey back. Back to black stylists. Back to black salons.
I went back to the salon for a lot of reasons, but all of those reasons amounted to two things: time and skill, two quantities I did not have an abundance of when it came to me and my hair. I wanted to relax, relate and release while someone else blissfully did all the work. I wanted professional looks! I wanted salon quality!
But I refused to return to the days of old. So off I went on a Don Quixote-esque quest for a black stylist who never double-booked, was never late and would love my hair—or at least lie about it. (How hard is it to lie to me? My mother convinced me as a child it wasn’t possible to get name-brand cereal at our house. I’ll believe you if you simply smile hard enough.)
Stylist Search 2011 came with a lot of trial and error. Dominican and Ethiopian hairstylists sometimes wanted to give me a perm as bad as the black American stylists did. I found one really good African-American male stylist, and he was a dream at creating chic looks, but he, too, could not suppress his searing hatred for doing my hair.
“Bless your heart, if you were my child I would have taken you to a barber shop and said, ‘Give her a regular.’”
I know my hair is not fun for hairdressers. I always tip because I know it’s labor intensive, especially for someone doing it for the first time, but again, I can get negativity for free. I am black and a woman and a very lady-black, black-lady woman at that. I’m already a two-fer for other people’s misplaced misogyny and racism! I get to hear 15 things that are wrong with me every day just by logging onto the Internet. I’m all good on feeling bad.
Eventually I was fortunate enough to meet professional tap dancer Maud Arnold back when I was working on my first paid TV-writing gig. She told me about a stylist she liked in Washington, D.C., named Gwen Fields who loved natural hair and had a beautiful, feng shui’d-out salon. Gwen and I have been together ever since. My hair is happy. I’m happy. She’s happy. It’s great.
Meaning: There is hope for the black salon if salon owners are willing to modernize and embrace natural hair. This isn’t a trend, folks. Perm sales have been down since 2006. The ’fro is here to stay this time. But no one should have to shutter her shop simply because the creamy crack isn’t the cash cow it used to be. There are still plenty of black women who don’t have time to do their own hair, who want unique looks and salon quality. If you’re willing to change, we will reward those reliable, talented stylists with our dollars and referrals.
It’s not that hard.