For many black women, a trip to the salon is more than just pampering. A missed appointment can add hours to a black woman’s week—pulling through tangles and wrestling with blow-dryers and flatirons. More than the tiresome manual labor, missing a regular spot means missing the black salon experience: the enclave of warmth, comfort and fellowship guided gently by a stylist, who serves triple duty as BFF, therapist and family member all rolled into one.
Now the recession is forcing more and more women to skip their regular trip to the salon, putting the sacred contract between customer and stylist in peril. As the saying goes, when America catches a cold, black America catches the flu. In January, the Los Angeles Times reported that an online poll by the National Cosmetology Association revealed business was down for 70 percent of respondents. This can’t be good news for black hairstylists.
But I have confidence that the black salon will survive. For generations, black salons have been strong entrepreneurial ventures. But they have also often operated like mini bazaars, open markets for people to come in peddling purses, pies, dresses, DVDs—economic engines for whole communities.
Through good times and bad, the black salon has been an institution that has endured because of its special role in our community. “[Hairstyling] allows African-American women to help fashion an identity. … Like the church, it’s a cultured institution,” said Lanita Jacobs-Huey, author of From the Kitchen to the Parlor: Language and Becoming in African American Women’s Hair Care.
In some African cultures, only relatives were considered trustworthy enough to work on a person’s hair. In the Mende tribe, offering to braid someone’s hair was a means of asking for her friendship. Translate that into a modern business context and it explains why white hair care manufacturers and practitioners have had a hard time breaking into the black barbering and salon businesses. Most black people remain most comfortable getting their hair done by one of their own.
So what gets lost when a black woman is forced to cut her weekly visit back to every other week or once a month? It’s like losing a best friend. You think of all those moments when it’s just you and your stylist in the shop, and you realize how close the two of you have grown. The hot comb chatter that flows so naturally. You tell her about the new guy you’re seeing. She tells you about squabbles with her own beau, and then thanks you for the lunch you brought her earlier that day. You ask her how her breast surgery went. She advises you to do your own self-check. The dialogue is candid and honest. She listens as patiently as any therapist would, although her advice may be better and cost no more than a wash and set.
The black beautician’s cultural place of honor is firm. Think Loretta Devine’s character in Waiting to Exhale, soothing a client whose husband left for his white secretary, marking a new chapter in her life with a short ’do. Or Ronnie on Girlfriends, who became an unofficial marketing director for a client’s book. Or Angela, the salon owner and girlfriend we love to hate on Tyler Perry’s Why Did I Get Married? These characters aren’t remembered for their skills in the salon. It’s the relationship they had with their clients and their business skills that made them compelling characters.
As businesses struggle to stay afloat, I have faith in the economic staying power of the black salon. It’s the brilliance of leaders like Madam C.J. Walker, who founded the first hairdresser’s union for black women, and Annie T. Malone, creator of one of the first companies to manufacture hair products for black women—and thousands of other businesswomen like them—that keeps my black-is-beautiful smile glowing year-round. By the end of this recession, many pillars of American industry may be little more than rubble. But black women have a little stimulus engine all their own. Yes, times are tight, but for as long as I can—and maybe a bit longer after that—I’m keeping my regular hair appointment.
Delece Smith-Barrow is a writer in Washington.
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