Nnenna Amuchie’s sacred Black hair
Nnenna Amuchie’s sacred Black hair Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Mumble Sauce is a summer 2019 column about how DMV Black communities uplift healing and creativity in the face of gentrification, displacement, policing, and incarceration. This is installment five of 10.

The first period bell was about to sound off at the middle school I went to in Upper Marlboro. I wanted to be anywhere else. I went to the hair salon the night before to get styled for my uncle’s wedding that was coming up in a couple of days. The results were … well.

I slept with my head propped up to maintain the integrity of the bundles of curls pinned at the top of my cranium. I put on a hoodie as soon as I got to school and snuck from my locker to class. Slinking into a chair next to my friend, I removed the hood, my chin tucked to my chest. She did her best to encourage me. 

“It’s like,” she paused and smiled, “it’s like a beautiful bird’s nest.”

A relatively common experience for many Black girls is hair salon angst: entering the establishment hoping for a blowout like Phylicia Rashad, and coming out looking a little more like James Brown than anticipated. But I still loved my hairdresser. I found peace when her colorful 2-inch acrylics scratched my scalp with my head tilted back in the sink. Her layered bracelets clinked like windchimes whenever she washed my hair. And afterward, I got to journey through the building’s hallways to get cheesy puffs from the vending machine. I stuffed my face with multiple pieces at a time, tinting my fingers yellow and watching subtitles on The Jamie Foxx Show while sweating underneath the roaring hair dryer.

But I didn’t like the way relaxers burned. I learned early, with a different childhood hairdresser, that some burns went too far. I developed a bald spot the size of a clementine on the back of my head in elementary school—a patch of scalp as smooth and shiny as a newly waxed gym floor. My mother feverishly rubbed the spot with soap and water at night. But during the day, I climbed to the top of the jungle gym during recess and let the wind blow through my hair, my bald spot gleaming in the sun.

Black hair and the places we go to get it done are so often sacred, sites of both joy and trauma. Hair salons and barber shops have historically been spaces for Black people to socialize and confide. Small teams of community organizers frequently used barber shops and salons as meeting spaces during the Black freedom struggles of the 1960s and 1970s. And they can be healing spaces, too, with many establishments supporting people with things like blood pressure checks and unofficial therapy.

But along with the sacredness comes the trauma. There are endless streams of information telling us that nappy hair is ugly and “unprofessional,” that the only acceptable textures are slightly curly, wavy, and straight. I begged my parents for a relaxer when I was 6 years old, embarrassed by the way my braids puffed through their twisties and stuck out on the sides of my head. At the salons I went to, I understood beauty to be pain. So much pain is forced on the shoulders of little Black girls, who are encouraged to suffer in the name of achieving societal standards of beauty that were never meant to be attainable to them in the first place.

Now I wear my nappy hair in a high top fade and go to barber shops. Still, this presents different issues. I avoid getting haircuts for as long as possible. I’ve had too many experiences of overhearing homophobic and transphobic comments, and been on the receiving end of too many suggestive come-ons. When I finally do go to the barber shop, I hope I won’t have to endure conversations about whether I’m single, or about how many piercings I have and whether you can see them all.

Throughout the negative experiences, there’s still the joy. I love seeing Black people do hair and thrive. Doing hair is a source of income and an expression of creativity for many, and a lot of spots in D.C. strive to incorporate a sense of community in their work. Lady Clipper Barber Shop, a Black woman owned-and-run barber shop on U Street NW, showcases work by local artists in the space. Wanda’s on 7th, a salon in Shaw owned by the legendary Wanda Henderson, a Black stylist and cosmetologist who grew up in LeDroit Park, is a landmark in the community and symbolizes Black power in the middle of a gentrified neighborhood. And there are many talented stylists doing hair out of their homes, hustling to make money and navigating expensive licensing fees that a lot of poor Black stylists struggle to keep up with.

Through it all, when we’re creative with and loving toward Black hair, we exercise agency in a society that tries to take power away from us. Whether doing hair puts money in your pocket and helps you get by, or you’re experimenting with different wigs to see what kind of vibe you want to present to the world on any given day, hair provides us with an opportunity to sustain, fulfill, and express ourselves.

Hair used to be my enemy, but it isn’t anymore. We started repairing our relationship during my freshman year of college. A silky 18-inch black weave with a blunt bang adorned my head at the beginning of the semester. But a few weeks later, my friends joined me in a dorm room and formed an assembly line to cut all of it off. One friend cut the threads of my tracks, her fingers moving with the dexterity of a spider to remove the string attaching the weave to my cornrows. Another combed through my braids, unraveling the plaits and exposing the shiny nappy curls at my scalp that contrasted with my hair’s frazzled straight ends. Finally, a different friend shaved my head. My dark curls fell in clumps onto the floor. They looked like fluffy black poodles dancing in circles across the room.

I feel lucky to have hair with a life of its own. This is hair that can be braided, pressed, twisted, fluffed, loc’ed, coiled. Thick tufts that stick out in different textures no matter how they’re manipulated. Shy, nappy curls that shrink when they’re wet, but still manage to grow in the direction of the sky.

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