Black Women And Hair: A Recession-Proof Debate
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. It's time for our weekly visit to the Barbershop, where the guys talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds.
This week, though, we're going to do something a little different. We are going to the Beautyshop as part of one of our special collaborations with the online journal, The Root.
We've invited a group of African-American women and one special man to talk about hair. Who cares, you say? Well, as The Root package makes clear, and as you will discover, hair is a huge issue in the African-American community. There is tremendous cultural and economic significance around hair.
You can see that in movies like "Beauty Shop," starring Queen Latifah. In this scene, a friend encourages her to open her own salon in a tough Atlanta neighborhood.
(Soundbite of movie, "Beauty Shop")
Unidentified Woman #1 (Actor): But, Gina, let's just look at the blessing in it. You've got your own beauty shop. Be happy. It's yours.
Unidentified Woman #2 (Actor): Come on. Let's make this place sparkle.
Unidentified Woman #3: I'm ready.
Unidentified Woman #2: I can turn this into (unintelligible).
MARTIN: The financial health of hair salons and barber shops are a key economic indicator in the black community. Styles of hair are often an important cultural barometer, as well.
Here to talk more about this are A'Lelia Bundles. She is the great-great-granddaughter of Madame C.J. Walker, the African-American woman who built a million-dollar business selling hair-care products to African-Americans.
We're also joined by Paunice Savage. She's been a stylist in Detroit for two decades, so she's had a front-row seat in the changing debate over black hair.
And with us just for the fun of it is our Barbershop moderator, Jimi Izrael. Why? Well, because he has hair. He has the most marvelous dreadlocks you've ever seen. He's also a contributor to The Root, and he has interesting things to say about the culture. Welcome everybody.
Ms. A'LELIA BUNDLES: Hello
Ms. PAUNICE SAVAGE (Hair Stylist, Detroit): Glad to be here.
JIMI IZRAEL: Hey, hey, hey.
MARTIN: A'Lelia, you and Paunice wrote essays for The Root about this topic. Your essay is called "A Five-part Manifesto on Hair Peace," and that's P-E-A-C-E. But before we get into that part of the conversation, I did want to ask you to tell us a little bit about Madame C.J. Walker and why she's such an important historic figure.
Ms. BUNDLES: Madame Walker was one of the four iconic women who really created what's now the modern hair-care and cosmetics industry, and we know about her in the black community because everybody gets their hair done.
But she started her company in 1906. By the time she died in 1919, she had become a millionaire, but also a philanthropist and a political activist. So she used that money that she made in the hair-care industry to provide jobs for thousands of women and also to give back to the community.
MARTIN: And why is it that there's - one of the things I've learned from your research is that people have this misunderstanding of what her mission was, that many people associate her with hair straightening, which is to say sort of changing a natural feature of natural African-American hair. You say that's not what she was about at all.
Ms. BUNDLES: No. She was going bald because like a lot of women in the early 1900s, when hygiene was very different, she didn't wash her hair very often. Her hair was coming out. She had bad dander.
So her first products were a shampoo and an ointment that contained sulfur that healed scalp disease and allowed her hair to grow. So that's where she was really coming from, initially.
She did popularize the straightening comb. She didn't invent it, but she was really concerned about grooming and hygiene.
MARTIN: And she was also concerned about economic empowerment, because one of the things she did in her schools is give mainly African-American women a way to earn a living that was not domestic work.
Ms. BUNDLES: Exactly. One woman wrote to her after she'd been selling her products. She said you've made it possible for a colored woman - which is what we called ourselves then - to make more in a day than she could in a month working in somebody's kitchen.
So it was always as much about money as it was about aesthetics.
MARTIN: Paunice, you are a hairstylist in Detroit, and your essay is called "Patience, Prayer and 'This-Too-Shall Pass' Hair Specials."
So talk to me first, if you would, about why you decided to become a stylist.
Ms. SAVAGE: I wanted to become a stylist because I liked making ladies feel pretty, feel better about themselves via healthy hair maintenance and pretty hair styles.
MARTIN: You talked in your piece, though, and your piece opens with this very moving scene of a long-time client calling up to say this is my last appointment, in tears. Now, some people I think might find that a bit silly, to say well, you know, so wash your hair at home. Could you talk a little bit about why your place is important?
Ms. SAVAGE: Oh, absolutely.
MARTIN: Why was this woman crying?
Ms. SAVAGE: Well actually, she did not telephone me. She was in the salon, and she was getting her hair done to go to an out-of-state job fair. And she and her husband have both been laid off, and she could barely look at me. She was very shamed, humiliated, embarrassed, and it actually reduced me to tears.
I felt very sorry for her. So I run specials all the time, my clients will tell you, and I offered her a this-too-shall-pass special. And I'm telling you, I would rather have clients than to have not. So if taking a couple of dollars off of my price will keep you coming and keep you happy, I am willing to do that. And that's what happened.
MARTIN: But as we have reported, as has been reported, unemployment in the Motor City has reached a staggering 22 percent and you are noticing that, in that, a lot of people say the hair appointment is the last thing to go, because it's the one luxury that many women allow themselves. Are you seeing that?
Ms. SAVAGE: It's not terrible but we have definitely seen a difference. I am not a need, I am a want. So when mortgage has to be paid and uniforms have to be purchased, hair will go on the back burner. We will ponytail, we will braid, we will grow dreadlocks, Jimi. And do anything else, rather than to come and get their hair done.
MARTIN: Look Jimi, I want to bring you in in just a second, because I'm very interested whether men feel the same way, they feel that hair is as fraught, African-American men specifically. Then why do you think this issue is still so fraught? I mean, a lot of people have said, you know, aren't we over this? Other people make judgments about people based on how they wear their hair, making assessments about your psychological health or well-being, depending on how you - what your politics, based on how you wear your hair.
Ms. BUNDLES: You know, actually in the piece I talked about hair wars, because I think we are at war with ourselves sometimes about our hair. We are at war with mothers, and daughters are at war about hair. Boyfriends, husbands, significant others are at war with us. We sometimes think we're at war with our hair in the job place. So we have lots of unresolved issues. And I really think that we have to create peace and I mean p-e-a-c-e and we think about hair pieces, p-i-e-c-e, but we have to do it ourselves.
And some of this is about loving ourselves and it really starts with mothers and daughters. And mothers and daughters - mothers need to help their daughters love their hair. And some mothers know how to do this, and some mothers help their daughters love their hair. But then it comes to, you know, boyfriends and fathers say, you know, I really don't like your hair this way, or I don't like it that way. And people, and if you're not strong about it it's like, are you, you know, are you, is it about me, or is it about my hair, as India Arie would say.
MARTIN: Jimi we got to bring you in (unintelligible).
IZRAEL: Yeah, smart men don't do that.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: Ones that want to live long (unintelligible).
MARTIN: But Jimi, take to me about - take both sides of that if you would. First of all, you have some very remarkable hair, I have to say. You've been growing your dreads for twenty years, they're waist length. First of all, have you felt that your hair, the way you wear it, has an impact on the way people treat you? And do you feel that there's something just complicated for men, as it is for women?
IZRAEL: Absolutely it affects the way people treat me. Certainly - and it depends on what part of the country I'm in, like in the Midwest, you know, it's very much seen as some kind of political statement, people don't know whether to be fascinated by it and try to touch it, or to walk away from me, you know. But when I lived in the South it wasn't a big deal because everybody down there had locks, you know. And you know, they have locks for different reasons, you know. Some people had locks because it was easier, and it was low maintenance. Some people had locks as kind of spiritual thing. And other people just had locks because their best friends had locks and everybody in they rap group had locks.
Yeah, you know, like that, you know, so like Little John. So, you know, some people just kind of pick it up as a fad. But it's really bizarre, because people, you never know how people are going to take you and you know when you're dealing with the ladies, you don't know the ladies are digging on you or digging at you. Whether they're like, oh…
MARTIN: Let me just say, I like to be the person with the really great hair in the relationship so, you and I could not be together. I'm just telling you. You can't have…
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: …can I ask you what, what …
MARTIN: …motivated your decision to wear your hair the way you do? Does it is, is it a political statement for you?
IZRAEL: No, actually. I stopped cutting my hair 20 years ago. It's not about the politics, it's kind of a spiritual thing, you know, I…
MARTIN: Do you believe your hair is your power.
IZRAEL: I know. I'm not Samson, you know, but it is certainly a sacrament, it's certainly something I take very seriously. And it isn't something I want fondled or handled by the public at large, you know, you need my explicit permission to touch my hair, you know…
MARTIN: That should be true for anybody.
IZRAEL: And that's, that's how I rock. That's just how I rock, you know.
MARTIN: And it's interesting that men experience that. I'm surprised because I thought it was just women. So it's interesting to hear that. If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Jimi Izrael, our Barbershop regular, A'Lelia Bundles and Paunice Savage. We're having a Beautyshop today, because we're talking about the politics of African-American hair, specifically among women but also among men. Paunice, there's a scene that we played at the beginning from the movie "Beauty Shop," starring Queen Latifah, and in the scene she's getting reassurance from her friend after deciding to open up her own shop in a tough neighborhood in Atlanta. Does your shop feel like a sanctuary for your clients? Is it kind of a special place for them?
Ms. SAVAGE: Oh, absolutely, people love the salon where I work.
MARTIN: Do you think that the salons that cater to African-American and Latina women have a different place in their lives? I mean, there have been also movies that show how beauty salons are important in the majority community. I'm thinking about "Steel Magnolias" with Dolly Parton and Julia Roberts. And Dolly Parton of course played a beautician. She was very, she has a very important role in the life of, you know, her, her friends too. So, but I just wonder, do you think there is something different about the ethnic experience?
Ms. SAVAGE: Oh, of course.
MARTIN: Why would that be?
Ms. SAVAGE: Of course. Most African-American women started getting their hair done in their kitchen - either moms or grandmoms. You know, a lot of the conversation and the going on around you getting your hair done was just regular run of the mill. A lot of the salons are like that. It's a very comfortable place to be. And a lot of other salons may just be, let's come in, get your hair done, and let's go, you're gone, next.
MARTIN: A'Lelia, I feel like I've to ask about our first lady, Michelle Obama. So much of everything she does is under scrutiny. And on the one hand, we haven't really heard very much about the way she chooses to wear her hair and I'm curious that we haven't. And I'm wondering if that is going to be another thing to talk about. Because one of the things I feel like, I feel like it should be a personal choice, but it does - I have to say particularly as a person who's been in the media and has been in television and you and I former colleagues at ABC News, I want to mention - that it does disturb me that there are more women with natural hair who are not in appearance-oriented professions.
We see very few women in Hollywood who wear their hair naturally on a regular basis, very few women in the national media. I can't think of any at the moment. At the White House, I see very few women…
Ms. BUNDLES: Well, you know, I mean I think you'd, you know, it's sort of bubbling underneath the surface. There are a few blogs where people are commenting on her hair. And was - I'll tell you, I was very, very excited on Sunday in The Washington Post, there was a big two-page spread on young African-Americans who are working in the White House and one of the young sisters has natural - has a natural and has dreads. And I thought this, I hope this will dispel the myth for the young women that I talk to on college campuses who are convinced that they can't find jobs if they don't have their hair straightened. That it's just - I just don't believe that's true. But I thought - I was really glad to see that. But in terms of Michel…
MARTIN: Is it a myth, though, because the people have had to litigate on this point.
Ms. BUNDLES: Well, people have had to litigate on this and with hotels and with other…
Ms. BUNDLES: Right, with restaurants. But I think that there's starting to be a change because they are more and more women - Bea Smith(ph) is one who comes to mind. There are women who say this is who I am and I'm really, really good at what I do. In terms of Michelle Obama and how she wears her hair. I think Michelle Obama ought to wear her hair exactly the way she wants to wear her hair. I am not looking for Michelle Obama to cut her hair off like I have mine, very short. I'm not looking for her to do twists. I'm looking for her to wear what's comfortable for her.
MARTIN: Jimi, I have to ask you this, and you get very defensive when I talk to you about popular culture, but I don't care.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: The whole question about like the hip-hop culture - on the one hand, you know, the sort of the videos and so forth, people think of themselves as being very much, you know, keeping it very real, but I don't see a whole lot of real hair in these videos. I don't see a lot of these performers - the weave is the standard, which is other people's hair woven into your hair to make it look like it's your hair, but it isn't your hair, I'm just letting people in a little secret if they didn't - were unaware of this. So I just wonder, what is that about? I mean, I'm just curious, why is it that this essentially European's esthetic persists?
IZRAEL: As it involves hip-pop culture? I think most of the people buying hip-hop are not of African descent. So I, I think there's some move to cross over, you know, so that's my take on that.
Ms. SAVAGE: Oh, no…
MARTIN: Paunice, what do you think?
Ms. SAVAGE: …hip-hop. A large part of our community think that it's not right if it's not long and slick and slapped back. I really think that it goes back to that good hair, all of that, you know, which I wish we would stop saying, too, but it goes back to that. You know, you can't walk in a black beauty supply store anywhere - New York, D.C., Detroit, California - without seeing rows and rows of this fake hair. And it's selling like hotcakes.
MARTIN: Let's get some sort of final thoughts from each of you. A'Lelia, what about your manifesto for hair peace?
Ms. BUNDLES: Well, number four on my manifesto is resolve that we will stop making other people wealthy because of our addiction to hair extensions, now I am serious about that.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. SAVAGE: Here, here. Here, here.
Ms. BUNDLES: Well, but I'm saying, you know, if I put it out there maybe somebody will think, if Madame Walker's great-great granddaughter says this maybe I need to think about it.
Ms. SAVAGE: That's right.
Ms. BUNDLES: You know, it's not that's the end all and be all, but I just want people to think about who they are, love themselves. That's my main message. Thank you.
MARTIN: Paunice, what's your main message?
Ms. SAVAGE: My main message is definitely I would have to agree and say love yourself and love who you are, not who you want to be, wish you were or could've been. And love, peace and hair grease.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: Jimi, what do you think if you and I were to get together - we have kids about the same age, when our kids grow up, graduate from college.
IZRAEL: Mm hmm.
MARTIN: We get together and have this conversation again - you think they'll look at us like we're crazy or do you think we'll still be having it, you know, (unintelligible) years from now?
IZRAEL: I think we'll probably still be having it, you know, I do. I mean don't know when it's going to change or who is going to change it but, you know, for my part I'm going to try to instill in my children, you know, that you are as God made you. And, you know, I have, you know, I have sons and a daughter. And, you know, be natural, you know, like Dad.
MARTIN: Jimi Izrael is a freelance journalist who writes for TheRoot.com and TV One online. He joined us from member station WCPN in Cleveland. A'Lelia Bundles is the author of "On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker." She's currently at work on a biography of her great grandmother, A'Lelia Walker. She was kind enough to join us in our Washington D.C. studios. And Paunice Savage is a hairstylist. She joined us from WDET in Detroit. Our guest essays on hair and the economy are published at the online magazine The Root. For a link to the essays please go to the TELL ME MORE page at npr.org. Ladies, gentleman thank you all so much.
Ms. BUNDLES: Thank you.
Ms. SAVAGE: Thank you very much.
IZRAEL: Yep, yep.
MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michele Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more on Monday.
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