Michaela Angela Davis and Rep. Cori Bush on the politics of Black women's hair : It's Been a Minute For Black women, hair is about so much more than beauty. It can affect how they're treated and what opportunities are available to them. It's tied to history, identity and politics. And though many Black women and girls now embrace their natural curls, Black hair is still a site of discrimination. In this episode, Brittany Luse talks to two women fighting to change that: Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.), who has been pushing for a federal law against race-based hair discrimination, and Michaela Angela Davis, whose docuseries "The Hair Tales" is meant to inspire Black women to celebrate their crowning glories.

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Curls and courage with Michaela Angela Davis and Rep. Cori Bush

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Hey, y'all. You're listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. I'm Brittany Luse. Back in the '90s, a rite of passage for many Black girls was that fateful day you could finally get a kiddie perm.


LATAVIA ROBERSON: (Rapping) ...All mine. Hair so soft, silky and free. I want something just for me.


LUSE: You could finally be one of the perm box girls, the gorgeous, gorgeous girls who modeled for the go-to at-home relaxers for Black girls' hair. I was never allowed to get one, but these girls were legends to me and so many other little '90s babies who wanted sleek, shiny and, most importantly, straight hair. A couple months ago, a Twitter user by the name of Ash "The Don" Leon asked, where are these girls today?

ALISON GRIFFIN: One day I'm reading on Twitter, reading these tweets. And I'm like, Twitter is really funny. Then I come across this tweet, and I was like, it's my time. This is me. Like, I'm here.

LUSE: That's Alison Griffin. (ph) In the '90s, she grew up in Atlanta, Ga., one of the Black hair capitals in America, maybe even the world. And that's where she landed her first modeling gig when she was 8 years old.

GRIFFIN: I became a perm box girl - kind of the right place, right time type of situation. My mom was getting her hair done by her hair stylist. And someone came in looking for models like, do you know any kid with "nice hair," quote-unquote?

LUSE: Interesting.

GRIFFIN: Yeah. And my mom was like, oh, yeah, I have a daughter with nice hair. She showed them my picture, and that was it.

LUSE: What do you think they meant by that - nice hair?

GRIFFIN: I think they meant soft-looking or - the straighter, the better, kind of.

LUSE: And back then, straight, relaxed hair - what someone today might call Becky hair, perhaps - was what you had to have.

Did you ever, like, buy the perm box with your face on it and actually use the perm inside?

GRIFFIN: Oh, I used it. Yeah.

LUSE: Wow. OK, so you really must have felt like that girl then.

GRIFFIN: Yeah. Yeah. We bought, like, six jars 'cause I was on a jar, and then I was on the side of the box, too.

LUSE: Black women and girls know better than anyone that hair is just as much a part of how you see yourself as it is how other people see and understand you. And that's the message we start hearing from Day 1.

GRIFFIN: It's a part of your presentation. It's part of who you are. It's your crown. It needs to look right at all times when you step outside the house. You don't have the bonnet on your head. It's not looking crazy. It's not looking crusty. Your hair is done. You're not going outside with no nappy head. You know, like, your hair looks like a rat's nest. What is this? Things like that - you know, implying, like, if it's curly, if it's big, if it's bushy, then it looks crazy.

LUSE: Do you still get relaxers now as an adult?

GRIFFIN: Absolutely not.


LUSE: Times have changed, and Black women and girls now embrace their natural curls. But that has consequences because our hair is constantly under a microscope. From perms to afros to weaves to wigs, someone always has something to say about Black women's hair.

MICHAELA ANGELA DAVIS: It's the thing that, when we walk in the room, you see it.

LUSE: That's Michaela Angela Davis, writer and executive producer of a docuseries on Hulu called "The Hair Tales."

DAVIS: It drives people nuts because we're going to be emancipated. We're going to find our liberation. And our hair is a constant reminder of that pursuit. And you can't have it. That's why it's distracting in school - because that little blonde girl can't get 3,000 box braids with little bows on them. And now you're putting pink braids that are dragging down to the floor with 36,000 beads. It's like, what? You dare to be, like, a walking art museum.

LUSE: Talk to me about the monetary cost...


LUSE: ...Of not adhering to certain "standards," quote-unquote, and parameters when it comes to hair styling.

DAVIS: How many Black women have we lost because their hair wasn't appropriate or they couldn't fight back...

LUSE: Right, right.

DAVIS: ...Or they couldn't get that job or they couldn't get into that school? - you know, because you can walk into an interview, think you killed it. And they saw your box braids and decided you were ghetto.

CORI BUSH: But it's not even just in employment. We're talking about in housing.

LUSE: That's Democratic Representative Cori Bush.

BUSH: People want a certain look - you know, what they think is considered presentable and palatable. It can be something that'll stop you at the door from getting the type of home or moving into the type of neighborhood on a particular block. It can stop you from educational opportunities.

LUSE: Bush is a champion for the CROWN Act, which would be a federal ban on hairstyle discrimination in employment, education and housing.

BUSH: This makes it explicit that you must prohibit discrimination based on hair texture and protective styles. And we even go as far to say what that is. So it says locs. It says cornrows and braids, twists, Bantu knots and afros.


LUSE: Today we're focusing on the efforts of these two women, Representative Cori Bush and Michaela Angela Davis. Through her documentary, Michaela Angela Davis sees our hair as a site of liberation. And Cori Bush wants to pass federal legislation to protect our freedom to choose our hair without repercussion. And for Bush, that begins by walking the halls of Congress after a quick break.

It's a pleasure to talk with you today, Representative Cori Bush.

BUSH: Oh, yeah, you too, Brittany. Thank you.

LUSE: Talk to me about you walking into the Capitol for the first time as a congresswoman. Did you think about how you were going to wear your hair that day?

BUSH: I did, actually. I was thinking, you know, I needed a protective style but something that would be easy because also I didn't have a hair stylist in D.C., and, like, I just didn't - so I was like, let me do something where I know I can take care of my own hair if need be. So I decided to just wear my hair straight. And then I just put some microlinks in it just to add - you know, add length and add a little more thickness to it. But, you know, even that, just wearing it straight and so straight, it just felt - it just - you know, every day it just felt like, ugh (ph), ugh.

LUSE: Not quite right.

BUSH: Not quite right. Like, I didn't totally feel my authentic self.

LUSE: What would have felt more authentic?

BUSH: Probably if I would have had my braids.

LUSE: I see you have the braids in today.

BUSH: Yeah, yeah. Yeah.

LUSE: When you were running for Congress, you were told by somebody that you needed to get Becky hair.

BUSH: Oh, yeah.

LUSE: And for people who can't visualize that, it's like the silky, straight, blows in the wind, down past your shoulders, maybe down past...

BUSH: Yes.

LUSE: ...Your shoulder blades kind of hair...

BUSH: Yeah.

LUSE: ...That many of us associate, correctly or not, with professionalism. And with that story, you described a professional experience familiar to many Black women across all industries, which points to consequences - right? - if you don't follow through on getting that Becky hair. What do Black women lose out on when we don't adhere to styling our hair a certain way in the workplace?

BUSH: First of all, you may not even get the employment. But in the workplace, promotions, respect from your peers, your own space being invaded, you know, from people feeling like, I need to touch your hair. Like, I don't understand it. The fact that we have to give accounts about our hair and why our hair looks different today - I remember years ago, someone - they were like, oh, every time you come to work, your hair is just like - every week your hair is different, you know?

LUSE: (Laughter).

BUSH: And I would say, well, yeah, because every time I wash my hair, my - I have to do a style all over again. Like, my hair does not - it's not the same style it was once I wash my hair. And they just looked at me like, what is she talking about? I remember years ago, definitely a little over 20 years ago, sitting in workshops where they would talk to you about how to be presentable when you're applying for jobs and telling men, Black men, don't wear locks.

LUSE: Right.

BUSH: Don't wear dreadlocks, you know, because you won't get the job. You know, people will see you as a threat. And so, you know, cut your hair and wear - you know, wear it nicely groomed. Would tell us, you know, don't color your hair, pull your hair back in a ponytail or just wear it straight, but make sure it's off your shoulders And, you know, all of those things. And it's just like, my hair won't do any part of this job. Like, my hair is not - you know, if I'm slinging burgers, my hair is not slinging the burgers, you know?

LUSE: (Laughter) Right.

BUSH: If I'm - you know, if I'm going to be your accountant, there's not one piece of my hair, you know, that is adding a thing, you know? So - but because so many of us came up hearing that, there is still - at least for me, it hits me - is this professional enough?

LUSE: Right.

BUSH: ...Before I step outside of my home. I had to let that go.

LUSE: I want to turn actually to talk about what you have been working on to be able to curtail some of, you know, these logistical, you know, hoops that so many Black people, Black women especially, are jumping through just to go to work or to be able to secure housing. The CROWN Act, you've been working on the CROWN Act and trying to get it passed for some time. Can you explain why you feel it's necessary for us to legislate hair in this way?

BUSH: Race-based hair discrimination is a real thing. Statistics have shown us 66% of Black children in majority-white high schools have faced race-based hair discrimination, 86% of those children before the age of 12.

LUSE: And for our listeners, Representative Bush is citing a study done by Dove for the CROWN Act.

BUSH: Those formative years, we're telling human beings, new human beings to this Earth, you know, we're telling them, you know, how they have to show up in the world, and it can't be the way that they were born. If we don't do this, then what we're saying is this discrimination that continues to be, like, lodged against us, that it's not real. But - and actually, it is. It's real. It's measurable. And it's a social - it has a social and economic impact on every person but especially Black women, and it starts with Black girls.

LUSE: Black women know this. That's why I think it's no coincidence that as the number of Black women in Congress rises - 27 in the 118th Congress - we see more of this type of legislation. The question is, can they convince others to hear them out? Representative Cori Bush tries to after a quick break.

When you need to convince someone that this bill must pass now, what story do you tell?

BUSH: Our work has to be about who comes up next. We look at, well, who's showing up as the most educated group of people in this country? We know that that has - time and time again, the research has shown Black women. But when Black women are not able to get the jobs based upon the way that they look, when we can't be respected for who we are in the world, we can't be respected for the way that we are created. But corporations profit by huge margins based upon how we wear our hair and based upon how we look. So we can't look this way to go and work for you. But you need people who look this way to be able to put the money in your pocket.

LUSE: Who are the people who are the hardest to convince...

BUSH: Oh, my gosh.

LUSE: ...That this bill needs to pass?

BUSH: You know, it has mostly been my white Republican colleagues. You know, I remember listening to the debate, and some of them were saying, oh, well, we need to - we have so many other issues in this country that we need to be talking about. Like, this is not a real thing. But what they don't want to understand, what they don't want to realize or maybe don't care - that since this country's founding, we have conditioned - this country has conditioned Black women and girls that our hair has to be straightened or altered in order for us to be treated fairly and with respect.

But why is it Black women have to be altered? You know, white men can show up how they show up in anything. Out running for office, white men can show up in jeans and a business shirt - didn't even have to do anything to their hair. And they would get the microphone, and people would applaud. And all was well, you know? But I had to show up in a full suit and the hair a certain way and only, you know, minimal makeup and small earrings - all of these things just to be taken seriously. They consider it probably part of being woke. They need to wake up. Discrimination against Black hairstyles, we know, is just one form of the systemic inequities that Black people face, you know, whether trying to obtain the housing or the jobs or the - you know, the education. It's like if we open the door to say that we acknowledge that there is racism here, then we will have to acknowledge there is racism in all of these other places.

LUSE: Congresswoman Bush, thank you so, so much for taking the time to talk with us today. This was really great.

BUSH: Absolutely. Thank you, Brittany. Have a great one.

LUSE: That was Democratic Congresswoman Cori Bush from Missouri. Now, the CROWN Act passed in the House last year while Democrats controlled the chamber. But in 2023, there's a new Congress with Republicans controlling the House. The CROWN Act could be put up for a vote again. But in a Republican-controlled House, it would likely fail.


LUSE: Representative Bush has been pushing for legislation to address hair discrimination. My next guest, Michaela Angela Davis, has a documentary out on Hulu, "The Hair Tales," that she hopes will inspire Black women to continue celebrating their natural hair even if the majority of Congress won't. And through that, as more Black women stand their ground, change might come.

Michaela Angela Davis, welcome to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE.

DAVIS: Thank you for having me. I'm so excited to be here.

LUSE: You know, I think that, for Black women, hair is a touchstone and also representative of both our public and our private selves. So many women who participated in the series shared a story of a parent, a boyfriend, husband, employer or even a stranger - because we've also all been there...

DAVIS: Yeah.

LUSE: ...Who felt the need to comment upon her hair and whether or not it was acceptable or good enough or how she should be wearing it, right?

DAVIS: Yeah.

LUSE: Why is it that Black women's hair seems to perpetually be up for comment?

DAVIS: Because our hair is that entry, that flashpoint to our whole identity. And also, hair has the tenets of culture.

LUSE: Right.

DAVIS: Culture has memory, innovation, language and ritual.

LUSE: Wow.

DAVIS: Black women - in our hair, we have all of that. And because we have this place of freedom, our hair is a site for our expression, economy, culture. And I think that's why it sets so many people off. If you can control her hair, you can control her, you know? And if you can control Black women, you can control the Black community.

LUSE: I really, really, really love that concept of Black hair having all of the tenets of culture and what culture is. And that absolutely speaks to how powerful it is. And there's a specific story from the documentary that really demonstrates that to me, how people can feel threatened by Black hair. So one of the most surprising stories that shared in the series, to me, comes from Oprah Winfrey, whose thick hair is famous. Like, I mean...


LUSE: I mean...

LUSE: Thick hair is famous.

LUSE: It's famous.


LUSE: The hair in and of itself is famous. And we learned that Oprah lost all her hair after a bad perm that she was forced to get by her bosses at one of her first TV jobs in her early 20s in Baltimore. They sent her up to New York City to see this French hairstylist who probably didn't even know how to do Black hair, from what I could tell, let alone put in a relaxer.


OPRAH WINFREY: So I say, excuse me, but do you all do Black hair here? And - true story - the guy says, oui, madam, we do black hair. We do blonde hair. We do red hair. We do your hair.

DAVIS: Like, why didn't she run?

LUSE: I know. You know what? We've all had moments like that, though. We go to the salon, and we speak to someone. I once had a woman who had locs cut my hair. And she had come highly recommended to me. And I saw her, and she was like, how did you get your hair to do that? I'm thinking like, girl, you are the expert. And she was like, I could - my hair is just like yours, and I couldn't figure it out. Now, I should have left, obviously.

DAVIS: But it's...

LUSE: (Laughter).

DAVIS: We're so vulnerable.

LUSE: I should have left.

DAVIS: And, you know, when you think about, you know - this is also - you think about Oprah being 22, breaking into this impossible market.

LUSE: Right.

DAVIS: Being, you know - being Black from a distance, being not, you know, model skinny, all the things. And here she is. Of course, she's going to try to do - like, it...

LUSE: Yes.

DAVIS: What a vulnerable place for her to be. Like, wow. So I know why she didn't run, but I wish she ran.

LUSE: Absolutely, absolutely. But, you know, what happened afterward, to me, is so interesting and saddening 'cause she was pulled from appearing on air...

DAVIS: Yeah.

LUSE: ...Because, like, I mean, she said that the hair that she did have left after the perm was being held onto her head by scabs, and it was still falling out.


WINFREY: So the first time I wash my - every time I combed my hair, scab would come out, hair would come out. Every time I washed my hair, comb - it would just fall into the sink.

LUSE: And that blew my mind.

DAVIS: I know.

LUSE: But she said that she was pulled from appearing on air, like, literally was told that she could not do her job.


LUSE: And she ended up having to shave her head. And that, I guess, began Oprah's sort of, like, big chop, natural hair journey, you know, back then. And she said after that, she didn't have anybody touch her hair for seven or eight years. But I think that that story perfectly illustrates how hair for Black women is about much more than achieving a certain look...


LUSE: ...Or attaining desirability, which - I think, a lot of times, narrower conversations about Black women's hair come down to desirability. And does this man want to talk to you? And all this sort of stuff.

DAVIS: You know, arguably, she's probably the wealthiest Black woman any of us could - and wealthy, not just meaning money, but, like, she's wealthy, you know? Like, she's riches and luxury and opulence. She had to kind of go through fire to get there. And if she was someone else, that incident might have knocked her out. And this is also - how many Black women have we lost because their hair wasn't appropriate, or they couldn't fight back, or they couldn't get that job, or they couldn't get into that school? You know, because you don't know - you can walk into an interview, think you killed it, and they saw your box braids and decided you were ghetto. One of the things that I think about - or the people that I think about the most are the workers, are the beauty workers, are the generations and tens of thousands of Black women who stood on their feet with their hands on our head, you know, giving us money to go to college, to get - letting us go to...

LUSE: Right.

DAVIS: ...Church with some dignity, holding down the communities. You know, like, beauty parlors are - you know, are staples in the community. And these beauty workers...

LUSE: Yeah.

DAVIS: ...Have been - you know, this is a place where they could get off their knees and get out of out of domestic work. So there's, like, this rich, rich, rich, rich history in the workers and the economy. And now you look at all the brands, from Madam C.J. Walker to Tracee and Lisa Price with Carol's Daughter and all these, you know...

LUSE: Carol's Daughter, right.

DAVIS: There's so many great brands and Black women finding also economic freedom, not just in the doing of hair but in the products. And that's why, you know, we have Dr. Tiffany Gill, whose book "Beauty Shop Politics" really talks about that, you know, in a scholarly way, how - why it was such a powerful place because often, the products were made by Black women. The spaces were Black women. The clients were Black women. And the workers were Black women. And that's why they were able to use that money to help fund the civil rights movement. That's why they were able to use those spaces to organize clandestine NAACP meetings. That's why they were able to use those spaces for women to register people to vote because no one was stunting them because they thought, oh, these are just Black ladies doing hair. They were like - they were strategizing. They were under the radar 'cause it was two things that nobody cared about - Black women and their hair.

LUSE: (Laughter).

DAVIS: And they couldn't get fired. If you went to a beauty shop and there's an NAACP meeting happening in the back room, nobody knew that because they weren't surveilling Black women because they didn't care about Black women.

LUSE: Gosh.

DAVIS: So, of course, we did stuff (laughter), you know...

LUSE: (Laughter).

DAVIS: ...They didn't like - you going to leave us alone, we going to do stuff.

LUSE: There's this really fantastic explanation provided by one of the experts in the series. She's making a remark about how Black hairstyles change throughout time and how in the '60s, let's say, if you're going to marches and you're going to protests. the thought is that for the optics, it's important to look respectable, and thus you should look, like, church ready. So your hair is, you know, fried, dyed, laid...


LUSE: ...To the side, as people like to say. But it's straight. It's straight. It's pressed. It's curled.


LUSE: You know, and that's what's reflected in a lot of the images from that time. And then in the '70s with Black is Beautiful and the Black Power movement, Black aesthetics became the center for us, like, moving from the margins to the center for us. And we began to embrace our natural textures, and Afros became popular. But the other thing that it did make me think of also, though, is, like, there's beauty in the idea - right? - that you can see a photo of a Black woman from some point in history. And you can know, at least in the past - within the past 100 years, you could know it, almost down to the year (plaughter), when the photo was taken, based off of her hairstyle. So, like, on one hand, there's this great creativity, but then on the other...


LUSE: ...Hand, to me...


LUSE: ...It also is somewhat of a reminder of, like, the target for respectability and acceptability is always shifting.


LUSE: And Black women must...


LUSE: ...Shift with it. What do you think about that?

DAVIS: Yes. (Laughter). I do think...

LUSE: (Laughter).

DAVIS: ...I think about it. That's what, you know, and I like people that think about - like, Dr. Joan Morgan - like, she's the one that really talked about how the target keeps moving, you know? And this is the Black experience and particularly for Black women. It's - there's a complex tension at all times. And what I was hoping with "The Hair Tales" is that we just put more energy into that dynamic imagination, like, elevate that more because I think we have a lot of storytelling and a lot of emphasis on the oppression and backlash, right? I'm not diminishing that. I am not, you know, in any way ignoring it, obviously. One of the hopes in "The Hair Tales" is that we get that whole range of the fun and the complexity.

LUSE: It's amazing because that brings me to the sacred space of a beauty salon. And the doc - one of the interview guests described the hair salon as Black women's country club.

DAVIS: That's right.

LUSE: (Laughter).

DAVIS: That's right. I loved her.

LUSE: And I love that. I love that. It's the space that produces the creativity that you were just referring to.

DAVIS: I loved it, too. And I just - it gave me just joy because it is. And just imagine if you gave Black women more time to be together and not mess with them, not just four or five hours on Saturday, like, what we could do.

LUSE: But that also speaks to the role of the hairstylist.

DAVIS: All power to the hairstylist.

LUSE: Oh, my gosh, yes. A sacred relationship. I believe when Tracee...

DAVIS: That's right.

LUSE: ...And Oprah were talking...

DAVIS: Yeah.

LUSE: ...And I got chills saying it right now. I've had the same hair stylist for 10 years. That is an anniversary that I hold dear, up with my own birthday, when I met my husband.

DAVIS: That's right. That's - Jessica Cruel, the editor-in-chief of Allure, was saying that. Like...

LUSE: Right.

DAVIS: ...You know, the - your hairstylist is often the first person that learns that you have cancer or you're getting a divorce, or you're getting married or all these big moments in your life. Like, it is, you know, an incredible relationship.

LUSE: I've seen a huge increase in visibility and acceptance, socially, of Black women's hair, like, socio-culturally. But socio-politically, we're still having to fight for things like the CROWN Act. It feels like you - Black women's hair is still in such a vulnerable place. Like, how did we really get to that point?

DAVIS: Well, you know, the thing is it - because it still is Black women's liberation because that's what we're talking about. We're talking about freedom. And we're talking about freedom to exist. And we're talking about freedom to take up space. And we're talking about freedom to have agency and creativity. That's the tension, Brittany. That's the resistance. No one expected us to even survive, let alone be emancipated and be...

LUSE: Right.

DAVIS: ...Self-emancipated, right? And so our hair just is this reminder of our beauty, our identity, our humanity, our power, our persistence, our resilience. You know, our hair held our history. Our hair would tell you what tribe we're from, whether you're married. Sometimes, I go on Instagram, and I look at these braided styles, and I can't even believe it. All these little girls with these little hearts braided in their head. Like, you know, it's so easy to do now. And I'm like, look. They're just telling you they love themselves, or they're trying.

LUSE: Michaela Angela, this is fantastic. Thank you for coming on the show today. I had a great time.

DAVIS: Thanks so much - appreciate you.

LUSE: That was Michaela Angela Davis. Her documentary series, called "Hair Tales," is on Hulu.

Before I go, I have a quick request. IBAM is working on a story about scammers, and we want to hear from you. So if you've ever been the victim of a Zelle or Bitcoin scam, text or phone call phishing or had an account hacked, we want to hear your story. Did you report it to your bank or company? How did they respond? Record your story using your voice memos and email it to ibam@npr.org That's ibam@npr.org.

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LUSE: All right. That's our show for today. I'm Brittany Luse. See you next week for another episode of IT'S BEEN A MINUTE, from NPR.


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