Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the politics of Black women’s beauty. To be more specific, I’ve been thinking about the politics of Black women’s hair. But I don’t want to engage in a discussion about the sociopolitical dimensions of the Natural Hair Movement. Nuanced conversations on that topic are (and have been) occurring in numerous places…
What I want to talk about are the sacred spaces that have revolved around Black women’s hair. I want to talk about Black beauty shops. These places are complicated sites for not all salon experiences can be recalled fondly. However, there is a culture, a vibrancy, and a rhythm to Black hair salons that I’ve yet to find in any other space. Let me share a story.
Auntie Kourtney and I used to go to Rhonica’s on Saturday mornings. Once a month, my mom would wake me up around a quarter to seven, get me dressed, and fix me a glass of milk and a plate of buttered toast. Dressed in a black Baby Phat velour sweatsuit (or something like it), Auntie Kourtney would join us in the kitchen, make herself a cup of coffee, and call Rhonica to let her know that we were on our way.
The salon was located on the third or fourth floor of an oddly shaped building. I remember running up multiple flights of stairs and sharply turning corners to reach the bright orange door. As I stood outside the door, I could hear the melange of laughter, blow dryers, and 92.3 The Beat.
Entering the salon always incited conflicting emotions. On one hand, I couldn’t wait to get into Rhonica’s chair. I loved the end result of the silk press, the long, stretched hair that bounced with every turn of the head. Yet, I feared the excessive heat of the hot comb. Every time the comb came near my scalp, I would suck in my breath, hunch my shoulders, and hope that the burn quickly faded. Rhonica usually had the same response to my anxiety: “Relax, baby girl.” I used to wonder whether or not she realized that she used stove top hot combs. Ain’t no relaxin’ to be had when one of those is on top of your skin….
Rhonica always started with Auntie Kourtney because my aunt’s hair coloring would take longer than my press and curl. While I waited, I would watch the other stylists work. Nearly all of the clients were women, and there was only one male beautician. His name was Devon. I loved watching him work because he was so swift; he would have people in and out of his chair in no time.
Devon’s boyfriend would occasionally come into the salon to have his new growth locked. Once, I looked on as Devon and his boyfriend gazed at each other through the mirror above Devon’s station. Devon stopped working for a moment and placed his hands on his man’s shoulders. Devon’s boyfriend grabbed one of Devon’s hands, intertwined their fingers, and rested their joined hands on his chest.
Lisa, another stylist, started every conversation with, “Girl, lemme tell you…” To borrow language from my mama, Lisa was in the know. She knew what was happening, when it was happening, and where everything was going down. Lisa was the personal hairstylist for Snoop Dogg’s wife, Shante. Or so she said–I never saw Shante at the salon… Lisa would tell you who left with whom after big parties or galas, who was temporally on the outs with whom, and who was (indefinitely) no longer speaking to whom. My auntie trusted information from Lisa far more than she trusted entertainment news. However, if you wanted to get good gossip from Lisa, you had to give up some information of your own. Good talk was neither free nor cheap.
Then there was Audrey, the petite woman from Belize. She would occasionally bring a caramel cake to work. She always offered me a slice, but Auntie Kourtney would decline on my behalf before I was able to respond. But, when Auntie Kourtney wasn’t paying attention, Audrey would wink and lay a slice of cake on my lap.
Audrey tended to remain quiet. Had it not been for her phone conversations, I would have assumed she was a shy, reserved person. Whenever her phone rang, she would spend half an hour to an hour speaking rapidly in Kriol. Her eyes lit up, her tone changed, and she used body language to complement her speech. She snapped her fingers, propped her hands on her hips, flipped her hair, and tapped her hand against her thighs. I always thought that the person on the other end of the line only got half of the story. There were conversations embedded in Audrey’s physical expressions alone.
Eventually, I would have my time in Rhonica’s chair. From the chair, Rhonica and I made it to the sink. From the sink, back to the chair. Rhonica would ask me about school as she massaged deep conditioner from my roots to my tips. Then I was off to sit under the dryer where I people watched once again. Often, the dryer shut off before Rhonica was ready to blow out my hair. I would lift up the hood and wait. A man who sold DVDs made his way in. Auntie Kourtney would ask him how much he charged, but she never bought any of his movies. The guy who sold bootlegs at the Shell gas station on Crenshaw had better pricing, she insisted. Then there was the man who had Louis Vuitton bags. I wanted one desperately, but Auntie Kourtney said that we could go Downtown and find better deals. Immediately after she said this, she usually added an addendum: “But those fall apart so quick. You wanna buy a real one from Neiman Marcus instead. Wait until you’re older and you can afford to get one.” Late in the morning, the man with soul food lunches appeared. He sold mac n cheese, collard greens, black-eyed peas, fried chicken, barbecue ribs, peach cobbler, sweet potato pie, and pecan pie. Auntie Kourtney never ordered food from him though. “Grandpa will cook all that on Sunday,” she used to say.
At some point, Rhonica would call me back to her stall. She pressed my hair while I cried. I tried not to show how uncomfortable I was, how much I hated the sting, how much I hated the slight sizzle, how much I hated grabbing onto my ear. “You better get used to it, because you’ll have to be getting your hair done for the rest of your life, baby girl,” Rhonica would chime. So I prayed that the powers that be would speed up the process. My prayers went unanswered.
Rhonica would tap my shoulder when she finished and gesture for me to look in the mirror. My hair was poppin’ and fresh. It was fried (literally), dyed (not actually), laid to the side (but actually), and I loved it. “Do you like it?” Rhonica would ask. “She loves it. Look at how her fingers are all up in it,” Auntie Kourtney responded as she grasped my hand and removed my hand from my hair. Rhonica hugged me, and the other stylists would wave as my aunt and I headed out. We always left about four hours after arriving.
To my dismay, Auntie Kourtney and I stopped going to Rhonica’s. Rhonica had gotten engaged and moved back home to Houston. We started going to another salon on LaBrea, but this one was in Inglewood. The woman who ran it was the daughter of my grandmother’s former beautician. She did a pretty good press, but she wasn’t Rhonica. Then I started going to the beauty shop with my mother. We went to a salon on King that stayed busy. The woman who did our hair was friendly, but she wasn’t Rhonica…
As the prices of a press and curl steadily rose across Black beauty shops in L.A., the beauty schools on Crenshaw became the most economical options. I hated them. You could never count on getting the same student, the wait usually took hours, and skills varied immensely across trainees. You never knew how decent–or indecent–your hair would turn out.
When I was in high school, I frequented a salon in Culver City. The black woman who owned it, however, wanted to attract a “diverse” clientele. “I don’t want this to just be a ’round the way Black beauty shop. I want this to be a full-service hair salon.” Needless to say, she was no Rhonica, and the experience I had at her salon didn’t even merit comparison.
When I left home for college, I traveled across the country to New Jersey. Most black women in the Northeast, I quickly realized, frequented Dominican salons. No press and curl services here: relaxers and blow outs only. I regularly visited a salon called Maribel’s in New Brunswick. I always wondered if the Dominican women who came into the salon found Maribel’s to be their Rhonica’s. They would chat animatedly with the stylists, sharing what I imagined were the kinds of stories about relationships, children, work, life, politics, family, and popular culture that I would hear at Rhonica’s. But I didn’t speak Spanish. I quietly sat in the chair and only spoke when asked questions about where I wanted my hair parted and how I wanted my hair curled.
These days I rarely straighten my hair. I keep it in box braids or flat twists and occasionally let it out in a fro or twist out if the weather is kind enough to permit it. But I’ve been thinking a great deal about Rhonica’s. I don’t miss the sting of the hot comb, and I definitely don’t miss the pressure of straightening Black hair in order to achieve an ideal form of white beauty. But I miss that space. Now that I’m older, I realize that Black beauty shops reveal a great deal about the interior lives of Black women. The actual act of getting one’s hair done is merely one aspect of what occurs inside a salon. At the beauty shop, you get the low-down on everybody, and you air a little dirty laundry of your own. You form new bonds and strengthen existing relationships. But you also lose some relationships in those spaces as well. You share stories and give unsolicited advice. If you listen closely, you may gain some invaluable advice too. You observe and read the atmosphere around you. Those observations are often more telling than some of the actual conversations you have. Black hair salons–be they beauty shops or barber shops–are robust sites for understanding the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality.
And so I often think about Rhonica’s. I think about the various layers and complexities of that salon, both the joyful and the problematic, and wonder what is it that makes beauty shops so different from other Black social spaces. I haven’t figured it out yet, but I think that Black salons are worthy of careful reflection. They aren’t the only spaces that provide insight into Black culture, but they open up what I find to be important dimensions of Black life. And like visits to the beauty shop, Black life is beautifully messy, painful, and wonderful.
Update: Since I published this piece, I’ve been asked how one pronounces Rhonica’s name. It’s not Veronica minus the first syllable; it’s Row-NEE-kah. If you pronounce it correctly, it rhymes with Tamika 🙂