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Shop Talk: Politics of the Black Beauty Shop

by A. Nora Long

Community center, information station, haven; beauty shops in the African-American community have always been more than a place to get your hair done. One of the few businesses dominated by black women, the black beauty shop proved Depression-proof and weathered wars only to falter with the growing popularity of natural hair starting in the 1960s, and yet still survives.

As Tiffany Gill explores in her book Beauty Shop Politics, “the irony that an industry based on the seemingly apolitical or even counter-political practice of beautification provided a fruitful and important base for black women to launch some of their most significant agitations for social and political change.”

Edith Colvin Bradley (right) and an unknown woman in the 1940s. Via: https://lowndeslibarchives.wordpress.com/2012/02/

At the beginning of the twentieth century, a handful of black women across the country started their own mail-order or door-to-door beauty businesses, selling pomades and hair growers. The working conditions, diet, and hair care of black women domestics and field laborers often resulted in hair loss. These beauty entrepreneurs packaged traditional folk remedies to repair hair and allow black women to mimic the popular hair styles of white women of the day. The two most famous pioneers of the industry, Annie Turnbo Malone and Madame C.J. Walker took beauty culture further, by not only expanding their product lines for national distribution, but starting beauty schools to teach other black women how to implement their patented hair systems, allowing them in turn to start their own businesses.

“As African American women emerged from slavery, the relationship between hair care and black women’s social and political identities became even more significant, as beauty culture emerged as an industry in the early twentieth century, black women’s hair became an even more contested arena,” writes Gill.

Walker and Malone were very careful to avoid the term “straightening” in their marketing and packaging. “Right here let me correct the erroneous impression held by some that I claim to straighten hair,” Walker said in an interview.

A advertisement for Madame C.J. Walker’s hair products. Via: https://lowndeslibarchives.wordpress.com/2012/02/

“I grow hair. I want the great masses of my people to take a greater pride in their personal appearance and to give their hair proper attention. I deplore such an impression because I have always held myself out as a hair culturist,” said Walker.

Straightening or “pressing” was at the heart of the salon experience for many decades whether through a combination of heated metal combs and hot oil or harsh chemical treatments. When Miss Mary asks, “who’s ready to get burnt?” she is not just speaking metaphorically. The nature of a process that breaks down the hair’s natural bonds is one of many reasons an increasing number of black women are embracing natural hair. Cassandra Jackson in an article for the Huffington Post, wrestles with the conundrum of being happy with her natural hair and yet nostalgic for the beauty shop scene of her youth.

“My mother whose hair is chemically straightened goes to the beauty shop every two weeks for a couple of hours,” Jackson writes. “She comes home smelling of oil sheen spray and full of news. She knows everything, from the platform of candidates for the school board, to the proposed sight [sic] for the new grocery store, to who was admitted to the hospital last night.”

Charmettes’ Women’s Club. Lee Suarez (center seated), was president. Circa 1940’s. Via: https://fstblog.files.wordpress.com/2014/01/women-s-club-pdf-page-0011.jpg

Historically, as today, black beauty shops were centers of information and activism, whether as mobilizers for Dr. King in the 1950s or Marcus Garvey in the 1930s, the financial independence the industry built primarily by and for black women offered a greater freedom of political activism “beyond the reproach of those antagonistic to racial uplift and civil rights work,” notes Gill. As Walker said, “I am a woman that came from the cotton fields of the South; I was promoted from there to the wash-tub; then I was promoted by the cook kitchen, and from there I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations.”

A. Nora Long is the associate artistic director at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston.

Lyric Stage Company of Boston presents: Saturday Night/Sunday Morning, by Katori Hall, directed by Dawn M. Simmons. On stage Oct. 28 — Nov. 21 2015. Tickets at: https://tickets.lyricstage.com/

Note on the text: “Certain terms used by these writers no longer carry the connotation they did during the war period. The use of colored or Negro to signify African Americans, for example, was acceptable at the time, but not today. Jim Crow was a common reference to segregation, but it too has fallen out of the lexicon. The term was taken from a nineteenth-century white minstrel character in blackface who danced, sang, and made jokes about African American culture in demeaning ways.” from Maureen Honey’s Bitter Fruit: African American Women in World War II.

Additional Sources:
Pageants, Parlors, & Pretty Women: Race and Beauty in the Twentieth-Century South, by Blain Roberts.
Beauty Shop Politics by Tiffany M. Gill.
Ain’t I a Beauty Queen? Black Women, Beauty, and the Politics of Race by Maxine Leeds Craig.
“Is Natural Hair the End of Black Beauty Culture?” Cassandra Jackson for the Huffington Post.

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