“How’s mom?” one stylist asks as she settles her client into the chair, draping a black smock over her. The stylist invokes a collective mother, not your mom or my mom, but a mom where the our is silent.
The air is misty with the blow dryers’ smoky clouds. It smells like fruits and oils, like suds and sheen.
I am visiting The Curly Hair Salon for my friend Monique’s biannual “curly cut.” As Susie Baez washes Monique’s hair, I sit in the empty seat beside them. Susie says that the salon’s location in Fair Haven, within the smells and rhythms of New Haven’s little Puerto Rico, feels like home.
In the way that stories so often told become a memory, I somehow remember sitting propped in a portable car seat opposite my mom in her salon chair. It’s a story only a mother could tell: me, well-behaved, observant for about an hour until I wanted out, with all the women in the salon fighting over who could hold me. This was when we lived in Baltimore. The salon was around the corner from us, on University Place, when my mom still relaxed her hair, before that became a sort of sin.
In The Curly Hair Salon, you will find nary a flat iron or curling iron—G-d forbid any relaxers or texturizers, chemical treatments meant to smooth or straighten textured hair. Instead, the salon offers curly cuts, curly training, and curly styling, as well as color and various hair-health treatments like deep conditioners and protein treatments.
The salon, open since 2011, sustains itself with a steady stream of regulars and first-timers. It is a new type of salon, part of a movement that elevates natural hair as a means to self-love and empowerment.
Susie says her job is “healing.” Curly girls have trauma, she laments, whether with their hair or from the salon. Every year, from about the ages of 5 to 8, I asked to get my hair done for my birthday. No matter how many products my mom brought for the Hair Cuttery hairdresser to use, my haircut looked like a one-dimensional poof. But the following year, I’d ask to go back—even if the hairstylist pulled my hair while she detangled it and I was too shy to talk with her like my mom talked with her hairstylist Linda. I was happy to sit in the salon, to walk from the bowl to the chair with a smock around my neck, the droplets from my hair pattering against it—to feel, in that moment, a little more like my mom, like a woman.
Hair trauma can take many forms. For some children, it might look like bullying or familial othering. For others, it might stem from a mom or dad that doesn’t know what to do with their hair, leading them to get relaxers at an early age, inflicting permanent damage. And when your hair won’t fit under a swim cap or can’t be done in the style you wanted for prom, you receive the message early on that your hair is abnormal, unwanted, difficult. You start to think the only path to beauty is to manipulate the hair that naturally grows out of your head.
So for Susie, one of the most rewarding aspects of her job is when a client tells her, “Susie, that trick you gave me saved my life.”
In my seat next to Susie, light spurts of water leap out of the bowl, splashing me. With my hair in braids and not flat ironed (straight), I’m not worried about it getting wet. Today I let myself enjoy the odd sprinkler, as Susie tells me about her own hair trauma. Growing up in predominantly white neighborhoods and schools, she mostly straightened and relaxed her hair. In cosmetology school, she finally stopped. With the expertise of a hairdresser in training, Susie felt more confident than ever before in her ability to finally “figure out” her hair.
Still, cosmetology school offered Susie practically no training for curly hair. She turned to natural hair influencers on Instagram and YouTube, whose videos she watched almost religiously—“like everyone else.” Important to Susie’s increased confidence was a place to learn from people like her, people with naturalhair too.
Luvena, the salon’s owner, disclosed that the biggest secret to her hiring method is prayer, asking G-d to send her who she needs.
“I can teach you how to do hair,” Luvena explains, “but I can’t teach you to be kind, to care about people.”
The Curly Hair Salon is one of the three salons I visited in the Greater New Haven area. For generations, New Haven has sustained the tradition of the Black salon as a way of maintaining and uplifting the community amid urban trends like disinvestment, police violence, crime, and poverty. Hair salons are forced to reckon with the world—its prejudices, changes, and joys—both within the confines of the salon floor and in the neighborhood beyond it.
Roots of a Movement
Black hair styling has a long history, often tied up in expression, rebellion, and belonging.
The divide between natural and manipulated hair in the U.S. has its roots in chattel slavery, scholar Chanté Griffin writes, with enslaved women working in the fields covering their natural hair. Those working in plantation homes, though, sometimes styled their hair to mimic their enslavers, wearing wigs or manipulating their natural hair. In the era following emancipation, hair styling became a way to promote the Black respectability that leaders like DuBois and Washington espoused. Madam C.J. Walker, the first female African American millionaire, popularized a straightening comb and invented hair care products meant to “tame” Black hair.
The Civil Rights Movement and Black radical politics of the twentieth century brought with them a new push for natural hair. Popular leaders alongside celebrities—from Angela Davis to Michael Jackson—sported afros. As Marcus Garvey said, “Do not remove the kinks from your hair, remove them from your brain.” Natural hair in the nineteen-sixties and nineteen-seventies was a political statement, or as Griffin writes, a “sign of Black power and rebellion against white American beauty standards.”
In the nineteen-eighties and nineteen-nineties, assimilation came back to the forefront. Hair care ads marketed permed and pressed hair to Black women yet again. Still, images of popular celebrities like Janet Jackson wearing braids or cornrows proliferated.
In the late two-thousands and early two-thousand-tens, the national imagination seemed to be captivated to some extent with Black hair, particularly in its natural form. Popular films like Chris Rock’s Good Hair and Regina Kimbell’s My Nappy Roots: A Journey Through Black Hair-itage appeared on screens at the same time bloggers like Naptural85, Blackonyx77, and Patrice Yursik surfaced on people’s social media feeds. Videos like “My Natural Hair Routine,” “How to Get the Perfect Twistout,” and “The Best Deep Conditioners, Ranked” showed Black women talking about, styling, and experimenting with their natural hair. Soon, what had been a relatively invisible phenomenon became a sensation. YouTube, in a way, became a new type of salon, and YouTubers, a new type of hairstylist.
Beyond mere social media engagement, the natural hair movement rapidly turned into a booming industry. Before, hair care aisles at major stores were dominated by mainstream brands like Pantene or Garnier. One of the only Black hair brands available was Dark & Lovely, famous for at-home perm kits. Brands like SheaMoisture, Carol’s Daughter, and Miss Jessie’s have since entered the market in quick succession.
Now, natural hair products are at the helm of a burgeoning hair and beauty industry catered to women of color. Whereas chemical relaxers accounted for 60 percent of the textured hair category in 2009, as of 2020, 60 percent of this market, which has topped one billion dollars in revenue, belongs to products marketed towards the specific needs of natural hair. As journalist Aimee Simeon writes in Refinery29, “those numbers speak to the transformative power of the Black dollar.”
In New Haven, while some salons have maintained a commitment to hair straightening, others, like The Curly Hair Salon, have opened. Older ones, like Sharon Joy Salon have incorporated natural hair services—like locs, curly cuts, and natural silk presses—into their acumen.
No one can straighten hair like Dominicans can, according to Susie. When my family moved around during the first half of my life, Dominican salons became a reliable constant for my mom and me whenever we wanted that silky smooth look. The classic Dominican blowout: a shampoo and condition, rollers that make you look like a grandma, hair under the dryer for at least an hour, blowdryer, flat iron—heat, heat, heat. For some who wear their hair natural, this level of heat is too much, invoking memories of strands that will no longer curl after years of overprocessing and over-straightening. For me, I deep condition, I trim my ends; I’ve made my peace with this natural hair sin.
Odalis Hair Salon in Gaithersburg, Maryland has become one of my hair homes. The days before holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas are busiest, with dozens of clients coming in and out. Some are Dominican, many are African American. Bachata, salsa, and merengue play constantly, and I remember the stylists by those who sing and those who don’t; those who know the words, or not so much; the ones who sing songs that aren’t even playing.
When I’m there, I feel like a girl again, like I never stopped being one. The hairdressers call me “princesa” and “linda.” They tell me my hair is beautiful—that I have so much and it’s so long. They prod at my ethnicity, assuming I’m Latina, but rarely Dominican.
Facing the mirror, I could think about Ginetta E.B. Candelario’s assertion that hair and the salon were sites on which racial identity and Blackness were negotiated or negated in the Dominican context. I decide not to. It’s difficult to think about what their assumptions seek to deny. While their compliments sound like hugs and feel like kisses, I also know why they call my hair beautiful, why its length is a virtue. That knowledge threatens the innocent joy I feel sitting in their chairs.
What I can’t help but think about is good hair and bad hair, their jury, and all the girls whose hair never brought them this sort of joy.
Colorism and texturism—both modes of elevating Eurocentric features within communities of color—have always been present in conversations about Black hair, pervading salons, families and communities, spanning oceans, from the D.R. to the U.S. Put simply, the more kink, bad; the more straight, good.
The natural hair movement can be viewed as an attempt to intervene in this stratification, rejecting Eurocentric standards that praise straight hair as professional and frame naturally textured hair and hairstyles as unprofessional, ugly, and even immoral. But the movement has the potential to fall into texturist traps that valorize looser curls over others.
“What about the people who feel curly doesn’t describe their hair?” I ask.
“But that’s the thing,” Luvena says. She leans forward in her chair, as if to tell me a secret. “Their hair is curly, they just have to see it that way.” Even the tightest curls, what some would describe as kinky, have a curl pattern. Although she admits that some textures don’t curl, the ones that do are curly.
In the end, curly seems like a fair middle—it’s not the wavy hair salon or the tight curl salon. She adds a final word, “if you have curls of any kind, we’re the place.”
Sharon Joy Salon and Trachouse both grapple with the material limitations of the natural hair movement. People like my mom, who cut out relaxers and went natural, found that empowerment and hair “health” were no match for hair loss, whether due to chemotherapy, alopecia, or any other host of factors. How can you go natural when your hair simply won’t grow?
At Sharon Joy Salon, I talk to stylist Ranada Morrison. She’s currently in school to become a licensed trichologist, someone who studies diseases or problems related to the hair and scalp.
“After the pandemic, when we came back into the salon, I noticed that a lot of clients were suffering from hair loss,” Ranada tells me as she presses a client’s hair. She felt a responsibility to help them, but because it wasn’t something taught in cosmetology school, she enrolled in the Institute of Trichology Studies online.
Though she’s not fully done with her trichologist certification, she shows me a before and after photo of a client she’s helped. “She’s been suffering from alopecia for ten years,” she explained, “and I was able to help her in a few weeks.”
Renee Brown, the owner of Trachouse, specializes in hair loss through another medium: wigs. Every October, Trachouse hosts what they call the “Pink Project,” a day where breast cancer survivors will receive a makeup application, wig installation, and photoshoot with food and gifts, all provided for by the salon and its donors.
Wigs, which may seem at odds with the natural hair movement, can be understood as an extension of one of its central goals: choice. Both Sharon Joy Salon and Trachouse are looking for new ways to help their clients when those choices are limited.
My mom tried wigs, too, but decided they weren’t for her.
After the second round of chemo, her hair began to fall out. One night, we sat side-by-side on the couch, watching TV, when I noticed a clump of hair subtly distended from her scalp. It was in the process of falling.
For a moment, I forgot there was an obvious cause and asked “what’s that?”
As my mom pulled that piece out, the hair offering no resistance, we couldn’t help but remember. She was calm; I pretended to be. I’d done my mom’s hair before—I liked to do hair, and it saved money. My mom wasn’t too particular about those things. I’d cut her bangs, styled it when it was curly and natural, and given her twist outs.
I sprang into action. I told her I’d give her a short haircut, cute yet modern, like ones she’d had before. I got the scissors and a comb and carried a dining room chair into the living room for her to sit.
I had to comb to cut, but as I combed, the hair kept coming. It was unexpected. I didn’t imagine she’d lose this much, this soon. I was trying to stop the bleed.
We went upstairs to wash her hair in the tub. She sat, kneeling over the tub, her head under the faucet—the way I had so many times before—and I kneeled behind her, the same way she would. I lathered shampoo in her hair and scrubbed, and the hair kept falling. Now, the water bound it to my hands.
How was there so little when there had been so much?
I wasn’t able to be strong anymore, to keep up the problem-solving nonchalant charade, even for her. Was I standing or sitting when the tears came? It’s all awash. Even though it was her hair and her battle, it was my mom who held me in that moment, and told me that it was okay. That is was “just hair.”
In the world of Black hair, it can feel impossible to extricate oneself from a painful past of denigration and dehumanization. Efforts to empower women and Black people—to uphold the right to choose what to do with your hair—are complicated by the implication each style carries.
As Monique sits under the dryer, her curly hair cutting session almost complete, a teenage boy walks into the salon, still dressed in his school uniform. When he expresses doubt that he’s in the right place, I remember what Susie said about trauma that she and other curly girls experience, and I think about the boys, too, about everyone. A member of the The Curly Hair Salon team assures him that he’s arrived. He admits he has never had a curly cut or styling before. Soon, he’s grinning as the hairdresser shapes and defines his fro.
The Curly Hair Salon, like those around it, exists as a contradiction, intervention, remembrance, and stagnation at once. The ever-growing salon industry in New Haven suggests that there is something complementary about these contradictions, something inherent about them to these practices. Or it suggests, as Renee said, that “people will always want to get cute.”
—Viola Clune is a junior in Ezra Stiles College and an Associate Editor of The New Journal.