The 101st Question

In a previous post I mentioned the many, failed attempts by my mom and her friends and her friends' mothers to marry me off to "eligible Nigerian bachelors" (it takes a village).  During that time my mom also gave me the gift that keeps on giving, the infamous 100 Things to Know When Dating poster, well-known among my friends and past roommates, and affectionally referred to as "100 Ways To Kill Romance" by my husband.
The poster, a 26 x 20, laminated wall chart was literally a list of 100 categorized questions, most of them tied to a particular scripture from the Christian Bible, that covered everything from:

The basic: "Does this person have a criminal record?"

To the very practical:  "How does he/she drive? Courteous? Hostile? Takes chances? Risks others lives? Laughs at your fear?"

To the deep"Does he/she hold you down and tickle you when it is no longer fun?"  

Now, how I missed Jesus' parable on tickling I do not know.  I must have been sick the morning they covered that in Sunday school.

My mommy is the funniest person I know (all four feet and eleven inches of her), so at the time I just chalked it up as another one of her well-meaning antics.  When she gave me the poster, at first I probably just laughed.  But then I probably thought, "Ooookaaaaay, so what am I supposed to do with this?!"  I couldn't just throw it away (I inherited the "pack-rate gene" from my dad) but there was no way I was putting it up in my bedroom.  At the time I was sharing a house in North Carolina with my two roommates, also single, and we agreed that the poster deserved a space on the back hallway, near the entrances of our three bedrooms.  Over the next several days, weeks, and months, the poster became a "relationship water-cooler" of sorts.  Every now and again, the three of us would find ourselves meeting up "at the poster" to reflect on a date gone wrong, give each other the third degree about about "the new guy" or reflect on how our own backgrounds effected the dynamics of our relationships.  Even people who didn't live with us knew about "the poster"-- it became quite a hit.  My mom is also the wisest person I know and in hindsight I can appreciate how even an imperfect, simple gift can start meaningful and thoughtful dialogue.

But one question the poster failed to anticipate came up a few months ago when I shouted it to my husband after returning home from trip to the hair salon: "ARE YOU PREPARED TO TAKE YOUR SON TO A BLACK BARBERSHOP?!" 

Let me explain.

I respectfully and humbly disagree with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s statement that 11:00 am on Sunday morning is "the most segregated hour in this nation" (referring to his observation that "the church is still the most segregated institution in America").  The most segregated hours in America are the ones we spend every month (or for some of us, every week), receiving professional hair care.  Personally, I think that any hair stylist worth their weight should know how to style any texture of hair.  But, sadly, by and large, this isn't the case.  And it's not just about non-black stylists who can't style textures of hair different from their own, because I have witnessed (in horror) as a black stylist proceeded to spray oil sheen on the hair of a white customer with fine-textured hair (yes, OIL SHEEN), after insisting profusely that she knew what she was doing.

But over the last few years I've noticed an interested trend in my local hair salon (where the vast majority of the clientele and staff identify as black women): more white women bringing in their black and brown children to get their hair done.  And what caught my attention wasn't the difference in the appearance of the mothers and their children, but the difference in how they interacted with the salon or more accurately, the lack thereof.  I watched as some of these mothers simply dropped off their daughters without so much as a word acknowledging a room full of women, or brought in their child without going into the styling area to meet the stylist; choosing instead to remain in the waiting room, sitting restlessly in a chair, not reading one magazine, not saying a word, looking visibly uncomfortable.

I found the whole scene to be a bit disturbing.  I almost wanted to sit by one of these women, hold her hand, and say "It's gonna be okay."  But after talking about the subject with my hairdresser, I realized this: like a country club, a temple, or a mens locker room, the black hair salon is a cultural space with its own set of social norms and behavioral expectations.  And if one isn't familiar with a particular cultural context, insecurity and self-consciousness could become by-products of the new experience.  I compare it to the first time I visited a mosque.  Even though I was going directly from the entrance to a meeting room upstairs, the people milling about, preparing for evening prayer heightened my sensitivity toward not wearing, saying, or doing "the wrong thing."  So while I was looking all sad and somber and nervous and uncomfortable, trying to be as non-offensive as possible, my Muslim colleagues (who hosted the meeting) laughed, joked and conversed in a space they'd long grown accustomed to as a central part of their social world.

I also realized how hair can be about so much more than just a grooming practice, particularly when it's a vehicle for transmitting tradition, culture and identity.  As a child, my mom and I had our weekly "Sunday night hair ritual" which consisted of my mom washing my hair in the bathtub or kitchen sink, me screaming about the soap getting into my eyes, then me sitting on the floor picking out which of the plastic barrettes I wanted to wear that week while she put my hair in cornrow or large plaits (I always wanted the beads with foil at the end but she never let me do the beads!). And while I've never thought twice about sharing these kind of experiences with my own daughters, after witnessing some the racial dynamics at my salon, I thought about how this might play out in another cultural space: the Black barbershop (not the be confused with the Italian or Dominican barbershop).  What about my sons?!  

And who better to vent my feelings to than my husband?

Me: (storming into a room, rudely interrupting hubs from whatever he was doing because surely it can't be more important than what I have to say): "ARE YOU PREPARED TO TAKE YOUR SON TO A BLACK BARBERSHOP?!  Because you CANNOT take him to your stylist!"

Hubs: (not even bothering to look up from what he was doing):  "Uh, yeah."

Me: "Oh. Okay.  Well, good then!" (storming out of the room)

But I wonder...what if he'd said "No"?


  1. *Reposting this comment. Accidentally hit "delete" instead of "publish." MY BAD! - Tinu

    I go to a white hair stylist, I recommended to her by a black woman I know whose daughter has her hair done there. I was suspect at first, I really was. But when I got there, she knew what she doing and I was like 'you are a genuis, b/c you've cornered both the hair maintenance markets' she does everything, relaxer, naturals, style, cut, weave, everything. She ain't hurting for business either. Best part is, I'm sorry for saying this, it's not like the black salons I've been too, where the stylist is late b/c she doing too much hair, everybody standing around gossiping whiles she tries to do my hair, ppl bad kids running around, the shop in shambles, they change the prices all the time b/c that night they're going to the club. I'm sorry that salon is professional, immaculate, not a bunch junk at her station, nice art on the wall, she's always on time (which is important to me) and the prices are consistent. Sorry to take my business elsewhere black stylist but my money speaks louder.

  2. @Flaming
    LOL! Too funny. Thanks for sharing that experience. I'm sure like in every profession, there are parts of the job you enjoy more than others, but I completely agree with you, having a wide-ranging skill set as a stylist can't hurt either!
    Since we've moved, I'm in the process of settling in on a new stylist after having the same amazing stylist who I completely trust for the last 4 YEARS (I mean I've seen her more over the last 4 years than my parents and siblings!). PAINFUL!

  3. Dang. I'm at this point myself. My 2 year old son's hair is starting to get long and his hair has that kinky/curly quality to it that is soft, yet very coily. It's more like mine than my husband's hair and now I'm at the point where I need to give him his very first haircut. Mind you, I don't want to take off all of his hair, I'd like it clean on the sides and a little longer on the top, but I'm afraid to take him to a mainstream salon because I know that they probably don't know what to do with his hair so it's off to the black barber for us. My husband thinks he can do it, but I'm not up for the experiment considers his haircut it basically, just shaving all his hair off.

  4. @Browncow
    Lol. Well even if you did let your husband experiment, I'm sure a 2 year old can pull it off. And you know if will definitely grow back, lol.
    Yeah, at one point I did think "I can just avoid this entire conversation completely by just learning how to cut hair," but at some point a child becomes an adult and has to learn how to get his/her own hair done.