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Black History Month: An Ode to the Black Hair Salon – The original safe space for Black Women

Going to the salon with my Mum was such a treat as a young Black girl growing up in south-east London during the ‘80s. While I wasn’t able to enjoy the experience of getting my hair done personally because my mum was adamant that my natural hair would remain free from chemicals at least until my teen years, and in her mind, that was the sole purpose for going to the salon. Nonetheless, even attending as an onlooker was so fascinating and affirming that it has left an indelible mark on my life and helped to shape the woman I have become.

Just writing this article conjures memories of sweet-scented oil sheens, the scorching smell of hot iron combs coming into contact with coily Afro hair, or the sharp, distinctive chemical scent of relaxers.  As the cultural landscape continues to shift, going to the Afro hair salon isn’t an integral part of the Black female experience as it was during previous decades due to the increasing popularity of home-based styling options like wigs, weaves, and hair extensions. So with that said, I feel duty-bound to honour the role that the Black hair salon has played culturally speaking.

Women were able to converge and share common experiences

The Afro hair salon has always been a sacred space for Black women to come together and share their life experiences. I recall when my Mum would sit in the salon chair during her appointments, I could feel her burdens dissipate almost instantly. For hours she would be in deep conversation with her stylist, and would also interject in the conversations floating around on the salon floor, which would invariably be centred on ‘big woman’ issues such as parenting, relationships, racism, politics and other hotbed social topics. Years later when I became a young adult and started attending the salon on my own, history would indeed repeat itself. I developed an awesome relationship with my hairstylist Michelle who not only entertained every hairstyle I asked for – the short asymmetric bob with blonde lengths a la T-Boz from TLC, finger waves, a gel glazed bouffant, Shirley Temple curls to name a few questionable choices. But she also supported me as I ticked off the milestones associated with adulthood like obtaining a degree, moving into my own apartment and becoming a mum.

It wouldn’t be unusual for women to spend in excess of five hours for one appointment.  It became an unwritten rule that if you were attending the salon, then expect to spend most of your day inside the establishment

Black beauty was affirmed in every corner

As the former editor of a hair magazine, I’ve tried out my fair range of hair salons – from high-end establishments based in the most exclusive London locations, to shabby chic spots located on bustling high streets. I think back to the times when I visited salons where there weren’t any Black hairstylists. It was almost a guarantee that at some point during my appointment there would be an awkward verbal exchange between me and the stylist assigned to do my hair. While they’d be trying their damndest to comb and detangle my tightly coiled Afro, I’d have to be lightly giving instructions on how to style my hair, while inwardly feeling demoralised and insecure in the process. With Afro salons, you don’t have to worry about such things. Our hair is the default. The standard.  Black hair in all its diversity is normalised, and it doesn’t matter what condition your hair is when you sit in the chair  – your stylist has most likely seen it all and won’t bat an eyelid. Furthermore, Afro-hair salons are shrines to Black beauty whether intentionally or not. It was the first place I could recall as a child seeing images of beautiful Black women covering the salon walls, or in shiny ads placed within glossy magazines like Blackhair, Black Beauty & Hair, Hype Hair and Pride magazine.

It’s the one place where Black women could switch off and dedicate sacred hours to themselves

The Afro hair salon is traditionally known as being a space where time literally stands still. Due to the length of time it used to take to style Afro-textured hair, and the popularity of these sacred spaces during its heyday, it wouldn’t be unusual for women to spend in excess of five hours for one appointment. It became an unwritten rule that if you were attending the salon, then expect to spend most of your day inside the establishment. Now that I’ve become a mum I use my ‘salon visit days’ as part of my self-care regimen. I usually go armed with books, magazines, and snacks and switch off from the outside world for those precious few hours. Although the days of spending your entire Saturday are a thing of the past (if you are still doing so in 2022, maybe it’s time to look for a new stylist). It’s still a place I look forward to visiting and enjoy attending as a busy working mum when I’m in need of that all-important ‘me time’.

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