Black Beauty Back In The Day: What I Learned about Jheri Curls From The Grown-Ups and Interracial Marriage From A Five-Year-Old

16 Apr

After my first year in college in Boston, (see my short memoir piece, What I Did For An “A”), I dropped out because I didn’t like the school, and I didn’t know what I wanted to major in.  In the fall of 1980, I returned to Boston to attend the esthetician school, Elizabeth Grady Face First.   Right after I finished the six-month course on facials and make-up artistry, I was lucky to land a job at my boyfriend’s friend’s uncle’s salon.  Now, that’s a mouthful.

Danny’s His and Her’s, was a black-owned salon, situated on Mass Avenue, among a strip of retail businesses, across from the beautiful grounds of Boston’s Christian Science Church. It was close to the border of Roxbury, a black urban neighborhood, yet not far from the more  white, upscale neighborhood of the Back Bay.  Danny’s represented a wide cross section of black Boston—with a clientele of upper class, white collar workers, blue collar workers and every one in between.

I can still remember the first time I entered the salon, as a young, nineteen year-old girl.  My senses were bombarded with activity from all directions–from the sounds of the familiar radio DJ, who announced through speakers, This is W-I-L-D…Boston’s soul station, to nose-tickling spritzes of hairspray, to what would become the familiar scent of jheri-curl perm solution.

Straight ahead from the entry was a circular beauty station with four lighted mirrors joined to their counter spaces and red padded salon chairs set in front of each one. To the right against the painted concrete wall was a bank of four more stations and the back wall contained four more. And, on the left hand wall were four hair-washing sinks and reclining chairs.  Every station was full. Hairdressers and customers engaged in lively conversation.  I was a white face in a sea of mostly black faces, except for the extremely tall, bleached blond punker hairdresser, and the male hairdresser next to her who I had thought was Hispanic, but later found out was Ethiopian.

At the salon back then, the debate to wear one’s hair “natural” like the amazing afros many of my classmates sported just a few years back in high school, seemed to be edged out in favor of straightening hair, by any means necessary.  There were a few women hairdressers, the old guard, that specialized in press and curl, which used a hot metal comb to straighten hair.  The more modern women and men customers seemed to prefer hair relaxer, a harsh chemical cream that broke down the protein structure of the hair to straighten it.  I remember far too many a client with relaxer “cooking” in their hair, close to screaming because of the burning sensation they felt on their scalp as they waited out the ten or so minutes it needed to be left on the hair before rinsing.  Once straight, many women seemed to favor a Farrah Fawcett feather-styled do.

Finally, there was the break-through jheri-curl, sported by both women and men, that required a relaxer first and then a perm solution which resulted in small, all-over corkscrew ringlets.  I can still remember customer after customer with glistening heads of curls, stepping out of their salon chairs, smiling at how fresh they looked sporting the latest trend in black hair styles.

I was treated well by the other hairdressers, but every now and then I’d sense racial tension at my presence from some of the customers.  This was  the early 1980’s and Boston still had a reputation for racism, and there was a strong divide between black and white Boston.   

While I worked on building up my own clients, I also assisted with running the receptionist desk.   And even though I wasn’t a hairdresser, I, and the other new girl, Kim–young, shy and naive, like me, had to shampoo hair and sweep hair up from the floor, when needed.

One day while sitting in the back waiting area of the salon, Kim and I entertained an awfully cute and precocious black boy who was about five years old. His mother was getting her hair done.

I was playing a pretend game of backgammon with the boy, when one of the other hairdressers teased my little opponent.

“Do you like Wendy?” she asked.

“No,” he said.

“Why not, you guys seem like you’re having fun playing,” she continued.

“Because, my mother told me to never marry a white woman.”

I laughed and felt wounded all at once. I think I remember the other hairdresser and Kim laughing too, but I didn’t feel it was at me, but at the boy’s boldness. I’d like to think, as I look back, that we all wondered how someone so young was already taught about divisions not to cross.

There was much more I experienced by being white and in the minority in a workplace, and in a place and time where race relations between whites and blacks could be tense.  As white people, we usually don’t experience being the only white person in a business setting –it’s much more often the other way around.  This is just one story, and so, if you’re interested,  I’ll have to mine my memory for more.

11 Responses to “Black Beauty Back In The Day: What I Learned about Jheri Curls From The Grown-Ups and Interracial Marriage From A Five-Year-Old”

  1. Myrna Griffith April 16, 2012 at 8:09 am #

    Good one, Wendy. You know these stories are my favorite.

    • Wendy Jane April 16, 2012 at 5:21 pm #

      Thanks, Myrna!

  2. Susan April 17, 2012 at 3:27 pm #

    My parents told us the only black men we’d be allowed to marry were Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier. I think part of it was they liked saying Poitier. It made them feel vaguely French. And Belafonte sang some Yiddish songs, so that put him in the marriage arena as well. The anecdote you tell here is wonderful for how expected and yet unexpected the boy’s comment is. I for one would love to hear more memories from your experience at the salon.

    • Wendy Jane April 17, 2012 at 7:09 pm #

      Thanks so much for sharing your memories about the two eligible black men you’d be allowed to marry. I remember my mother and my best friend’s mother both had crushes on Harry Belafonte. Harry and Sidney seemed to be the acceptable, non-threatening black men that white audiences could allow themselves to enjoy, and imagine being friends or having as boyfriends during that era.

      Thanks, too, for your kind words about the anecdote. I will have to dig up some more salon stories, then.

  3. Shelby April 18, 2012 at 8:45 am #

    Great story Wendy!! I felt like I was there with you, sweeping up hair off the floor, lol. Really, I never knew you did makeup and stuff, interesting!

    • Wendy Jane April 18, 2012 at 9:05 am #

      Thanks, Shelby–I know–it feels like a lifetime ago–almost like that was another person….I ended up not doing it for too long–I was too shy to build a clientele:)

  4. Ellen April 19, 2012 at 11:01 am #

    Wonderful piece, Wendy. It’s scary when you think about how much influence parents have over their children. I’m guilty too, being a parent, but the older my daughter gets the more I find myself saying, “So, what do you think?” That little boy hopefully found his own way and formed his own opinion on white women and everything else.

    Also wanted to say that I read everything you write on your blog and have enjoyed it all, but don’t always comment. But I’m here!

    • Wendy Jane April 19, 2012 at 8:47 pm #

      Thanks so much, Ellen. It is scary, and yet, the time period it was said in, and the place, had so much to do with it. I hope I ask “so, what do you think?” enough as my girls grow up. And, yeah, who knows, maybe that little boy ended up marrying the white women his mother told him not to.:) Thanks so much for your support!

  5. Brown Cowgirl October 12, 2013 at 9:13 pm #

    Hi Wendy,

    I was brought to your blog through a link on The Root to your piece about “Black Twitter.” I really like the description of your blog “…my quest to connect across color lines.”

    As a black woman I fight myself daily not to be dismissive, condescending, or plain unfair in my assessment of white folks and their thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and beliefs about race. I’m not confrontational or mean or perennially irritable, so I’m just talking about controlling my thoughts. I try to let whatever “insider” status I may have as a black person remind me that there is plenty I don’t “get” and don’t even know I don’t get about what it means to be Hispanic or Asian or Muslim or dark-skinned or white or famous or physically disabled or whatever. I also don’t like professed attempts to share, that are really dressed up versions of “you just don’t get it” beat downs, so it is in that spirit that I offer my thoughts.

    I appreciate your willingness to go near the third rail of race, to put yourself out there, and I’m enjoying your insights. I love that you did time in a black-owned salon (those chemical smells are killer). The one time I ventured to explain “the hair thing” to a white woman and didn’t feel like an alien afterward was in speaking with a co-worker. She had straight fine wispy hair but stopped my relaxer explanation dead saying, “I get it my mom’s got Jew Fro.” I’d never heard the term but more importantly I was surprised at how good it felt that someone who personally did not share the experience really got it.

    As for the little boy, his mother’s admonition may well have been purely prejudiced and ugly, I won’t deny that possibility. However, there also may have been another root to her seemingly closed-minded “stick with your kind” pronouncement. My mother who grew up in the segregated south in the 50s says that raising my brother and I in an all-white western suburb in the 80s was exceedingly difficult because she had to try to prepare us for the institutionalized racism she knew we would encounter and the lasting fear of black boys and men that would make stalking and shooting an unarmed black boy unworthy of a proper investigation and ultimately acceptable because “there had been burglaries” and “he seemed suspicious,” in an integrated environment where overt racism didn’t exist. The sentiment that “messing with white women will get you killed” was not simply about being in an environment where “racists” may take exception to your courtship, but it also spoke to a black boy/man potentially dealing with a woman who was not acutely aware at all times of how her words, behavior, and even mannerisms might trigger a protective instinct in even a “good white person” that could lead to terrible consequences. My mom knew when my brother started “seeing” a white girl that at 14 years-old, in a place where everyone seemed to like us, fatal consequences were too much of a leap for his know-it-all mind, so she simply told him not to be surprised if his A’s and B’s mysteriously slipped because some of the same teachers who liked and lauded him didn’t think his relationship was cute.

    It truly makes me sad that a little black boy, then or now, would feel he couldn’t even say something nice about a white woman, that’s not acceptable and it couldn’t have made you feel good even coming from a child. Unfortunately, having nuanced conversations with little black boys about why their exuberance, anger, frustration, or even excitement may soon be seen as threatening and why liking and loving whomever they choose my have consequences, is not a skill even enlightened, open-minded black mothers of today have mastered.

    Sorry this was so long

    • Wendy Jane October 13, 2013 at 8:58 am #

      Dear Brown Cowgirl,

      I can’t thank you enough for your thoughts on where this little boy’s response could have been coming from, other than being a product of a strong race-divided climate in Boston in the early 1980’s. I know I didn’t consider the idea of black mothers having to protect their sons from the fates, the subtle ones, and the dangerous ones, that could come from mixing it up with white girls.

      What you share about your mother raising you and your brother in an all-white suburb in the West echoes what I have been hearing more and more of from personal friends of mine today, about raising their sons in the wake of what happened to Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, and too many others. Still, when I posted this piece about working in the salon, and the little boy’s comment to me, some thirty-plus years after it happened, I was still stuck in the mindset that it just had to be a sign of the times–that racism was the polarizing thing keeping black and white people in Boston mistrustful of one another, and worse yet, hating one another.

      I also thank you for being open to hearing my thoughts as I approach the third rail of race, and admire you for “controlling your thoughts”:) and looking at others attempts to understand those different from them as just that–I also don’t know a lot about what it is like to be black, Hispanic, Christian, disabled, a man, etc., but I have always wanted to engage with those different than me to learn, to understand, and to break down the walls that we seem to use, or that have been put in place by the institution of racism, sexism, homophobia, etc, to separate us.

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