Melissa Harris-Perry Recalls Every Hairdo She's Ever Worn—Because Black Hair Is a Huge Deal

Snapshots of life at home.
Jan. 26 2014 11:47 PM

I Remember Every Hairdo I’ve Had in 40 Years

Because black hair is a big deal.

Melissa Harris-Perry
Melissa Harris-Perry, host of her eponymous show on MSNBC.

Photo silhouette by Slate. Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images

This essay is the foreword to Hair Story: Untangling The Roots of Black Hair in America, by Ayana D. Byrd and Lori L. Tharps, The new edition of Hair Story: Untangling The Roots of Black Hair in America is out this week from St. Martin’s Press.

The first part of my personal hair journey is probably very much like that of many other little black girls, in that it was hours on the weekend washing and parting and greasing my scalp, and then getting braided styles. One thing to know is that I am and always have considered myself African-American, but I have a white mother. And this has meant absolutely nothing for the texture of my hair. I knew the interracial girls that had hair that fell down in ringlets, but that wasn’t my experience.

People always talk about the white mom and the interracial child whose hair is not groomed in the way it would have been groomed with a black parent, but my mother understood how important it was, and she learned how to take care of my hair. She always made sure I had African-American women as child care providers, and she took the time to learn from them how to cornrow my hair, how to part it, braid it, and put beads on the end. I have great photos of myself in the third grade with extremely intricate braided styles that my mom did for me. I was always proud of my hair as a kid.

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Things changed in sixth grade when I started making my own decisions about my hair. I looked at magazines with pictures of predominantly white women at the time. I don’t think I found Essence magazine until middle school. I didn’t know that if I cut my hair, it would grow up, not down. So, when I thought I was cutting a bob, I actually cut a ’fro. My mom and I had no idea what to do with this head of hair that I now had. Neither one of us knew what a relaxer was.

Fortunately, this was at a time when we moved to a new town in Virginia. It was there that I made some very good African-American girlfriends. They would talk about their hair and what they did with it and where they got it done, and I picked up on their practices. I learned what a relaxer was, and by eighth grade I had one. It was the 1980s and I had extremely big hair. At some point I tried to cut my hair into an El Debarge ’do.

Then I moved to North Carolina to go to Wake Forest University. College was an absolute hair revelation. It was the first time I lived with other black women—14 to be exact—in a house centered on black women’s identity. In that house I befriended African-American women with different textured hair than my own. I had girlfriends who were wearing perms, asymmetric styles, naturals, and braided extensions. And living with 14 black women, two-thirds of what happened in that house was studying, and the other third was doing each other’s hair. I had a perm all those years but learned a variety of different styles and felt pretty good about my hair.

I stayed in North Carolina to go to grad school at Duke. When Hurricane Fran came through Durham, I was wearing a perm and was without electricity for about a week. That was awful, and it was then that I decided I had to “disaster-proof” the head. So that’s when I got my first set of braided extensions. I developed a strategy of wearing them throughout the summer and then having a perm during school. I also wore braids a lot during my early years of teaching because I had a busy schedule as a newly single mom, and waking up and not having to do my hair in the morning was a good thing. It turned out to be an extremely effective strategy for growing my hair.

By 2010, I had started running to lose weight before my upcoming wedding, and so I went back to braids full time and stopped relaxing my hair, thinking it would be an easy style to manage with exercise. And I just fell in love with them again. That year I went ahead and chopped off all the perm underneath, and now I’ve been three years in the braids or twists exclusively, although growing my own hair underneath.

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So, that’s my hair story. And it’s kind of funny that I would struggle to remember all the friends I’ve ever had and all the addresses where I’ve lived, but I can, at 40, recall all of my hairstyles over the years and the visceral emotions I had about each of them. It shows how important hair really is.

Part of why our hair is such a big deal is just that: because it’s such a big deal! The reactions our hair gets from others, particularly for black women, are so overwhelmingly definitive of our experience of our public selves and our beauty. Black hair might not always be that way, but within the current U.S. context, it is such a defining aspect of the lives of black girls and black women. First, it helps us identify who we are, who we want to be, who we want to mate with, and even whether we’re gay or straight.

Second, because it’s such a big deal for us in all of those ways, it is a big deal financially. Even working-class black women will find room within very tight budgets to keep their hair groomed—which proves how much of a financial incentive there is for corporations and ambitious entrepreneurs to get involved in this business. So, once you have marketing and advertising and product dollars undergirding the already deeply emotional and personal experience of hair grooming for black women, those things end up feeding upon each other.

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