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.

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