Spring 2020

Combing Through Black Beauty Culture


It’s Sunday evening and I’m sitting on the couch.

On the table in front of me lie three combs, two brushes, four Olive Oil products, a tub of cocoa butter, a hairdryer, a curling iron and about one thousand bobby pins (give or take). Every Black femme knows this scene oh-so-well. It’s wash day; my arms ache, my rug is 50 percent wool, 50 percent curly hair and I’m halfway through a new Netflix series.

This hair day is different from most because on the arm of my couch sits a bright pink and purple book, Beauty in a Box: Detangling the Roots of Canada’s Black Beauty Culture by Cheryl Thompson. But as I apply heat and chemicals to my head, I’m not thinking about history or politics or feminism. I’m thinking about hair—just hair—for the next five or six hours.

Or am I?

I have an important business event this week and I know the drill. Hair—straightened (or slicked back into oblivion); accent—British and proper; earrings—small and classy; lipstick—bold but not garish; clothes—smart but shapeless enough to hide my curves. This is my ritual for survival. I intentionally try not to think about it, because every time I do, it makes me angry. I just do it over and over again. I’m not even sure I know the person this process creates, but I know that I need them. And I know that my experience is the opposite of unique. I’m part of a long line of Black women and femmes who burn and twist and pack and cover their hair in order to be successful, or even just accepted.

I open up Thompson’s book, which maps out Canada’s Black beauty industry from past to present, infusing critical race theory and Black feminism into a historical investigation on Black hair. And therein lies my trepidation. See, every Black person knows our hair is political. Whether we intentionally wear it as a political statement or the politicization of it is non-consensually placed upon us, Black hair is never just hair.

An afro is a symbol of revolution, dreadlocks are a religious commitment, or at least a nod to Rastafari, Bantu knots spark reminders of colonization and Apartheid in South Africa. Even wearing a durag is not without meaning. Originally worn by slaves and labourers, durags became a fashion statement after the Black Power movement in the United States in the 1960s.

Furthermore, not one of these hairstyles has gone without criticism or even criminalization. For example, a 16-yearold New Jersey wrestler was told by a referee to cut off his dreadlocks or else forfeit his win; a six-year-old Florida boy was forced to disenroll from a private school, and two students in Massachusetts were disallowed from attending prom—all because of their natural hair. California recently passed a law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of hair texture. This is a big win for Black folks, but it also marks a trajectory towards more radical attempts at inclusion for others.

In Canada, no such law exists, and public discourse on Black hair is in its infancy in comparison to our southern neighbours. Living in Vancouver—Black population one percent—this lack of discourse serves to double down on the erasure of Black identity in the Canadian imaginary.

Black often becomes synonymous with African American, a community that has contributed many central tenets of Black culture but doesn’t necessarily share the same experiences of Black Canadians or Black Brits like me or those back in the homelands.

In fact, our understanding of Black history is so American that Black Canadian icon Viola Desmond is often is dubbed “Canada’s Rosa Parks.” It’s ironic given that Desmond refused to move from the “whites only” section of a movie theatre in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia on November 8, 1946—nine years before Parks refused to budge from the “whites only” section of an Alabama bus in 1955. Parks’ action sparked the Montgomery bus boycott, while Desmond’s arrest and conviction galvanized support for the outlawing of segregation in Canada.

Viola Desmond’s legacy is not just about segregation—it’s also about hair.

Thompson’s second chapter details how Desmond started her own salon, created and developed her own line of beauty products and trained other Black women as beauticians and stylists. A pretty normal career until you consider the barriers faced by women who just wanted to use products appropriate for their hair. Desmond was refused admission to a beauty school in Halifax, driving her to the U.S. for training. Her achievements in her short life (Desmond died at 50) are notable for the advancement of civil rights in Canada, but Desmond’s role as a Black Canadian entrepreneur in the beauty industry is also a significant part of her legacy.

In Thompson’s book are photos of Desmond posed in her salon, some from newspaper clippings. The most striking thing about Viola Desmond so often noted by historians, including Thompson, is her sleek, smooth, put-together appearance. I know that look—it’s a look of someone who can’t let their hair down (literally) for a moment because of the searing scrutiny placed on Black women and femmes. Even one with the privilege of lighter skin and softer hair.

“I don’t know any Black women who didn’t go through high school being bullied for their hair,” Thompson said to me over the phone. “It’s even worse when you think you’re lookin’ the bomb!”

After reading Beauty in a Box, most of my burning questions for Thompson were about her own life, the inspiration for her work and, most importantly, her own hair journey.

Thompson remembers begging her mother for a long time to let her relax her hair, and finally being allowed to at 14 (same!) and re-relaxing it regularly until she turned 30. It’s a typical tale—begging your mother, who likely has her own hair trauma, to let you look more like the white girls in your class, and for it to take years of scalp burning to finally love your natural crown. This is under-discussed in Canadian

beauty culture as many of us—especially outside of the GTA, Montreal or Halifax—feel tremendous pressure to assimilate and whitewash ourselves to be accepted in predominantly white towns and cities.

The hair and beauty products on the coffee table in front of me are a collection of treasures sourced from dark corners of the internet and hidden shelves in a London Drugs two towns away or smuggled into my bulging suitcase after trips back to London, England. It’s very difficult to find Black hair care products in B.C. And yes, the Black population here is small so it makes sense to some extent. But as Thompson outlines in Beauty in a Box, availability of ethno-specific products and larger structures of racism are intrinsically connected.

There is no doubt that Black hair—whether we love it or not—is unique and deeply rooted in culture and tradition. This is why my blood begins to boil when I see non-Black people trying on cornrows, Bantu knots or locs for fashion or costume. Cultural appropriation is a hot topic and I was curious how Thompson felt about it, considering she has spent the past few years chronicling Black hair and beauty culture.

“Power is increasingly invisible,” Thompson says, referring to how anti-Blackness continues to be pervasive yet manifests in more subtle ways. Black aesthetic has always been exotified, copied and stolen. One of the most poignant examples is that of Saartjie Baartman, a Khoikhoi woman stolen from her tribe in South Africa and paraded around Europe for spectators to laugh and ogle at. Her large behind became an inspiration for the late 1800s bustle dress, worn by white women who couldn’t think of anything worse than being Black but were happy to appropriate certain elements of Blackness for a fleeting fashion trend.

The phenomenon continues today with Kylie Jenner in cornrows, Katy Perry gelling her edges or Kim Kardashian “breaking the internet” by posing as a Black woman. “There hasn’t been a moment when white culture hasn’t looked to Black culture for entertainment,” Thompson says. “People just see our hair as a performance.”

This appropriation of Black hairstyles is harmful because society simultaneously vilifies Black people—especially Black women and femmes—for wearing the same hairstyles that are praised and applauded on white celebrities.

My experience as an anti-racism educator has taught me that the average Canadian knows very little about Black history, especially Black Canadian history, and this contributes to the pervasiveness of anti-Black racism in this country. We receive a lot of our information from American media, and that comes with stereotypes and tropes about Black people, especially the consumable elements of Black culture like fashion, hairstyles, dance moves, music genres and so on.

This leads to two main problems in the Canadian imaginary. One is a lack of understanding of Black Canadian identity, history and culture, and second is an exaggerated caricature of Blackness that is undiluted by meaningful relationships with real Black people. For example, I can tell that a lot of Vancouverites don’t have Black friends based on the number of times I’ve been asked to twerk.

Beauty in a Box teaches us to re-examine our own biases about Black culture in Canada and paints a unique and beautiful portrait of an underrepresented history about the political roots of Black hair.

Some days I am tempted to chop it all off, or burn away the kinks and curls, but Thompson reminds me of the importance and significance of my natural hair.

Black people have been crafting revolutions and disrupting narratives with the stuff that grows out of our heads for centuries. From my time spent with Cheryl Thompson and her work, I learned that some self-love, accurate historical knowledge and a little bit of Shea butter allows a radical body politic to keep growing.


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