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.

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.

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.

The third thing would be the politics of the public experience of black hair. To me, the most significant modern-day moment is the introduction of the Afro as both a beauty style and as a reclamation of a very specific political and social choice. It wasn’t about African-Americans having the politics of our hair forced upon us from outside groups, it was about this idea, generated from within the community, that choosing a particular hairstyle has a social and political meaning.

Consider the manhunt for Angela Davis. My favorite part of that story is that at the point at which she was on the run, one of the things she did was tie her own hair down and wear a perm-styled wig over it. She was invisible to the police as long as she didn’t have her Afro. It was as though they were incapable of recognizing her features or what she actually looked like without the hair. She walked into a whole variety of spaces where she should have been caught but wasn’t. That is so indicative of how all-consuming and overpowering our hair can be in certain styles, particularly for white audiences who literally can’t see past our hair.

So, hair is a big deal because it’s not just about aesthetics, it’s about politics. There is an assumption, sometimes right and sometimes wrong, that hairstyle choices must also carry with them political and social meaning. White folks are still so baffled by the black experience, they are constantly trying to read the signs and symbols to figure out if we plan to do them harm or start a revolution or something. So hair becomes one of the ways they identify good and bad Negroes.

When my show started on MSNBC in 2012, my decision on how to wear my hair goes back to my point about Angela Davis. The fact that she became invisible once she pulled down her Afro is indicative of the fact that if I were on air one week with one kind of hair and another week with another kind of hair, I might actually be confusing to viewers. So, I made the decision that whatever hair I launched the show with, I needed to be prepared to wear for the duration. At that point I had already cut off all of the perm, so it was “Am I going to back away from being natural and relax it again, or am I going to go on with a teeny-weeny Afro, or am I going to wear the extensions?” I made the decision to wear the extensions for three reasons: One, I haven’t had a natural head of hair since I was a teenager so I really didn’t know what it would do. Two, I was not prepared to go back to a relaxer. I go running every single day, and a relaxer is almost impossible for me to cope with. And three, for consistency, my lifestyle, and my travel schedule, what made the most sense was braid extensions and twists.

Amazingly, no one at MSNBC has ever said anything to me about my hair. Not one word. But the audience has a lot to say. I can’t go on air without letters and comments and tweets and emails from viewers. Everything from “Where do you get your hair done?” and “I love your hair” to “Why would you show up looking like that on air?” It comes from white folks and black folks. It would be impossible to go through the amount of responses the first year on air caused about my hair. And that’s part of the reason why we did the episode about black hair in America on Melissa Harris-Perry. We figured, if people are having this kind of reaction to my hair, let’s just go ahead and do something on it. We decided it was worth going there, and I think it is still the show that people most frequently speak to me about when I’m out connecting with viewers.

Sometimes I wonder if we are making progress in this arena. And I consider that I’m raising a 12-year-old daughter who seems profoundly unconcerned about what is happening on the top of her head. My kid wears a big ol’ natural hairstyle and sometimes she wears two-strand twists, sometimes a ’fro with braids, sometimes it’s pressed and curled, and sometimes she has braided extensions. It seems to have much more to do with whether she’s swimming or if she’s going to have a sleepover than it has anything to do with the aesthetics of it or whether people will think she looks beautiful. And to the extent that I have hope, it is mostly that. This kid can feel perfectly grand about herself regardless of what is happening on her head. And that feels like more progress than “I only feel good about myself when my natural hair or my permed hair or my weave hair or my extended hair is neat and perfect.” She is way more mature than I am on the hair front.

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.