Sometimes I look at my Afro and still can’t believe that less than two years ago, I underwent “the big chop,” after which my hair basically looked like a fuzzy tennis ball. Now my hair is a few inches past my shoulders and longer and thicker than it ever was when it was relaxed.
I give all the glory in my natural-hair journey to Lenelle Howell, the person who convinced me to go natural, but who is also the person who used to give me relaxers. I know I’m supposed to give all glory to God, but as a black woman (and an agnostic), the closest thing I know to a deity is Lenelle, my hairdresser. She is my alpha and omega. My comforter in times of need. She is my rock in a weary land, and often—when she finishes a new hairdo—I have screamed “Hallelujah” and done a Holy Ghost dance.
I met Lenelle in 2010 when I was in an abusive relationship—with my hair. My strands were broken, abused and in desperate need of some tender loving care. While it sometimes takes stylists a few weeks to get the hang of what a client desires, she immediately knew how to transform my sad-ass strands into something happy and manageable.
Initially, I would wash my hair during off-weeks and have her do my touch-ups, occasionally treating myself to a simple wash-and-set (if I was feeling like a rich bitch). Soon it became painfully obvious which weeks she did my hair and which weeks I did, so eventually I decided not to derail her efforts to make my hair healthy and became a pampered weekly client.
I consistently received compliments on my hair, and my Lenelle addiction got so bad that I’d fly to my out-of-town job during the week and fly home simply to have her do work on my locks. She was like my dealer—I’m now convinced that’s why they call it getting one’s hair “fixed.”
I am not sure when Lenelle and I crossed over from client and stylist to friends, but we did. She wasn’t just my hair’s caretaker; she provided me with an outlet that facilitated my emotional health on so many days. But shortly after she convinced me to adopt the natural-hair lifestyle (ugh ... I can’t believe I just wrote that), I moved from Orlando, Fla., to Atlanta. Atlanta probably has more natural hairstylists per capita than any other place in the country, but none of them was my hairstylist. It was only after my big move that I realized the space Lenelle occupied in my life, and how much I missed her.
Recently we were on the phone for about a half an hour, but only about five minutes of the conversation centered on my hair. We talked about career, men and life; we caught up like I was sitting in her chair. She said something that really resonated with me: “Kyla, people don’t know how sensitive you truly are.”
She wasn’t talking about my hair.
She would know. She’s seen me completely break down in her chair when my amour du jour wasn’t acting right. She’s seen me in slumps of feeling unlovable, unappreciated and unsure of my next move in life. She’s been my hairdresser from when I was doing poetry as an out-of-control hobby to when it became my full-time job. She’s been a career counselor, a psychologist and a newfound sister.
For black women, the salon has always been a staple of the community, second only to the black church. Beauty salons and barbershops are the institutional centerpieces of black neighborhoods. They are where people talk politics, get the latest “tea,” network, organize community events and even patronize smaller businesses. If you’re having a party or a protest and you need black people’s help, just go to where they’re getting their hair done.
Consider that Madam C.J. Walker, one of the first black millionaires, was a woman selling hair-care products, and that today, black women spend about nine times as much as their nonblack counterparts on hair-care products, it is safe to say that hair is important to black women. The black hairdresser is the high priestess and No. 1 practitioner of #BlackGirlMagic. She can take the homeliest-looking woman and transform her into a veritable snack. Voilà—magic!
Not only does a black hairdresser have to be dexterously skilled, but she’s also the gatekeeper to intimate secrets. She is the protector, with “Watch out, I’ve heard about him” certainty. She laughs when it’s time to laugh, and heals when it is time to heal, all while standing on her feet all day.
The black salon is a transformation chamber, home to hourly Cinderella stories, where black women can forget the pressures of the world—even if they have to sacrifice hot-ass ears under the dryer.
After Lenelle’s intervention, my locks are now out of detox and doing much better. Having natural hair has admittedly saved me a lot of time and money, while making my hair much healthier than when I was addicted to the creamy crack. In the past year, I’ve only gone to the salon twice.
But I miss my weekly therapy sessions with my counselor. I miss the ritual of sitting on Lenelle’s altar to receive her healing blessings. I miss the safe space of being surrounded by women laughing and sharing.
I miss my friend.