GUEST POST TUESDAYS: A Southern HairStory - Dr. Danielle Apugo
Dr. Danielle Apugo shares with us a personal reflection. She is a Black-Nigerian woman professor from Louisiana with an unhealthy obsession for Black women and girls’ experiences in America’s educational contexts and beyond. She is a closet cook who loves to eat good food with good people that do even better things. She loves being outside.
At 6-years-old I started going to Ms. Viola’s to get my hair done. Ms. Viola lived up the street and was my mother’s friend.
Ms. Viola’s salon was a chair pulled up to her kitchen table with two large pillows for height. I can still smell her kitchen: old fish grease, cigarette smoke, and Glade air freshener. I can also still hear the pink and white Just For Me tape, and feel my skin scarring from chemical burns--no thanks to the thick, slippery petroleum jelly around my hairline, ears, and neck.
Ms. Viola’s chewing tobacco “spit-cup” was always within arm’s reach, but sometimes her spitting aim was sufficient enough not to have to pause. grab. and spit. I listened as she talked about her past, her unluckiness with love, and all the things she wished she had gone after back in the day. She made me promise to never let anyone “speak bad on me”. She had what the old folks called: “growing hands”.
Before Ms. Viola, I went to a beauty salon every other Saturday for a press and curl--which got expensive after a while for a single mother, but the experience itself was priceless. After that, my mother devoted herself to my hair glory—dedicating entire weekends to washing, conditioning, blow drying, and African Priding my hair to infinity and beyond. I loved the TLC my mother showed my hair. This was also a sacred bonding time for she and I, as we caught up on my school week happenings she had missed because of work. My mother would always put the final touches on my hair with a big forehead kiss, and an affirmative prayer for healthy hair: “Mo Hair in Jesus’ Name” she would whisper.
When I went into the 4th grade my mom got a new job and weekend hair retreats in our kitchen were no longer an option. Around this time, I also started getting heavily into sports, so getting braids seemed to be the best option for convenience.
Shortly after I began my 6-year on and off again relationship with Ms. Letha, the neighborhood braid whisperer. She could catch any length hair, do any style, cover bald spots, and to top it all off-- she would feed you! When I thought about the types of conversations we had during our extended encounters, I can only smile and think of her as a business woman. A young Black woman who braided herself into a regional brand, long before the reach of social media. When she braided your hair, no one asked you who had done it… because they already knew.
As I reflect back, I realize these relationships existed because of my hair. It was important for me to take pride in my hair and to be affirmed by the women that styled it. The conversations I witnessed and took part in helped me to understand the value of nourishing spaces that created ritual. The ritual of hair, dialogue, affirmations, and community.
When I think about my hairstory’s connection to school, I think about school being my platform, my runway, my stage. Here is where my hair became a sassy resistance to the educational structures in rural Louisiana. Here is where the “white gaze” peered and pried into my Black girlhood. No one was safe. The intrigue and bravado of my latest Hype Hair magazine style held hands hostage to touch and tug away with questions. “What do you have in there?” “How will you wash your hair when it’s like that?” “How long did that take?” “Your head must hurt”? “How do you sleep with that”? “I wish my hair could do that”.
This is where the “distraction” clause in school policies enters stage right. The struggle comes when what is growing out of your head is a hot topic in your classroom and leads to “classroom management problems”—or when your hair is a part of your cultural and political identity, and is not embraced or affirmed within schools as a teachable moment. To those policing, surveying, or rejecting Black hair and the girls that rock their birth right, because they feel it is a “concern” or “a distraction to other students’ education”—it’s time they understand that Black hair is education.