Our relationship with our hair is a complicated entanglement. It holds our history, personality, and identity. It also holds our grief.
In this episode of Great Grief, Nnenna Freelon sits us down in the chair at her mother's beauty salon, where for generations, Black women have celebrated one another and have gathered to discuss their hair—the grief over it, and the grief under it.
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Grief lives in the body.
It's absorbed, inhabiting every molecule with trembling change.
Let us acknowledge the vibrations of loss.
Notice the presence of absence.
The tropical breeze of sorrow blows through our hair as we sway in its wake.
Hair—not a very likely place at all to be in conversation with grief, yet here we are.
The strands of silver headlining, literally telling my story.
♪ I'm changing, changing. ♪
A very particular variety of grief.
Growing old without my beloved husband, and grief's hands, well, they're all in my hair.
As I gaze in the mirror at the silver stories appearing in ever-increasing numbers.
Soon, I'll be older than Phil was when he died.
That'll be a thing for sure, grief whispers.
Shut up, my mother.
Funny, you know, I've been thinking lately about coloring my hair, altering the narrative by covering the gray.
Hmm, I remember Phil used to say they were my highlights, and how much he loved them.
Hmm, that I also remember little church ladies whose hair sported impossible shades of blue, so that would be a no.
Here she is, the big G, combing through the thick middle of everything, making new parts, a brand new geometry that I now must learn.
Never was that great at math.
Grief is a specialist in the things we never really pay close attention to. She hands you this pair of spectacles, with which to view the big muddy mess of everything that used to be familiar. And especially in the "I never noticed that before" category, she's good.
Yes, she's good. She's real good at making you pay attention.
♪ Oh, grief, you carnival mirror. ♪
♪ Oh, grief. ♪
Big things seem little, and little things seem, well, big.
Your hair, your grief, they're inseparable.
Even if—and sometimes, especially if—you have none. It's a huge part of your identity, and for Black women perhaps even more so, as the tendrils of social acceptance, beauty standards, and political realities merge. Of course, now due to my particular circumstances, I'm noticing the intimacy in the relationship between grief and hair.
Wishing upon a star is nothing compared to the wishes and dreams around hair. That it be longer—please—shinier, that it grow faster, to be thicker, have more volume, a different color, more manageable, wavy, straight, curly, or just good. Whatever that means. To have hair that's bonafide good hair, well, that's like finding a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Powerful stuff.
You know, I remember a little girl who had super long braids. Must have had some Indian in her, folks would say. One day, a classmate who was jealous of the attention showered on this particular girl took a pair of scissors and cut two-thirds of her braid clean off. She got into serious trouble for sure, but this shows how tightly bound our emotions are around hair.
Hair knows stuff about you. Your history, habits, and exposures. Hairsense, if there is such a word, tells you secrets. Speaks on your behalf. Changing color, thinning, splitting at the ends or disappearing altogether. Without your permission. No wonder a billion-dollar-year industry has grown up around altering the appearance of hair.
You know, it's crazy when you really think about it. Hair is both alive and dead. All that can be seen above the skin is technically dead. But having had my ponytail pulled a time or two, I know there's more to it than that.
The shaving of a person's head has long been a place of enacted violence. The exercise of power and control over others: I am enslaved. Profound grief lives inside the loss of personal freedom and identity marked by the absence of hair.
♪ Oh freedom, oh freedom, oh freedom, oh freedom over me.♪
♪ And, before I be a slave. ♪
I remember so clearly when I first met Phil—tall, dark, and handsome, it was a springy, coily, dark, massive curls, that hair. During our 40 years together, we grew our lives tangled and twined, and yes, his hair. The silver ones could be counted at first, creeping in along the edges. And after a time, they were so, so numerous that it seemed like they'd always been there, adorning his temple.
♪ Black is the color of my true love's hair. His face so soft and wondrous. ♪
♪ His face, the purest eyes, and the strongest hands, I love the ground on which ♪
♪ He stands. Black is the color of my true love's hair. ♪
Toward the end of his life, we were both surprised by our grief surrounding his hair loss. After all, there were so many other losses, bigger ones perhaps accompanying this journey with ALS. But this, his hair lying on the pillow, it was so much more. Much more impactful than either of us expected—a great, great grief.
You know some people believe that your hair holds your history, giving at least one good reason to chop at all off if what you wanted was a fresh, clean start. I've read of a practice in some cultures for the wife to shave her head in mourning when the husband died.
So many, many stories around hair, like the elders cautioning you not to be careless with the hair left in your brush. Now you didn't want anyone to work some roots on you or for a bird to steal your hair to build her nest. Old folks would say that's how you ended up with a real bad headache.
♪ Might I have a hair from your head, from your head? ♪
♪ Just one little hair to make my little bed. ♪
♪ Just one strand, or two, or three to make my nest in the hickory tree. ♪
I grew up in a beauty salon. In the '60s, my mother and her sister Deborah opened Debbie's Beauty salon in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was right around the corner from my childhood home on Chilton Street. The shop, as we called it, was where I spent after-school time and eventually held my very first job—sweeping the floor. Apparently no one, no matter how pleased with their hairstyle, wanted to look at the remnants lying on the floor.
Sometimes, there was quite a lot of hair to sweep up, and other times, just a tiny bit. But one thing was certain: there was always story aplenty.
Now I was supposed to be focused on sweeping, but really for real for real. I was trying to eavesdrop on grown woman conversations. I'd get to swinging that broom long before it was necessary, lingering nearby while being careful not to sweep any one's feet. Bad luck, my aunt would say, real bad luck.
The shop was a treasure chest of stories, and I was an expert gatherer, sweeping as much story as hair. Now, on rare occasions, there were tears—sometimes before the service, and sometimes after.
I was young and didn't understand all that adulty talk. So the tears could have been about hair or some other entanglement. Still for a girl to see a grown woman weeping, even I recognized it as grief. Grief while getting your hair done.
The conversation went something like this:
Mom: So what's going on with your hair?
Customer: It's falling out. When I was pregnant it grew so fast, past my shoulders, but now it's just—I don't know, falling out and breaking off. I don't know what's wrong with me.
Mom: How old is that baby now?
Customer: Oh, he's three months.
Mom: Is he your first?
Mom: You getting any sleep yet?
Customer: No not really.
They both laugh.
My mother advertised on her business card: We don't just do hair. We do prayer. I observed firsthand the love showered on her customers, most of whom were lifelong clients. She explained with tenderness that hair loss after pregnancy was absolutely normal. Your hormones—Now I had no idea what a hormone was or wasn't—Your hormones change after the baby comes and that's why you shed some hair. One of the many, many changes that come with having children, she would say, smiling, emphasizing the word many.
After a good shampoo, deep conditioner, and loving reassurance that things will balance and trim, the first-time mama felt so much better. Her sadness and worry down the drain.
Now this was real magic transpiring through the laying on of hands, cleansing with water, and the application of oils, heat, and yes, prayer. Debbie's beauty salon was what was called in those days a press and curl shop. I can still remember the clinking of curling irons and the pressing comb, the drone of hair dryers and that distinct smell of flinty and sharp, a mix of oils, hair and heat.
My mother was a healer, a specialist skilled in enhancing the particular beauty of Black women. Yes, she did hair—pressing, stretching that hair that naturally wanted to curl around itself. I watched as she created finger waves, laying the hair down so that it flowed like a perfect scene on a tropical beach.
But more than that, she ministered to the women in her chair, listened to their hurts and woes, and celebrated their accomplishments and whispered dreams. My mother was often the first to know that the dissertation was at long last complete, or that the new job came through. She held confidence that a marriage was in trouble, or a family member was in need of prayer and a job.
And she knew stuff. Yes, she knew stuff because all kinds of information was shared in her chair. She might have actually known who might be hiring.
These women, these women, these women who were customers and sometimes good friends. Came from all walks of life, needing the updo along with the hairdo. Some were entering a predominantly white world for the first time, in which all manner of grief-dom lurked in the halls.
My mother made sure her customers, students at BU or Radcliffe, Harvard Law School, teachers, nurses, secretaries, professors, homemakers, lawyers would all see their beauty reflected in her Black, self-esteem mirror. Even I could feel the energy shift, the before and after.
Oh, in the '60s, it was hair that spoke to belonging, acceptance. Kinky hair straightened and styled in a manner that mimicked white beauty standards and culture. It said, "I'm approaching a version of your beauty standards. Let me in the door."
In the 70s, when the pushback, Black is beautiful movement began, again, it was hair, natural hair insisting on itself, that became a response to that grief. The echo of resistance can still be heard through the Crown Act, creating a respectful world for natural hair. Now that's grief work.
So much yet to be done.
Yeah, you just had to be in the room to truly know how it felt. The first time you heard the word Kinky or Nappy, and learned those words described you as bad. Applied like pomade to your hair, this grief that speaks to something deeply wrong, unmanageable, and ugly about yourself.
Oh, what sadness.
There is sadness in not finding the beautiful in your own mirror. It is a great, great grief. Personal and intimate, this grief whispers, whispers on the sly that you are not enough. So softly, softly, this undercurrent that you might even believe it's true.
I'm taking a real good look right here right now in the midst of loss. I choose to be in dialogue with the silver one. What y'all got to say about all this? We are in orbit, they say, softly. That's how we roll, baby. Bend to the moon and back, the middle passage, and more. We are the ones that tell those good old stories. Not everyone can tell them like we can. We are the silver ones, and we have secrets to tell. Just listen.
You know, I grew up in a hair salon. So my conversation with the incredible Iris Maloy, the owner of a beautiful salon called Anointed Combe in Garner, North Carolina, took me right back home. I'm delighted to be able to share a little bit of our conversation with you. I hope it resonates wherever you are on your grief journey, or your hair journey.
Nnenna Freelon: Actually, before we get into me, let's talk about you and how long have you been in the hair stylist's beautician business?
Iris Maloy: You want to know about the business or how I got started?
Nnenna Freelon: How did you get started? Yes.
Iris Maloy: I started when I was in junior high. Really, I was a little girl playing with dolls. Cutting their hair and I cut all their hair off. My mother would buy me another doll with more hair. She said, "You cut her hair off." I said, "I know I gave her a style." So she would buy me more. Then I was going to junior high school in the sixth grade, cutting girls' hair in the bathroom. Yes. And my mother did hair in the area.
Nnenna Freelon: Oh, your mother did hair also?
Iris Maloy: She wasn't a stylist. She didn't go to school, but she loved doing hair. So she did the people in the community's hair. So I would cut the bangs and stuff. I took my shears to school and cut their hair. I wouldn't think about whether their parents were going to beat them or not, I didn't care at that time because I was young.
Nnenna Freelon: Sure.
Iris Maloy: And I was cutting guys' hair at the house. Then I found and went to beauty school in 1981. I got out in '83. I opened my first salon in '84.
Nnenna Freelon: That's beautiful. That's a legacy. That's beautiful. My questions are going to be all over the map. But one of them is around when someone sits in your chair. You are communing with them in a spiritual way. Sometimes they think they want their hair did, but really this needs some… So can we talk about the hair and the spirit connection?
Iris Maloy: Yes. Oh, I've had so many women and young girls to come in and just begin to share, about what's going on at home and why they're getting treated the way they get treated even in marriages. "I don't know why my husband is doing this," I got one now telling me some stuff like that. "Why is he doing the same thing? I don't know what to do, I'm just going to give up on him." I said no, don't give up on him.
It gives me a chance to minister to people. It really does. My key is to tell them: If you're Christian, pray for him. Y'all are one. You're not two no more, you're one. So you got to pray him through this. Don't fuss at him. Talk only when the Lord tell you to talk to him. And pray. Talk to the one that made him. 'Cause he know all about him.
Nnenna Freelon: I love it. I love it. So this safe space that you create, because of prayer—you do hair but you do prayer. I'm just wondering what do you do, Miss Iris? When someone shares, where do you put it so you don't carry it?
Iris Maloy: I give it to Him. I don't carry that. I learned a long time ago not to carry that. But I got people that do carry it. I said no, no, no, no. That's too much for you. Cash your cares on Him. And let Him have that and take care of that. Not you. That's too much for you.
Nnenna Freelon: I love it. It's so beautiful.
Nnenna Freelon: Let's talk for a second. Let's pivot just a little bit. Let's talk about self-image. When people come and they want something that is in a different space from what you see sitting in your chair. Like they want, they look in the magazine. Oh, I want my hair like this. And they got this much hair. You know, what about self-image? How we see ourselves? How God sees us? Let's talk about that self-image and how that plays into what you do, because they come to you for a service.
Iris Maloy: Right. I tell them, "Honey, you cannot get that, but I can show you something else you may like." So a lot of times, I even give them a book, where the books are kind of outdated anyway. We pull up something on YouTube. Tell me what you want. Tell me what you want because you cannot get this. Look at our hair and look at the length of yours. You can't have that sweet one. But we still want to make you beautiful. You came in beautiful. We just going to beautify your hair.
Nnenna Freelon: Let's talk about beauty. Do you think a lot of people have some challenges around their own sense of their beauty? Let's talk about that.
Iris Maloy: Yes. I had one client that when she was growing up, you know, in our culture, we have different colors. You know, we have light skin, brown skin, we have something that's darker, complex. So as a child, she was damaged by her parents and family members, by calling her Black and ugly. And she was beautiful. I had to minister to her all the time. And I said, look in the mirror. She said, "I don't want to look in the mirror, I'm ugly." I said, "You are not. You are beautiful." And she realized she was beautiful. But they had damaged her.
Nnenna Freelon: But what about the culture? What can we do to encourage, especially our young girls, to love the image that's in the mirror?
Iris Maloy: We just have to talk to them and tell them who they really are and teach them to love themselves. Love you. For who you are. God made you this way. And if you need beautification, we can beautify you by adding makeup, getting your brows done, lashes, and your hair styled.
Nnenna Freelon: What do you think really happens, this transformation in the chair? What do you think when you boil everything down? What really goes on from the time a person walks through this door, to the time that they walk out? What happens to them? Because there's a change in energy.
Iris Maloy: It's a change. And a lot of them says, if they didn't get nothing else, they love the way it feels. They say, "it feels so good." And then when I style it, oh it takes it to a whole nother level, they love that too. They say, "Oh I feel so much better." I say, "You look good."
Nnenna Freelon: And why do you think that is? Is it something that happens on the inside?
Iris Maloy: Yeah, it is. It is. It's something that happens on the inside. And there's a lot of them that's younger than we are, that want to stay in that same place with the same styles. And I'm like, "Come on baby, let's do something different." Come on, let's do it different. I'm a queen-ager. But you're not a queen, ain't ya? I say. I rock it honey, but every chance I get it, I wear long hair, fat hair.
You know, they even talk to me at church, they say, "We seen a girl at the beach this weekend. We call her mini Iris because she had fat hair," because that's me. I do me and don't care what nobody's saying.
So I'm trying to get people out of thinking about and worrying about what other people gonna say about them. I say, "Honey, do you." If you want to stay looking this way, just do you. But just me, I'm a little way out, I'm a little far out. But I try to take some of them to sit next to them and I have. And I have. It's one girl, she was just coming in just getting a roller set every time she came, and I was tired of that. I'm like, "Hold up. You gotta get something different."
She said, "What, Miss Iris? Give it to me. I don't know nothing about hair." I said, "I'm gonna show you."
And ever since I changed her hair, it has changed her. Now she's into more and all these styles. And it's wonderful. And her hair started out like this, and then it's down here. Grew inches. I love it. I don't know. I love it.
Iris Maloy: I have people that come to me. Some have been coming ever since I started. Like 35 plus years. And then some will go here and there and then come back. One of them followed me. I hadn't been to a lot of shops, but the shop that I am in, they will follow you.
Nnenna Freelon: I don't know if this is something you want to talk about. If you don't, just say you don't want to talk about it. But my mother, like you, had clients 30, 40 years. And so she's seen them from when they were young adults all the way through to their elder years. And sometimes her hands with the last hands on that head after they died. So that full spectrum of their entire life, and even unto death, of working with the undertaker to make sure that they look good. As I've gone with my mother, just a couple of those old trips. I'm glad about it because now I'm not afraid of dead people. But at the same time, it seemed to me, to me, as even as a young kid, to be an extremely loving thing to want to care for a client in this most, in this last, to make sure that they looked good, even at the end.
Iris Maloy: Right. This lady here, 96, she was my oldest client. It's something about when I see them for the last time here, they get to the door and they look at me a certain way. And I know I'm not going to see them anymore. I'm telling you, I know it, I know it. And when that happened,
I remember that call. I started praying. Everyone that did that, get to that door and gave me a look back, and gave me the last bye. And I know it. She was 96. She was the oldest client I have, and I keep her picture right there. She went home one day and she was having heart problems. She was walking—96, about herself. Her daughter would always bring her. And her daughter called and said that she had collapsed and fallen, and she's gone, just that quick. So her daughter and her husband came to pick me up to style her hair at the funeral home. So when I went to style her hair, the daughter said she's so beautiful. I said, she is. So she got ready to walk out, and I say, where you going? You come back in here with me and watch me style her hair. I don't think I'm like that now, though.
Nnenna Freelon: But it's such a loving thing to do. So loving. So beautiful.
Iris Maloy: Yeah. Because I was talking to her: I'll see you again, mother. I was calling her mother.
Nnenna Freelon: One of the stories I have in Hairstory is how much I wanted a Barbie doll. I wanted me a Barbie doll so bad. Now I'm a little older than you, I'm 66…
Iris Maloy: You're not older than me, I'm 66. I'll be 67 in December. We're queen-agers.
Nnenna Freelon: I love it. I love it. Queen ager. I love it. I love it. Every second of it and I'm grateful for it.
Iris Maloy: And me too.
♪ Oh, oh, oh, daughter. Daughters of lamentation, yeah. ♪
Oh, daughter. Oh, daughters of lamentation.
Grief dancer. Let me move and be moved by your sorrow song.
♪ Let me move and be moved by your sorrow song. ♪
more in grief & other loves
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