Amber Butts

Jun 11, 2019

7 min read

Black Hairdressers and Black Clients Save Lives

I have always loved untying knots. Of pulling things apart so that they can form again. I love the excitement of it, the way it eases the bits of me that are in chaos. The way my shoulders relax and remember to breathe when untangling them. The smell of whatever is knotted.

I hate the dust but that’s part of it, I guess. The forgotten crossings of our worlds. The stuck places.

I’ve reached out to friends who are addicted to video games and asked if I can untangle their cords. I’ve organized spaces and helped folks who bought those Ikea jewelry organizers with the ropes. I’m into hanging plants now because I like the way they bring themselves into each other.

I don’t like detangling old hair ties. There’s something about the way their stickiness holds on my hands that makes me want to shove them away.

(If you are a person who keeps old hair ties, get rid of them now. That feeling is a terrible kind of home, of acceptance, of wiggling that you may never want to visit. You’ll feel it other ways, I promise you. Like someone who touches you in a hot club without your permission and you instantly get cold. And they say, “Oh, I just had to touch you because you have beautiful skin and a beautiful back and this is a beautiful top. And I hope you don’t mind?” You’ll want to cut them with whatever is nearby.)

I love de-tangling hair. I love noticing which products work for folks’ hair and which don’t. I love making things that work for us. I love/ sometimes despise advising non-Black folks on what products they need for their Black children’s hair. Because the questions they ask and the things they say about their children’s hair makes me cringe. And also, then I picture the child and decide that they will be my focus, not their parent’s sticky crawly-ness.

I love offering Black children free hairdos, especially when they are having a hard time. I love the moments when their parents leave and they get to share pieces of themselves they’ve been holding close. I love affirming them.

Black people aren’t knots. I want to make this clear right now because this isn’t an analogy.

I was a busy child. I ate ants. I made mud pies. I cut phone lines when I heard things I didn’t like. I mixed lotions and conditioners and sand. I put everything in my hair and waited for results. I played alone a lot.

My mama taught me how to read and how to braid hair at the same time. I first learned because I needed something to busy my hands and I have never known what to do with them. I learned because my mama went to school first and then work and I needed to settle my mind. I did it to manage my anxiety but I didn’t know how to ask. I needed to not worry about what would happen to her on bus rides. And, I worried all the time about what would happen to her on bus rides.I didn’t know how to say everything feels like it’s crawling on me and I am tired. I didn’t know to ask for ice because I needed whatever this was to not crawl, so I hid ice packs from gym class under my bed.

The only place I’ve ever really felt at home is in a kitchen or a living room where I watched someone I love massaging the scalp of someone else I love or someone I didn’t know. I love smelling oil on scalps. I hate the smell of burning hair but in our family we were told not to flush it down the toilet because it would get in the pipes and then below in the sewers where rats would build piles of our hair and make us do things. We had to burn it because if we wrapped it with tissue and put it in the trash a bird could get it on trash day and someone would have control over our lives.

Did you know that after a person dies, it looks like their hair and fingernails are growing but it’s really a trick? Death is a dehydrator, not unlike those kits that folks are buying nowadays for their fruit, jerky and seeds. Their soft tissue and skin retracts, which makes everything shrink. Their hair and fingernails remain intact and the same length though.

Bubbie’s hair was the same texture after she took her last breath. My hands twitched, wanting to open her plaits up. She was going to be cremated but I still wanted to do her hair. I wanted everyone between the hospital room, mortuary and crematorium to know that she was loved and cared for. That she was cherished.

I’ve been braiding other folks’ hair for over 23 years. I enjoy reassembling their strands, laying them out and contemplating what to do next, like a puzzle. Braiding hair has become a grief practice for me. A ritual and reminder of just how sacred our bones and DNA are. How they remain “intact” even after we’re gone.

My clientele is diverse, Black and typically ranges from “working class” to cash poor. When folks are able to pay more, I distribute that amount to folks who are able to pay less. I do a trans woman’s hair for free at least once a month. Some of my clients have paid me in food, body butters, jewelry, letters of affirmation or stories about the elders they’ve lost. Some have paid me in promises.

Three years ago I made an appointment to see a doctor because my right hand had been spasming and locking. I couldn’t open up jars, I couldn’t two strand twist my then long hair for more than five minutes, I couldn’t use a whisk for eggs, or biscuits or whipper cream. The doctor suggested I get a cortisone shot twice a year in the hand and begin physical therapy for Carpal Tunnel immediately. I decided against it.

I don’t do hair in a shop. I either go to my clients’ homes or they come to mine.

When I got the blanket diagnosis of carpal tunnel, a client started bringing cbd oil she’d made. She’d write instructions on paper every time she brought a new jar, (she’d been working on her craft and portions) and sometimes would come over to massage my hand. The area between my right index finger and right thumb has consistently given me trouble. She’d hum as she rubbed the oil into the joints.

Because of her lessons before each appointment, I stretch out my body, roll my neck, settle myself as much as possible and play some music. Clients have come in crisis, in states of shock, in deep grief and they get to let all of what they are holding out. Witnessing some of our folks’ most intimate moments is an honor. Each time I place my hands on scalps and listen and hold and mourn and laugh, I change. I learn. The space changes.

We change together.

Black women do not get enough sleep. Black folks are criminalized and surveilled. When Black folks get our hair done it is sometimes (and often) the only time we get to sit without interruption. Without running around. Without scrutiny and suspicion. Without doing and being on all the time. Sometimes my living room is a therapist’s office.

In a world that seeks to punish Black folks and specifically Black women for existing, for eating on trains, for getting our eyebrows done and not being happy with the outcome, we need affinity spaces that center our care, autonomy and voice. Places that don’t require us to be strong all the time.

Sometimes I am beyond tired. And my clients notice. They say, “Girl, sit down for a minute.” They ask, “How are you really doing? How is your family?”

They get to ask questions they’ve been wanting to ask without the fear of being thrown away preventing them from doing it. Hair shops, hair kitchens and health living rooms save us and politicize us. They become schools that encourage our learning without the fraught connection of being places of punishment. They allow us to talk about what is happening in our communities, what work we’re holding and what futures we imagine.

We get to talk about what we’re struggling with. What we hope for. Who we’re angry at.

My chair is intergenerational. Clients who need extra pillows and back support know that sitting between my legs means that they get to settle. Clients who can not sit on the floor aren’t required to.

My hairdresser offering isn’t reliant on gender or age or status. It asks that folks come as they are. During heart break. Confusion. Anger. Loss. Destruction. Fear.

It requires that Black women who give everything to everyone before considering giving to ourselves are seen. It requires that elders, children, nonbinary and trans folks receive the autonomy, care and tenderness that they deserve.

I have began offering protection spells to my clients before they leave space so that they feel held, protected and armed against whatever greets them on the other side. Mostly I wish that I could do Bubbie’s hair again. She was the type of client that knew exactly what she wanted and would not accept anything outside of that. When I’d braid her hair, she didn’t want anyone to see the parts. The gaps. The spaces in between.

May all of us experience that kind knowing determination.