Transcript: Ep. 3 Don't Touch My Hair
(Intro music, synth beat melodic repeating medium tone voice singing "ah, ah, ah ah...")
Karen: You’re listening to Who Raised You Podcast? A Kitchen Table Conversation between Karen Jia Lian Yang and Treasure Shields Redmond.
Treasure: Unfurled and unafraid, we’re centering voices of color from flyover country. And we start every podcast with a poem.
(Music fades out)
Justin: My name is Justin Vasser. And the name of this poem is "Finches"
I remember learning that they were finches from Zambia,
and it dawned on me that
though they had wings
they couldn't clear the walls that kept them
hopping from perch to corner,
corner to perch.
I was 10,
Had yet to understand the importance of place
but I knew they wanted to fly,
or at least hop around the ground,
feel blades of grass,
build nests, hunt for whatever their little bird hearts desired.
I surmise many of us are raised like that,
trying with all our might to just be birds,
feel the open air under our bellies,
to be raised within the leaves of our own choosing.
The city is like that - a jungle.
And behold, all of the birds looking up at the sky as they walk.
Beneath my skin are feathers.
What comes out as words are really songs.
And I have to thank all of those that flew before,
so that I may know the elegance of a well-lit cage.
(Music fades in)
Song lyrics: Sometimes what I say ain’t right
Givin’ you such a hard time (time)
Ain’t nobody said I was perfect (perfect)
But baby, good love is worth it all and I won’t let you fall… (fades out)
Treasure: What if a black poet from Mississippi and a Taiwanese-American inister from Silicon Valley had a podcast?
Karen: We’re about to find out!
Treasure: We might even blowuptuate.
Karen: You’re listening to Who Raised You? A kitchen table conversation between Karen Jia Lian Yang and Treasure Shields Redmond. As we explore how culture, family, and intersecting identities pave our way toward liberation, we wanna know: who raised you? We’re curious, sometimes we can get real irritated. Sit down, we have lots to talk about.
Treasure: Today, we're joined by De Nichols.
Treasure: Director and principle designer of "Civic Creatives" - through a multidisciplinary design practice, De activates change-makers nation wide to address civic, racial and gender equity challenges within their communities.
Karen: So, we have our famous question - which is - Who raised you?
De: Hmmm, there are so many people who raised me. So, when I think about the literal definition of that word, I definitely go back to, you know, my childhood. And I think about all the women who stepped up to support my mom. You know, my mom was a single parent, even when I was a toddler. And, I remember going to Jackie's house, and Aunt Leola's house, and all these other people's homes who would take care of me during the daytime while my mom was at work. When I started school, I would take the school bus to their home and they would babysit me, make sure that I had a good meal, give me crayons so that I can sit down. And I really uplift them. So, a village of really amazing women raised me.
Karen: You know Treasure, I feel like we haven't had any guests sit here and say that one person raised them, or just two people raised them.
Karen: It's a lot of villages and also a shout out to women, and I think, particularly black women for making amazing people.
Treasure: Yes, most definitely. It takes a village of black women today (laughing all around) which... Right, right??
De: (emphatically) Black women.
Treasure: Well, what about, you know, sometimes when you listen to hip-hop people claim the city raised them or the region raised them or the neighborhood raised them, right?
Karen and De: Mmmmmm. Mmmmm.
Treasure: So, today we're talking about hair. And De and I kind of share a connection to Memphis, in that I lived in Memphis for a few years and De went to high school in Memphis, though she lived in North Mississippi. So side note for the rest of us US natives who have terrible geography...
Karen: Me! Karen Yang (laughing all around)
Treasure: Right, right! But I just figured out that Ohio was close to Kentucky - that blew my mind (laughing)...
Karen: I'm still not entirely sure where Alaska is (laughing all around)
Treasure: Right, but Mississippi and Tennessee touch in parts. So, it is quite common for people to live in Mississippi and work in Memphis because there are these suburban communities like South Haven that are below quote unquote "Memphis" and De would go to high school there. Correct?
De: Yes, yeah, so I actually grew up in Cleveland, Mississippi - a little bit further south in the delta. So, uh, a little south of Clarksdale, between Greenville and Parksdale. And a big part of why my family moved to Memphis is that in our town there just weren't that many opportunities. My big brother really wanted to play sports and I was really into the arts and in terms of growth, in terms of my mom wanted to make sure that we had the best education possible, and still stay close to her parents… Memphis was the best city at the time for us to move to without having to get on the airplane. So, we moved when I was in 6th grade and I went to college at the end of high school.
Treasure: Fantastic. And I was bringing up Memphis because people in the rest of the country may not know this but it has a very signature hair culture.
Treasure: Like, Memphis, (laughing all around) - all the Gucci, all the swoops, um, there was this one period in the 90's, De was probably a little one at the time, where there was this beehive. Do you recall this at all?
De: The French Roll!
Treasure: Yes! There was like this, oh my goodness...
Karen: De is shaping something on top of her hair...
Treasure: She's putting her hands on top of her head, because they were like art pieces. People would pin curl hair extensions into concentric circles that rose up in these big cone beehives on their heads. Memphis is famous for it. And they would have that and two other hairstyles on their head at the same time.
Karen: Oh my goodness. (laughing all around)
De: Yeah, even to this day every summer Memphis still has their showcase, it's a hair showcase where people come in from all across the region. And they bring in people like Tank and Tyrese to get the people all excited with some R&B music...
Karen: You have De rolling shoulders over here just to express that... (laughing all around)
De: But in addition to that type of entertainment, it's all about hair care and they center beauty and blackness at this event. And it's for me, growing up, and going to it every summer going with my mom there was always something, some new trend that I was learning. And when I learned about how many women were going "natural" and they would, you know, give these tutorials at the explosion where beauticians would show you how to straighten your hair if it was curly, how to not fry your hair, you know so many chemicals are overheating, your flat iron. As a teenager I really appreciated that type of knowledge because I didn't know, I didn't have those skills.
Treasure: Mmhmmm. Mmhmmm. Mmhmmm. So, I don't know if you guys can tell, but we're talking about hair. So, I got to lob a question Karen's way.
Karen: Okay. Yep.
Treasure: Because, as an Asian American woman, there are these, there are also these kind of resonant narratives about hair. In certain cultures the hair it’s so straight it won't curl. But I see that you have some body waves going on.
Karen: Yeah, it's a little bit. (laughing)
Treasure: So your hair in your family curls?
Karen: No, I feel like not necessarily curls. I think it's interesting to kind of see what side parents you're getting different things from. And, there's this interesting thing, if you don't really know me very well you won't know this, but if you look closely at my eyes there's one eye that has one eyelid and then another eye that has a double eyelid. And that's a big thing. Like, a lot of East Asians particularly will talk about the double eyelid versus the monolid. And monolids are really common for Asian women, East Asian women, and at the same time the double eyelid is more desired because it looks more Western. So, on the side that I have that double eyelid, when my hair was longer, I used to have mid-length hair or longer - that side tended to have more of a swoop out, how my hair would go.
Karen: So I don't know what all that says about genetics, but when you talk about expectations of Asian women and hair, I think about first of all, like in US America the stereotypes of East Asian women, as being exotic or whatever, you should have this long river of jet black straight hair. And at the same time too, I have memories of going to Taiwan where my parents are from, and there's this really interesting observation I made.
So one year, we went and my sister's hair was longer and that was different in a lot of my life because when we were growing up she was always like the tomboy and so at that point for some reason she had longer hair. And then I had decided to get my hair short - that coincided a lot with my politicization, and learning about how race was working, and just all that, I was in seminary - I think it was like, I think in the aftermath of the Ferguson uprising and I was just going through a lot. And as people know, whether it's a breakup or it's radicalization, sometimes you change your hair in the midst of that. And so, I had my hair short.
So, when I saw my grandmother, she’s this like, really older farmer women in southern Taiwan, raised a bunch of kids. I don't speak Taiwanese, which is the language that she speaks - I speak Mandarin Chinese, so there was a little of translation issues, but when we were talking, the first she said when I showed up was "Are you the older one or are you the younger one?" like “Are you the bigger one or the smaller one?” is how that's literally translated. Dua ha-ne or sei ha-ne? And I said, dua ha-ne and pointed to myself, the big one, I'm the big one. And she shook her head and said, no, you're the small one.
Treasure, De: Hmmmm. Wow.
Karen: And De's eyes got really big! (laughing all around) And you know, I appreciate that De because...
Treasure: Mhm, she was trying to read you.
Karen: She's trying to read me, and the funny thing is it's kind of that elder thing, where they're like, no, I've made up my mind, I'm done with the situation, this is how it is. And it's funny too because I came back from that trip, I would tell some white friends the story and they just kind of like, didn't know what to make of it and just were kind of like, “Juh, interesting.” But I tell friends of color and they like crack up, or they make that kind of big eyed, like “WHUTTT??” and it was a moment, right?
So, that's also funny to just observe the role of elder.
De: (interjecting) Gosh, grandma!
Karen: I know, gosh grandma! And then, we pulled out a camera to show past pictures of us and I was like, see, that was me, I'm the older one. But it could also be because I'm shorter and all these other reasons. But a lot of people would comment on how beautiful my sister was and then they'd ask me why my hair was short. (laughing all around)
De: Oh my gosh.
Karen: (laughing) You know, and that's the thing about Taiwanese people too, they won't hold back. You know, one of the things that they really like to ask you, as a way of asking how you are is how much you weigh? Like, how many kilos are you? and I'm like, “I don't know! We use pounds, I don't know why…” We also use feet and not meters.
De: My goodness.
Treasure: Mmmmhmmm. Mmmmhmmm.
Treasure: That's interesting, how the hair length was tied to beauty because that's very true in black communities.
De: Yeah, yeah.
Karen: Well it's a gendered thing too. (sarcastically) You know, you have longer hair, you're more of a woman... Whatever.
De: Yeah, I think a lot of my family and childhood and as a kid I had really, really long hair. And there's an incident, when I was in 5th grade, where I started crying in class because there were these two girls who would sit behind me and they had shorter hair than I had. And they were both black. But they took scissors, and they would tease as if they were going to cut my hair. And I remember this one day, just banging my desk, standing up and turning around and just yelling at them, like, “Stop doing that just because I have long hair and I'm beautiful, doesn't...”
Karen and Treasure: Ohh!!! (laughing)
De: “…mean you can just cut my hair!” I was such a quiet kid, but if you pressed my buttons, something else would just happen.
Treasure: Mmmmmm (laughing)
De: And, in that moment, it was not just a hair thing, it was also a colorism thing because both of these girls were lighter than me.
Karen and Treasure: Mmmm. Ohhhh.
De: So, the whole notion of a dark-skinned girl being one of the smartest people in the class and having the longest hair of all the black girls, I guess just rubbed them the wrong way, it did something to them. And throughout grade school and high school my hair was pretty much the same.
I got my first hair cut, real hair cut when I was in high school because it was damaged, because I wore my hair straight all throughout my youth, and it was primarily because that's how my mom wore her hair. My mom always had a wrap. And a wrap is where you wear your hair straight and it curls and there's a little bump at the end, but at night, you know, you wrap your hair around your head and put some bobby pins on it so that it maintains its body.
Treasure: Mhm. With some wrapping lotion.
De: Exactly. You either gotta have that lotion or that mousse! (laughing) Something that's gonna lock it in place. And we would wear it, we would put our headscarves on and that was how I wore my hair. In the summer time, I would wear my hair in braids. You know, whoever would do 'em, it would cost like $200, you would go to the store and buy some weave and next thing you know, BOOM. Summer hair.
By the time I got to high school that became a matter of sports. Like, I would wear my hair in braids when it was softball season, wear my hair straight for programs and camps and all of these service projects and stuff that I was doing. During that time, my hair had gotten so damaged that when I would straighten it, and you know I had split ends all over my head and when I would straighten it, it would just poof out.
Like, it wouldn't hold its shape and I always knew that there was something wrong about me getting my hair pressed and me getting my hair relaxed because when I was kid, even when I was a toddler, there were those moments where my mom or whoever else was doing my hair, putting my head into the kitchen sink and I would have all this relaxer in my roots and it would just burn. It burned the crap out of my scalp. So, I knew that I didn't want that, but I didn't know any other alternative. Therefore, I entered college and BOOM. A big awakening happened.
Treasure and Karen: Mmmmm. Mmmmmm.
De: My freshman year of college, there were so many black girls, much like myself, who were just like, I don't want to wear my hair like this. I don't like the expensiveness of it. I don't like the daily maintenance of it. I'm chopping my hair off.
A week into school, one of my roommates, or future roommates, chopped off her hair. She had a fade - and everyone was like, oh my goodness, did you see Alisha’s hair?? (laughing all around)
It was just like, for me, the fear was always that I would look too much like a boy and I was a tomboy and I didn't want people at that time to think that I was gay or assume anything. (Abruptly) And, I mean, if you only you knew now, (emphatically) but it was one of those things where I had it on my mind all the time, but I waited.
And so while I was waiting, I would do twist outs. I would twist my hair every night and wear it curly when I didn't have an exam or a presentation and then wear it straight when I had to be in front of white people with my presentations for class and stuff. So there were all of those dynamics that were at play.
De: (slower, quieter) But when the uprising in Ferguson happened, I don't know, I just started to have enough. And the whole notion of hair just became this, I don't know, this overwhelming part of myself that seemed unnecessary to cause me so much stress. Like, why does this stress me out so much?
And I had watched this video by Zuckerberg, Facebook person, and he mentioned how he and Steve Jobs wear the same uniform every day. And part of it was that they decreased the amount of decisions and stress and choices that they had to make during the day so that they could make better choices for the things that they were creating for the world. And I started to think about that in terms of what are the things stressing me out on a daily basis? My hair and my clothes.
Karen: Wow. Treasure: Mmm.
De: During the uprising, you know, during like being a protester and organizer on the ground and stuff. I found myself wearing black. Like, that's what I transitioned my whole wardrobe towards wearing black. And in May of 2016, I finally had the nerve to, the urge to finally go for the big chop, but in the midst of that I would just pull my hair up all the time. It was like, here's a bun, that's all I got. I'm not going to worry about it, I'm not going to stress myself out.
Treasure: Well, you know, God, you said so much. (laughing)
Karen: (giggling) So good.
Treasure: I know because, first of all, the ritualizing of hair care with Black women, it's one of the ways we take care of each other, we love each other. But it's also double-sided because when people are acting out of their own experience, they don't know what's being harmful. So, the women in our lives who encouraged us to use what we have know learned are caustic chemicals... (laughing)
Treasure: In our hair... were doing that out of love. They wanted normalization for us, they wanted us to feel attractive. You know, so there's some interesting unpacking there. But moving forward to the awakening at college. Were you still straightening your hair using chemicals? Or just flat ironing it?
De: So when I got to college, because I did not know how to relax my hair myself, there were a few times where I would go to a beauty shop and I would have them do that to my hair. But on a regular basis, I was just straightening it and it was a challenge because my roots were a completely different texture than my ends. So even with straightening it, I mean, my roots were just crying out - let us be free!! (laughing) Let us grow!
Treasure: And you guys can't see De's hair, but De has what black people call 'good hair.’
Karen: (in awe) Ohh…? Okayyy…!!
Treasure: So, there's a looser curl pattern, in other words. So I can definitely understand why those little girls were giving her so much heat. Because they were probably just about to bite their tongue off about this good hair in their classroom. And it's long too?! Oh my God. (laughing all around)
De: It's mighty good.
Karen: As she runs her fingers slowly through her hair… (laughing)
De: But, you know, it's...
Treasure: But you were straightening it with an electric straightening comb, with a flat iron, with??
De: I was. I had both. I would use the flat iron on a daily basis just to work out the kinks, put a little bump into it, make sure that it was straight because I was so confused about why roots were a different texture than my ends, I would use a straightening comb especially on my edges so that you couldn't really see how curly my hair really was. And um, you know that was the ritual. But I would also say, in terms of gender expression, when I got to college that was the most feminine that I ever expressed myself.
I started wearing dresses. I wanted to pledge a sorority. Like all of my friends were girly girls and I wanted to fit in. I wanted to be dressed to the tees. I was that person, that student, that wasn't wearing the sweat suits. I was dressed up for class. I was in business suits and heels. When you saw De Nichols on campus, you knew that she meant business. And at the same time, I was in business school so I thought that was the way that I had to be.
And um… I don't know, it was, it was a matter of trying to find self-identity in the midst of also trying to fit in. And I struggled with that all throughout college and grad school. But the thing that started to play in grad school was me wearing my hair more natural, just as a thing, not necessarily overthinking it about in regards to who was I going to see on this particular day, am I gonna be in rooms full of white people where they're gonna ask me questions about my hair or think that I'm less professional because it's curly or who am I gonna run into who I may have a crush on and they want to see me with straight hair today. (Treasure laughing)
(emphatically) Like, I stopped caring about that stuff. But you know, as a political statement, you know, like give it to the man, when I finally cut my hair - it was the most liberating experience that I ever had because finally, no matter who was in the room, you gotta, like I'm coming as I am. And you're gonna love it, you're gonna respect it. And my hair is finally an extension of my truest self and throughout my entire life it never quite was. (Treasure & Karen: Mm..) It was a visual of who I wanted to be, not necessarily who I really was deep down inside.
Treasure: Mhm. Mhm.
De: So, I take damn good care of it. (laughing all around)
Karen: These curls! And you’re proud, too!
De: And today is not a good day. I just got off a flight and I didn't wash my hair before the flight. So, you know, it needs some brushing. But...
Karen: You're here as you are...
Treasure: Right. Your hair looks fantastic. As it always does. And I think the gender expression pieces is very important. You know, I was just talking to a fantastic poet who was our feature at the beginning of the episode, his name is Justin Phillip Reed. You know Justin?
De: I do know Justin.
Treasure: And you know, Justin is a queer Black man from South Carolina. And he was sharing with me, I hope it's okay to share this, he was sharing with me that he enjoys making an appointment with a fantastic female barber because Black barber spaces are, as we know, bastions of, somewhat toxic masculinity. Now! There may be some people listening who are getting mad, like, “No! That’s our culture space!!”
But I do think that we need to query when your safety and comfort is unsafe for other people. How, actually authentic and safe it is.
(questioning, critiquing) So, “in order for me to be happy and to be unfurled, I have to then make homophobic statements or you know, discuss things that could be construed as rape culture?”
And when you talked about your gender expression and your hair, it made me think of what you get to get, what you get to receive and what you have to give up.
De and Karen: Ah, mhmm.
Treasure: So now when you talk about your rituals with your hair, with other women, other ciswomen in your family, does that mean that now you can't have the same conversations? Or has that opened up that other world of the naturalistas…
Treasure: (giggling) …to you?
De: Yes, yes. (laughing all around) Um. So, my family and I, we talk about hair a lot. There are a lot of women in my family and we are extremely close, so we talk about everything. Like, literally, everything.
Treasure: Okay. (laughing)
De: And, um, when it comes to hair because so many of the younger women in my family have since gone natural, a lot of the adults in my mom's age group are now saying okay, so how do we do this? what does this look like? Of course, people in my grandmother's age group they don't really care, they have their wigs. They have their thing.
Treasure: Yeah, wigs are like hats.
De: Exactly. And they wear, they have some nice ones. So, it does become this different conversation, but the conversation still happens on an intimate scale with my family. When I go home to Memphis I still do my hair in the mirror alongside my mom. We're just doing different things to our hair and we're giving tips in different ways.
But yes, it's opened up a whole new gamut of who's caring or who's inquiring about my hair, and it’s other women trying to figure out, you know - like, so what products do you use?? (laughing) How do you get your curls to look like that? Are you 4C or 3B? (laughing)
You know, there are some more technical conversations that I've been having about hair and learning about hair over the last few years. Especially since going for the big chop. In regards of the rituals of the spaces where I get my hair done, oftentimes, so I go to both women and male barbers, men barbers …
And when I go to a salon where there's a woman doing everybody's hair, all different styles… I love, just how… the virtuosity of it. Like, how flexible women know how to do hair. Anyone could walk into these salons, like NAPPS, that's usually where I go - and that beautician at the front, no matter what's on your head, she knows how to do it, she knows how to make it look good. The challenge is that you're going to be in that salon for about two hours.
Treasure: Oh, yeah.
De: Because they're gonna take good care of it. They're gonna wash it, they're gonna make sure your edges are straight...
Treasure: And straight as in attractive... well groomed.
De: Yes, attractive, well groomed, sharp edges. All of that. If your hairs lookin dull they're going to add something extra to it to spruce it up. I love that. Oftentimes when I go to a barber shop I'm in a rush, I'm on my own out of town, I've got errands, I've got stuff to do. And I end up at in the seat of a male barber and what's funny that happens is that the whole vibe switches when I walk in. Sometimes they're still talking about sports and issues and politics and stuff in the ways that they want to but they change the music, you know - they play some R&B and some soul, they play Tony Baxter (laughing all around) - you know, they become extra careful about their words, they don't curse as much. I don't yet how I feel about that shift.
Part of me says be you, you know, do you. But part of me is also grateful that when you see me coming in, yeah, please let's not be sexist and misogynist and let's not flirt with me while I'm in your chair. I appreciate them embodying what can be stereotyped as being a 'gentlemen.' There have been some shops where I've entered and there's all men and then one woman barber. And I go to that woman barber and the vibe doesn't switch.
And when the vibe doesn't switch, I always listen out to her reaction and I appreciate that woman barbers hold their own in these spaces and give perspective and are not afraid to call people out. Because I don't want to step of the vibes of what's genuinely the space. However, I do think that we can hold each other accountable, no matter what our spaces are, to be good human beings. You know?
Treasure: Mhm. Mhm. Mm!!
Karen: So, I'm really curious Treasure. How much of what De is saying is resonating with you and your own hair journey and....
De: Right... right... who does your hair??
Treasure: Right... well, you know one of the things that's so valuable about me and Karen's collaboration is that I am biologically old enough to be her mother. (Karen giggling) So, you know, good Black don't crack. (laughing all around)
De: No wrinkles.
Treasure: Karen, you're twenty-???
Karen: I just turned 27 which is a shame because I've been writing everywhere that I'm 26 and you're 46 (Treasure cackles boisterously) and now we're one year off of the perfect two decades.
Treasure: Well, it is a perfect two decades because I'm 47...
Karen: Oh my God, I have to update our website.
Treasure: Okay, I'm starting to forget my age. Okay, I was born in 1971, and this is ... okay so I'm 46. (laughing) So, as you were talking, I have the perspective of the second wave natural hair movement. So you guys are like the third wave natural hair movement.
Karen: Oh... De: Mhm..?
Treasure: So the first wave natural hair movement was your grandparents and my parents, right? The Black Power movement. And it was a little didactic and short lived. People kind of faded back into straightening their hair because a lot of people didn't have, they didn't have the infrastructure we have now with the hair products and all the techniques that we have now.
That's why you can look at pictures of your grandparents and they got big Afros and you're like, where are those Afros now? They straighten the heck out their hair now. So, those were the people I was raised by. Now, my mother did not force me to perm my hair, but the community I was raised in, that was the standard, so I went and got it done.
But I do remember coming home every day after school in fifth grade and using the hot comb without their permission - old school hot comb on the stove with fire.
De: Oh my gosh. That’s hot!
Treasure: …And I had this ponytail that I wanted to keep straight and I burned it off.
Karen: You moved your hand and it was in your hand?
Treasure: And it was gone. It was over. (laughing all around)
Karen: De just held out her hand and looked at it like... wow.
Treasure: Exactly. And I remember, this was right before a trip up here to St. Louis to spend with my cousins and my mother's sister, and my mother just cut my hair. I had this little tiny Lupita Nyong'o, the TWA, the Teeny Weeny Afro, and I remember people complimenting it. But I remember feeling self-conscious because no other little girl in 1983, 82 had a little Teeny Weeny Afro. And then the next thing I moved to was a Jheri curl. And I was under the mistaken idea that my Jheri curl was gonna to look like the lead actress in Michael Jackson's Thriller video...
Karen: Uh huh… (laughing)
Treasure: Ola Ray, the beautiful and vivacious Ola Ray. She had this bouncing, you know, she probably had hair texture closer to De's, where even natural it's thick, so when you put processes on it, it looks different than my hair. My hair natural, it looks thick but if you were to straighten it, it's not thick. So, I got this curl and it was horrifying. I looked like a scarecrow.
Karen & De: (chorusing, high pitched, small voice, sympathetically and giggling) Aw! … Aw!
Treasure: They're laughing. (cackling and laughing) They’re both are like - you poor thing! (laughing all around, Treasure even louder laughter)
Karen: Well, I don't know whether to laugh or like make sympathetic noises. So we're both like... real awkward sounds. Like, (wheezing sounds)
Treasure: It was a mess. I had this white banana clip. Do you guys remember banana clips?
De: Mhm!! You shave your hair like this...
Treasure: Yes, exactly, De is putting both her hands on the sides of her head.
De: Like a mohawk.
Treasure: Yes. It was a mess. So that combined with early puberty, those are the pictures I want to burn. (laughing) Yes...
De: The Jheri curl reminds me of this story from my mom. So my mom had an Afro in the 70's and then transitioned to a Jheri curl before she went into that phase of like only wearing you know, a straight wrap and French Rolls.
Karen: That's the multiple styles we were talking about earlier.
De: Exactly. My mom had like four styles but when she had that Jheri curl, she always tell the experience of what made her stop doing the Jheri curl and it was that she was cooking some french fries, (Karen starts hyperventilating and laughing) she threw the french fries to the pot and her hair caught on fire!
(Oh no!! exclamations!)
De: She was just like, nope - that was this style. (laughing) And it's so funny, the way...
Treasure: Shouts out to Michael Jackson, if he's bald, if he shows up like you do...
De: Right. She was cooking french fries.
Karen: Can we talk about the moment that De brought french fries into this story?? Treasure's eyes got real big there, they’re like... dinner plates. (laughing all around) Like.. gasp! Oh no! It was like that “Home Alone” thing.
Treasure: For real. For real, that was a tragic black style epoch in the history of black hairstyles.
De: It does not need to come back.
Treasure: Yep, let's not return to that style.
De: There are a lot of styles that are coming back right now - like the whole, you know, taking the toothbrush and you're brushing your edges to make it look like...
Treasure: Oh yeah, the fake baby hair. Yeah.
De: The fake baby hair. That's coming back. Eyebrows. Speaking about different type of hair - eyebrows are a big thing. They make me feel super insecure. Uh, because I'm just like I know I have little caterpillars. (laughing all around)
Karen: I like it. I like that bringing the eyebrows into this conversation.
Treasure: I draw on mine.
De: Sometime, sometimes I fill 'em in, give a little shape to it. But there's a trend right now where young women and girls are making squiggly eyebrows.
Karen: (interrupting) Oh, I saw this.
De: So unless you get to the edge, it doesn't just go straight down like an arch, it squiggles its way down.
De: It really looks like a caterpillar.
Treasure: That's exciting.
(Yeahs all around)
Karen: My question is, have you seen it live? Like in person? Because I've just been on the internet.
Treasure: Is it on Instagram? Is it an Instagram thing?
De: Yeah, Instagrams.
Karen: Yeah, you know but like it's only a matter of time before that migrates out...
De: There's a Youtube tutorial...
Karen: Or putting glitter in your hair and beard.
De: Yeah. Treasure: Oh wow.
Treasure: Well, I mean, you know after the Jheri curl then I just had perms. And then I, my quote unquote "first college" moving to California from Mississippi. So I moved to the Bay area in a very impressionable moment, and I was 18, had never spent any real time outside of Mississippi except to go to St. Louis to visit family. And Oakland, California is where I received my anti-capitalist understanding of the world - where artists told me that it was gauche to wear big logos. You know we were in a big logo moment in the early 90's.
Karen: Hmmm. I remember that, yeah.
Treasure: So, yeah, if you were wearing Louis Vuitton it had to be an LV on every bit of your body, including your earrings and your underwear.
De: I remember that with Burberry.
Treasure: Yeah, Burberry. Everyone had Burberry. Hilfiger. And it was radical artists in Oakland that explained to that going around advertising for industry, which is unkind to say the least to people of color, um, will not get you any points with them.
Treasure: I'm still uncomfortable with logos.
Treasure: And they gave me my natural hair consciousness. So it was radical Black people in Oakland, California that were like, really? Perms? (laughing)
De: Yeah, like, “you still on this?”
Treasure: Right. Perms?? This is 1994, what are you doing?
De: Right! Right!
Treasure: (laughing) So, that was when I cut my hair off - what they're calling the big chop now. I remember going to a man's barber shop and they kept asking me was I sure. And I was like, I'm sure. And I remember they cut it off and the men came and stood around and were like, “Okay, we sanction this.” The Black men were like, “We will go along with this - you look pretty cute.”
Karen: You're like - did I ask you??
Treasure: Exactly. (laughing all around) And then it was dreads - I had two sets of dreads. And now I just, I can't imagine chemically-processing my hair.
De: No, I would never do it.
Treasure: I just can't imagine it.
De: And, I mean, I think about what I'm always thinking or remembering the pain that I was often in, like the discomfort of sitting there.
Karen: Those are early memories too - so you remember them.
De: Yes!! Yes.
Karen: The smells, the feelings, right.
De: The smell… yes…
Karen: Those are lingering.
De: And also when you know better, you do better. And for me, I don't, I still don't understand how Chris Rock made this documentary, but I remember the documentary "Good Hair" and I contest the notion that Black women don't have good hair. I believe that all women, all people have good hair and who are we to say what's good and bad.
De: Your hair is your hair.
Karen: It is.
De: And at the same time when I think about that phrase, and the damage that processing my hair did to it, it actually did strip it of its natural you know zeal and vibrancy and strength - my hair was so damaged because of those products that I would never go back to it, never. And um, cancer - like, when we think about the things. And not just relaxers and stuff, but our deodorant, our perfumes, all these things that are laying on top of our skin day in and day out, I've become more and more conscious about not only what's going into my body, but what's going on my body. And for that reason, I can't put that stuff on my scalp. Or I won't put that on my scalp or my kids' scalp.
I don't have kids, but when I do, like no... I just can't. I think there's a rise, especially amongst Black women I know right now, where we are hyper conscious about these things. I don't think this wave of the "natural hair movement" quote unquote is going anywhere. If anything, I think it's expanding to where we're thinking about naturalness in everything. There are more Black folks who are becoming vegans day in and day out. There are more new product lines by Black and African folks, and just folks in general, who are like we want things that are actually made from the earth not from a lab. And thinking about that, I feel like for the health of my body with knowing that those are better options, that's where I want to go. And so, no. No chemicals, no. Maybe some lotion.
Treasure: Right. (laughing)
De: Put a little sheen on it. Nothing to change textures. I don't even dye my hair anymore. You know when I was younger, I didn't even dye my hair that much but I even remember that burning. I remember doing some very stupid things trying to dye my hair using Kool-Aid.
Treasure: Oh, the Kool-Aid dye!
De: The Kool-Aid packet.
Treasure: Oh, I should do… (abruptly) But actually that might be a less chemically invasive way to do it because it's a rinse.
De: Yeah, use it as a rinse...
Treasure: The Kool-Aid dye as a rinse. Interesting… you just gave me an idea! But if I were do blue for real, I would have to bleach my hair and then put blue on top.
De: Exactly. And Kool-Aid...
Karen: (laughin) Kool-Aid would be your gateway.
De: And time! I don't have time to sit in these beautician's seats all day.
Treasure: (laughing) That is part of my natural hair journey, is the games that God love 'em, Black woman beauticians used to play. I hear they don't play 'em like they used to. But they used to play this deep conditioner game. That's where you give everybody the same appointments and then you put everybody under the dryer with a deep conditioner. What time is your appointment? 2:00? 2:00? 2:00? Wait a minute… Then they just sit you all there and you wind up being in there for more than two hours. It used to be like four or five hours.
Karen: Do they charge by the hour?
De and Treasure: No! No! (laughing)
Karen: No, but you're just stuck there though?
Treasure: But you will be stuck there.
De: Right. Under the dryer. Dripping from the back.
Treasure: And bring some money because you're gonna eat there. Somebody'll come in and sell a plate.
Karen: (understanding) Mmm. Ahh…
De: (laughing) Bring your dollars. While you're sitting there you're gonna get some DVDs. (laughing all around) You might get some new socks.
Treasure: That's right. The entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well in the Black hair care industry. Talk about collaborative...
De: That's interesting...
Treasure: Hello! That would be an interesting thing to talk about collaborative economies using the Black woman salon as the locus of that. That would be interesting, but this is about hair. Not about that.
Karen: No, no, well I think...
De: The hair end... (laughing)
Karen: Well that's one thing about our podcast, I think that it's so often the topic AND... and we dig deep into it and make it more than the surface. As we said before, we just talked to Joss and we were supposed to be talking about fashion but, right, obviously we're going to talk more than just fashion.
And I can't help but think that in this conversation you've brought up so much about what is natural? And what you have within yourself to work with? And things like that… versus what other people want you to do or what other people want you to want. And so I'm wondering about how that relates to your work around social change or about art.
I know that you're navigating what it means to be a public persona as you go out and speak and do workshops. But then you are also always hustling for this fellowship or that thing and there's parts where you work with institutions and work with groups, but then there's other things where this is very much your project and you're bringing that to life.
De: Yeah, I am very much, yeah, a come as you are type of person, accept me as I am type of person. And I won't pursue anything or collaborate with anyone who is not willing to let me be me. I think I've spent so much, I spent so much of my youth trying to be that respectable person and dress up. I still dress up. I still wear... I wear damn good blazers.
Treasure: That's right. You look damn good, De!
De: Right. I love my blazers. (laughing all around) But it's not the same, it's not like I'm gonna get into a suit and wear some heels and get my hair done for this person or this event or this space. I wear my blazers for many reasons - one, that connection to my youth and having to dress up a lot, but, like, that comfort that came with that. The fact that I'm anemic and I get cold. There's a utilitarian purpose of me wearing jackets and it’s like if I'm gonna do it I'm gonna look damn good while I'm trying to stay warm.
But there's also that sense of this is my invisibility cloak. You can't see me sweat in this blazer. And my armpits sweat - good gracious. But like, in addition to that, my gender expression has always been more masculine of center and as a kid I was deemed as a tomboy. As I grew up, and my family struggled and stuff, like a big part of that was that my big brother's clothes were the clothes that I had. So that sense of functionality with what I was wearing and how that the effected the ways that my gender expression was.
I think I went into a high femme phase in college because, for the first time, I had the money to get all those name brand things. I was in school on scholarship and it was the peer pressure as well that, oh all of my friends they're coming from these rich backgrounds, these wealthy families - I am not. And so it was a matter of trying to fit in. Once I got tired of that, I was like, I can't keep trying to be hyper femme when I got these broad shoulders. (Treasure giggling) I can't keep trying to be something other than I am and I found comfort in my uniform, which is blue jeans, a button down or a t-shirt and my blazer and some sneakers or some boots. Like very simple, most of the time I'm wearing black and blue jeans. Today is a different day. (Treasure laughing) But most....
Treasure: But you've still got the black and blue palette on.
De: Yeah. I pulled this shirt out of the laundry, didn't even iron it. (Treasure laughing) And it's just like...
Karen: (earnestly) Thank you. Thank you for coming as you are! (laughing all around)
De: Yes! I am who I am... Yes!
Karen: It's a compliment that you did that.
De: Yes. And as it relates to my hair, that was very much of the equation too. That I wanted to stop doing that in anybody's space. And has it affected people's perceptions of me? I don't know. Because I'm not thinking about that stuff anymore.
Karen: Such a relief... it's like, “Whoop!”
De: Yeah, well, maybe they are making assumptions about who I am based on how I carried my hair but for me, when I chopped it off, that was the first time I ever felt like my hair was my crown. And I wear that proudly. I don't know, it's a part of my becoming. That's when, it was during that time, when my confidence finally reached a peak. And I felt more determined than ever. I felt like a super hero because of my hair. And it was for having less hair on my head...
Treasure & Karen: Mmmmm. Hmmmm...
De: It was for having less straight hair on my head. And in my family there have been concerns about my hair. Primarily from my grandmother because throughout her entire life she's had short hair and she endured so much colorism and so much prejudice because of that. She had a sister who was pretty much the light skinned version of her, who had longer hair. And that sense of internalizing people saying that you're not beautiful and then fearing that your granddaughter who looks like a spitting image of you is also gonna have to endure that now that she's cut her hair. And so, when I see my grandma, oftentimes she'll just say, (higher voice, cracking) “So you know are you going to grow it back? I can't wait to see what it looks like!”
Karen: Oh my gosh.
De: (louder) I'm like,” Grandma, I don't know if you're going to live that long to see that day!!” (laughing all around) Oh my goodness!
Karen: As she’s tapping her wrist.
De: And you know, my mom sometimes she'll chime in and she'll say you know as you get older it's harder for your hair to grow back. So if you want to do it, try to do it early. I said, Mom, have you put your fingers in my hair in awhile? It's pretty thick in there. I think I got a few more years before I have those types of challenges. But I'm not thinking about that. If it never grows back, so be it. I will wear it proudly. And I wish that for every person when it comes to hair. That we don't have to let society determine what we do, how we wear it. And we can find ourselves by treating it well. Because your hair tells a lot about you - your health and yourself and your stress levels and stuff. And at the same time, that we can become our fullest selves by embracing it how it grows, accepting it as it is.
Treasure: Yes. Definitely. I mean what that piece that you said about authenticity and about showing up as yourself is so important and bringing it back to the Ferguson uprising that occurred, that was sparked by the murder of Michael Brown, Jr. but had been bubbling under for years - and how that also colluded with your move toward natural hair. I think it's so interesting how social movements, particularly racialized social movements in the US, coincide with hair choices. Because as a young hip hop artist in the 90's, I loved Tribe Called Quest and the Native Tongues, and they were all about Afrocentric clothing and natural hair. And that was after the Rodney King riots.
So it was very similar. And, of course, before that it was the 60's we could talk about all the long hot summers that happened. They're making a movie about Detroit but it happened in Oakland and Newark. And that coincided with Afrocentric dress and natural hair. And now we have you beautiful young people improving on a design with it. So, as we move forward, as we move forward, how might we take the lessons of authenticity that we get from the natural hair movement and translate that into justice work?
De: Hmm. Hm!! You know I think a big part of that is liberation work. Um, locally, in our city here in St. Louis throughout these past few years since 2014, so many of us have chopped off our hair. Going for the big chop.
Treasure: Mmmmm. Ummmhmmmm.
De: Kayla Reed. Alexis Templeton. Brittany Ferrell. Kira Van Niel. So many people, Diamond Latchison. Cutting, just cuttin it off. And I haven't asked all of these women their background reasonings, but there's something there. And I think that something is different from say, you know the 70's where people were growing afros, letting it grow like Samson you know? I think now there's that combination that we want less of the complexity. Like, in speaking for myself a big part of it when it relates to justice is that one of the quotes that I say often is a Lauryn Hill line that "It could all be so simple."
Treasure: Mmmm! (chuckles)
De: "…but you'd rather make it hard."
Treasure: Come on Lauryn.
De: And I relate that to my hair in the sense that throughout this movement, I would even overcomplicate how I showed up. Saying, oh I gotta have a t-shirt that has somebody's quote on it and wear these combat boots and have some marker that stands out because DeRay is wearing a blue vest every day. (Treasure chuckling) Thinking that we had to be a character.
And it could all be so simple. That if we come as we are, if we do more with less, that if we accept people as they show up, that perhaps then we can see the humanity within them by not overcomplicating what we see. That sense of simplification. I think to Damon Davis, my brother! (emphatically) Dude only wears black.
It started a little bit before Michael Brown was shot, but it became even more amplified. That notion of simplicity I think definitely relates to how we lessen the distractions, so that we can stay focused on freedom and stay focused on justice. And I think that's part of what it is as it relates to hair and justice right now.
Treasure: Mmm. Fantastic.
Karen: And I'm also reminded that some of the people that you named, and also other people, there's a queer component to it as well. It's not just women who are doing this, there’s nonbinary folk, and you also see that outside of those who are black.
There's something going on where people are doing fades, they're doing the undercut and all different things and I'm thinking about what Tef Poe said at Chaifetz Arena at SLU at the interfaith service during Ferguson October, that this isn't made for TV. And it reminds so much of what you said about the shift that happened when you stopped thinking about what other people want from you or who might be looking at you and more, how are you showing up for yourself?
Karen: And what are you standing for?
De: Yeah. We don't have to be characters. And part of the struggle is that we're trying to not be characters. We're trying to not be, you know, just a stereotype, the point is humanity. Like, I'm not trying to fake the funk. You know? It’s like, I'm gonna bring my nerdiness wherever I am. I'm gonna bring my Blackness, my queerness, my feminism, my liberation, my joy. And I'm not gonna flinch while I'm doin’ it!
And I think that type of authenticity is something I see in so many other people too. And I really appreciate it. Like to see someone come alive within themselves, for whatever reason, whether it's hair, whether it's their choices of who they love, whether it's how they live their lives, it's like that is for me the point. To live your best life.
Karen: Well De I'm so glad that you seem to be doing your best to live your best life. It’s awesome! (laughing) Ahhh!! Treasure, would you be able to share our questions for our listeners?
Treasure: Of course! I mean I just wanna thank De again for coming and talking with us. That was a fantastic conversation.
De: Yes. Yes.
Treasure: Um. Questions. Who raised you and how did they influence your hair. listeners? How do you understand the relationship between social change and art? And is your artistry shown in your hair? And... how do you manage your public and private persona? We'd love to hear from you at email@example.com
Karen: And I think the lesson we got today is that we aren't mean to be personas - we might have them, but we're here to show up for ourselves. This is a humanizing project. The work of liberation is a humanizing one.
Treasure: Mmmmm. Yes! I got to give you some snaps for that.
Karen: So we have some things for you to do: visit whoraisedyoupodcast.com to learn more and support us. You can book us or donate to buy us a cup of tea. We're having some High Mountain tea from Taiwan. I made it a little weak this time, maybe I'll make it stronger next time.
Treasure: It was tasty!
De: It was good.
Karen: Oh great! We had this whole conversation listeners about sweetened tea versus unsweetened tea...
Treasure: Yes.... the southerners here and our sweet tea....
Karen: With southerners here we'll make sure to have some honey. So support media by people of color from flyover country - that's the sweet thing to do. Like us on Facebook and Instagram. You can email us at whoraisedyoupodcast.com to suggest poets, guests, topics and to help with transcription. Treasure?
Treasure: Awesome. This was hosted by Treasure Shields Redmond and Karen Jia Lian Yang. Consulting by the Farfetched Collective - contact firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more about how they can help you launch or expand your project, business or nonprofit with their agency framework.
Thanks to De for being a guest on today's show. And you can support her work by joining her at FoodSpark.org. They've got upcoming events and they've got a book of recipes based on the wonderful conversations, based on the wonderful meals that center their conversations on everything - race, class, gender, ability, age. Look her up, she's @de_nichols on all the social media interwebs platforms.
Karen: Yeah... and can we take a second? Can we take a second to talk about Black Skillet (Treasure & De: AHHH!! Yesss…) because I know that's something you're working on Treasure but the thing is, De is also a Black artist who would benefit from Black Skillet...
Treasure: Yes... Definitely... Hadn't talked about that but BlackSkilletFunders.tumblr.com is where you can find out more about our first event that is happening. It's happening September 16th, 2017 at Yeyo Arts on Jefferson in St. Louis. And it's an event where artists can submit proposals for mini-grants that we're going to give them on the spot. The money used from your ticket goes to support an artist that night.
We're gonna get together, have a delicious soul food meal and then we're going to vote on proposals and using our collective process, some Black artist is going to leave that night with all the money that we collected. So that's BlackSkilletFunders.tumblr.com. You can look it up on Eventbrite under Black Skillet Funders to purchase a ticket. Or you can look me up on Facebook at Treasure Shields Redmond and contact me so we can talk more about Black Skillet Funders.
Karen: I'm also mindful that even as she's talking about this being a St. Louis thing, but even if you're not from St. Louis, please, do something similar for Black artists everywhere. If this could spread that would be awesome. Thanks so much.
(music fades in)
Baby I just need you to know
Your essence is beautiful
I’ll always love you so (Oh)}
(music fades out)