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Hair salons have been a safe space for Black women for decades, even through COVID

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

We're going to spend a few minutes talking about some special places for many of us, places where even if you're new to a city, you instantly feel at home - safe even. For NPR's Taylor Jennings-Brown, that's the hair salon.

TAYLOR JENNINGS-BROWN, BYLINE: I grew up going to hair salons like clockwork, whether that was someone's makeshift kitchen salon or my mom's friend's shop across town. For decades, hair salons have been a safe space for Black women. You're surrounded by women who look like you and understand you. For many women of color, it's the one place we can just chill and be ourselves - no judgment. So you can imagine, when I moved from North Carolina to Maryland, I was pressed to find as many of these kinds of safe spaces as possible. And the moment I stepped into Salon 2FIVE8...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hello. How are you?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Hello.

JENNINGS-BROWN: ...I got just that.

DEVETA WILLIAMS: My name is DeVeta, and I'm from Greenbelt, Md.

JENNINGS-BROWN: DeVeta Williams is a hairstylist and the co-owner of Salon 2FIVE8 with her business partner, Tierra Nash.

TIERRA NASH: My name is Tierra Nash. I'm from Oxon Hill, Md.

JENNINGS-BROWN: While many businesses had to shut their doors because of COVID, they actually just opened up in August, which Nash admits...

NASH: It was a risk, but it was also - this was the time that it worked out. So I don't know if it's because it was a pandemic going on and the space was empty, but it worked out for us.

JENNINGS-BROWN: And just to be clear - everyone here is masked up and socially distanced.

(SOUNDBITE OF HAIR WASHING)

JENNINGS-BROWN: Nash and Williams both recall similar experiences of being in hair salons throughout not only their childhood but their whole lives.

WILLIAMS: I grew up in a hair salon. I'm a shop baby.

JENNINGS-BROWN: I'd never heard of a shop baby before, but now that I think about it, I know a few shop babies back home.

WILLIAMS: All of my life, I had never had no job. I've always been in the hair salon when I was in - like, I've never worked anywhere but the hair salon. When I was 11, I was a shampoo assistant for my aunt. So I have been in the salon, like, all of my life.

JENNINGS-BROWN: Her mom also worked in a salon, so she really is a shop baby. And Nash agrees. She shares one of her earliest memories with her cousin in her own aunt's hair salon.

NASH: Maybe when I was about 7, she used to work at the shops downtown. She used to take us to work with her, and we got lost in the shops, and we got tore up (laughter) when she found us. So that's probably the earliest memory.

JENNINGS-BROWN: One of Williams' clients, Courtney Porter, is in the shop getting her usual cut and curl.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLOW DRYER RUNNING)

JENNINGS-BROWN: While she's under the hair dryer, she talks about what being at the salon means to her.

COURTNEY PORTER: You have your specific days. So you go to the salon every single, let's say, Wednesday, so you know your Wednesday crew. So the community of being in a hair salon is, like, probably one of the better things that us, as Black girls, can actually be a part of.

JENNINGS-BROWN: The passion Nash and Williams have for their salon reminds me a lot of my hairstylist growing up. They all take so much pride in their work. The salon is like a second home. And Williams' clippers are like an extension of her body, her own form of therapy.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLIPPERS BUZZING)

WILLIAMS: I'm here more than I am at home. It's my muse. I love everything about it. When I'm having a bad day, I'd rather be in here cutting. So it's not work to me. It's something - it's a passion I have. It's something I love to do.

JENNINGS-BROWN: Hair salons are a key part of the Black community. And even though a lot of things seem like they've changed permanently since COVID, I have a strong feeling that this tradition is safe. You come to get your hair done, but you leave with so much more - a sense of belonging and being understood. And that is the true magic of a day at the salon.

Taylor Jennings-Brown, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE KNIFE SONG, "THE CAPTAIN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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