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Get Pretty and Political at Black Beauty Salons 27

Guest blogger Gail Sachson owns Ask Me About Art, offering lectures, tours and program planning.

Irish Watson, owner of the Wow If Looks Could Kill Hair Studio in a busy downtown Dallas office building, is the epitome of the black beauty salon owner of  the future, building upon the fortitude of  women who owned black salons of the past. Watson is independent, involved in the city, and manages a busy  award-winning  social activist schedule while parenting. She is the future because she is an  intrepid entrepreneur. While she cuts and twists hair, she is planning for another bigger and better salon and talking of creating a franchise. Watson sees herself as a lifestyle guru as well. A sign in her her shop reads, “Life is not about finding yourself. It is about creating yourself.”

Black women have been creating themselves by creating their own jobs in the hair salon field for years.  Owning a beauty shop was one of the only ways to compete with others in the job market, to find financial freedom, stability and independence.

Tiffany Gill, former Assistant Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin has written extensively about the history of black beauty salons. “The whole idea of wanting to be respected as business women was a challenge they all faced when getting started in the industry and continues throughout the twentieth century,” she wrote. “They struggled with people not taking them seriously and not taking their business seriously.”

The African American Museum in Fair Park is applauding that history and today’s stylists in “Black Beauty Salons and Beauty Shop Politics”, a show of 29 panoramic black-and-white 16″ x 22″  photographs by Paul Greenberg, a retired physician and well known  Dallas photographer. A social-documentary photographer, Greenberg has long been inspired to spotlight those in mostly unheralded occupations: museum guards, waitresses, caregivers, immigrant shopkeepers. Using a google search (“black beauty parlors dallas”), Greenberg surprised stylists from Oak Cliff to Frisco. He cajoled them with an earnest plea, an endearing personality and a promise of a photograph of themselves if they would agree to have their photo taken amidst the posters, pin-ups, rate sheets, hair rollers and dryers in their shops. Only one refused. She just didn’t feel pretty that day.

The smile-inducing, yet provocative show at the museum documents the staying power of black salons owned and operated by women. We note curling irons in most of the photos and learn that there are many other irons in the fire. The salons act as community centers,  places for chatter, camaraderie, girl talk AND political talk. They have been historically places to vote and to register for medicare, as well as get your hair done. With a little pampering, it seems, women feel prettier and more powerful. Political candidates would be well-advised to hold rallies at the hair dryers.

Dallas artist Pamela Nelson, long interested in women’s causes, explains that “We need a place in our neighborhoods where women can trust each other and get together in an intimate space.” Most of these salons are one- or two-chair operations, thus one easily overhears and joins in the conversation in the next chair.  Advice on hair color, candidates and causes are exchanged. Nelson says, “Women have always changed the community,” says Nelson. “Libraries and swimming pools happen because beauty parlors breed activism.” She smiles and adds a personal note: “I go to the salon so I don’t have to go into therapy.