She is the author of Hair Story: my favorite book about Black hair and History.
Hello Lori, thanks for doing this interview. Can you please introduce yourself to our readers? Where did you grow up and go to school?
I grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I had a pleasant childhood but knew I wanted to go to the East Coast for college and experience a different part of the US. So I went to Smith College in Northampton, MA. I then moved to New York City and after two years of working in public relations enrolled at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. I decided it was time to truly pursue my dream to be a professional writer.
When and how did you come up with the idea to write Hair Story?
Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America began as my Master’s Thesis in graduate school. I wanted to really investigate why Black people’s hair is so complicated, for both Black and non-Black people.
There is obviously a lot of research behind your book. How long did it take you to write it?
Well, I wrote it with a friend, Ayana Byrd, who had also done a research paper on hair in college. But in terms of how long it took us to actually research and write the book together, I’d say we did it in about six months. Having a writing partner makes you more efficient.
What was the most fascinating fact that you came across while doing the research?
Probably the fact that in some African countries, men in high ranking positions would shave their wives hair off and weave it into their own.
Do you know the meaning behind this?
I don’t know the exact meaning, but we do know that it was very high ranking men in the society who would wear their wives hair. The bigger and more elaborate the hairstyle implied more power in the community.
And the most ugly one?
That African men and women adored their hair, cared for it lovingly and appreciated it’s great strength and beauty until they were forced to adopt a European standard of beauty.
I was amazed by how our hair was such an intrinsic part of our being. Hairstyles were like a sign language and still today you can see this. In Suriname where I am from there is a headwrap named “Meet me on the corner”. Could it be that this is why hair is so deep for us? Or is our hair just not that deep at all today? At least not deeper or more important than women’s hair in other cultures?
You know I think some parts of our cultural heritage are always with us, even if we don’t recognize it consciously. That’s why we wrote Hair Story so we of the African Diaspora understand why we like to dress our hair up, why we feel so dispirited if our hair doesn’t look the way we want it to, etc. Our history, or rather our hairstory is a part of all of us.
I am aware that in other cultures people cut their hair short as a sign of mourning when a partner dies but I have never read about or seen a culture where hair was such an intrinsic part of a people and even personalities. Have you?
You’re right. Hair is very important in almost every single culture. And of course it means something different in each community. I can’t say I’ve studied every other culture to know if I can answer this question with authority. I would like to know though if someone comes up with another group of people who are so connected to their hair.
Now the question that I still didn’t find an answer on is where did the Afro originate? Is this an American invention?
I would say that Black Americans popularized the stylized Afro hair cut, but I don’t know if any one person can claim they “invented” it.
Why do you think so many of our women relax their hair despite the damage?
I don’t like to judge or guess as to why women wear their hair the way they do. I’m happy that we as Black women have so many choices with our hair, but I do believe that many women of color are still under the impression that if they’re hair isn’t straight, then it isn’t right. And that does sadden me.
Now let’s talk about Spain and your new book: Kinky Gazpacho sounds like another great read. But I am curious why Spain? How did you come to the decision to go to Spain?
My fascination with Spain started at a very early age. I started taking Spanish classes in the 5th grade and every since then became obsessed with the idea of visiting the Iberian Peninsula.
Where did you live and what was your favorite spot? And your favorite food?
During my junior year of college, I lived in a small college town about two hours west of Madrid called Salamanca. The university there is the oldest in Europe. I lived with a Spanish family for a semester and then in my own apartment with friends for the second semester. My favorite food during that time was an apple tart. I’d eat one every single day!
How is being Black in Spain different from being Black in America?
That’s a really good question and one I tried to answer in new book Kinky Gazpacho: Life, Love & Spain. I don’t think I answered it completely in the book and I don’t think I can answer it fully here, but I will say that race relations are really different. On the surface it may seem that the Spanish people are less racist than in the United States because they don’t have a history of segregation and slavery like the U.S. (although Africans were enslaved in Spain for hundreds of years!) But there is a lot of ignorance one has to deal with as a person of color in Spain because it is and has been a very homogenous country.
Can you give an example?
For example, during Carnaval in Spain, when the people dress up in costumes and frolic all over the streets, many Spaniards dress up as Black people with exaggerated mammy costumes, big butts, big breasts and black paint on their faces. They love this costume and in no way think it’s inappropriate. I get really mad whenever I see this costume and have to do a lot of explaining as to why it’s culturally insensitive and just plain rude and offensive.
I just saw this new Spike Lee movie Miracle at St. Anne. There is a scene where this Black soldier explains how free he feels while he is in a war on foreign ground in Italy and yet he feels like he can be him. He is not “just” a Black man in the US. Of course that was during world war II which is a while ago but can you relate to this feeling?
There is definitely a sense of freedom from America’s preoccupation with race in Spain and other parts of Europe, I believe. A person feels more liberty to be his own person instead of running up against the stereotypes and expectations of what it means to be authentically Black here in the States.
Can we read more about this in the book?
Have you encountered any negativity about your hair in Spain?
No. Just questions.
Can you give an example?
Like my Spanish family members want to know what certain styles are called. They didn’t understand the difference between braids and dreadlocks. These questions were not offensive. They really wanted to know how I could do so many different things with my hair. The only thing I find particularly annoying is that people like to touch my sons’ hair when we’re in Spain because it is very puffy and curly. But that happens in the United States too!
Any particular positivity’s?
Did you ever relax your hair? If yes why and when did you go natural? If no why not?
My mother started relaxing my hair when I was about nine years old. I wore it relaxed until I was 26 years old because I believed there were no alternatives for my hair. Growing up in the Midwest in the 80s and early 90s, I never saw anyone wearing natural hairstyles. Once I moved to New York City after college and got a taste of how many wonderful things we could do with our hair, I started to experiment. And after doing the research for my book, Hair Story, I just knew I had to go natural to pay respect to the long journey my hair had been through.
How do you take care of your daughter’s hair?
I have two sons. And we cut their hair short and put lots of moisturizer in it!!!
And what is your own hair care regimen?
I am the laziest person when it comes to my hair. I wear it in locks so I have minimal maintenance. I wash, twist and moisturize. Sometimes I put it in a ponytail.
Natural hair is quite hip right now. Do you think this is just a fashion phase? Once it’s over every one will go relax and straighten again?
I hope not. I hope women are learning that they have options with their hair. I hope we can stop policing each other over our choices. Most of all I want women to stop feeling that relaxing their hair is necessary for success.
I am not sure if this is too personal to ask if it is please just skip the question but I wonder what made you come back to the US? Not that living in America is bad, I just wonder because when I heard on Michel Martin it sounded that you felt right at home in Spain.
I came back to the US because I wanted to establish my career as a writer in the US. I am not opposed to living abroad and may do so in the future.
Are you going back to Spain often?
We try to go back every summer for a couple of months.
Can we expect more books and writings about Spain or what can we expect next?
I’m working on fiction right now. I’ve written a young adult novel that I’m revising and an adult novel that I hope will see the light of day. It’s about the relationship between a White woman and the Black woman she hires to be her nanny. I also write on my blog, My American Meltingpot about issues of cultural diversity. (MyAmericanMeltingpot.com)
Do you have a last word or message for our readers?
Thank you for this opportunity and please remember that when it comes to our hair, we have so many choices.