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  • The Politics of Hair: Expressing Identity, Strengthening Community

    In the first part of an interview with Wanda Henderson of Wanda’s on 7th, we got an overview of her origins in the Shaw neighborhood of Washington, D.C. her journey to create and manage one of the top hair salons in the city, and the legendary history of the space her business occupies. Here, we discuss the politics of black hair and how her salon fits into the texture of her community.

    What drew you to doing hair?

    I have three younger sisters and a single mom. My sisters had hair. They had a lot of it. It would take my mom all day on Saturdays to do all of our hair. So that’s one of the things that I did for my mom, at nine years old, so she wouldn’t have to deal with that problem.

    I liked it a lot. I used to do different hairstyles on them, and they looked so cute with their creative styles. So I grew into loving that, and first I set out—I went to school, and I went into government, and then I said, “Just let me do what it is that I want to do.”

    What influences hair trends today?

    It’s how you like it, versus what we envision your look to be. I went to a Barber Bash at the Convention Center, and they actually drew the whole face of President Obama into someone’s head in forty-five minutes. One guy painted a pelican. He drew a pelican and then colored it in on the back of somebody’s head. It was something to see!

    Hair shows always provide the new trends and new creativities. Then you have books and things like that, and then you put your own touch and twist on it. And then what stars and celebrities are doing—everybody wants their hair like the celebrities.

    Will to Adorn
    A young visitor gets her hair braided at the 2013 Smithsonian Folklife Festival’s Will to Adorn program.
    Photo by Karen Kasmauski, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    Hairstyles are definitely creative expression, but there’s something more to it than that, right? Even now there’s Maxine Waters with the Bill O’Reilly comment about her “James Brown wig” that he was distracted by. What are your thoughts on the politicization of African American female hair?

    Well, one thing: Maxine Waters can wear her hair the way she wants. And if it looks like James Brown and that’s what she wants, then that’s fine. Now if Mr. O’Reilly wants to do something different with his hair, he can do that too. He can wear his hair the way he wants. I think Maxine Waters is a beautiful woman, and hair is what brings out your beauty.

    No matter what race you are, be it black, white, Jewish—because I have all of these types of clients—it’s what they like and what you can create with that. We do a lot of creations with color. We have Caucasian women with braids, we have Caucasian women with locks. We have African American women in blonde hair, red hair. We have the purple hair. We have the short hair, the natural hair with orange. People go over the rainbow in the lengths of hair.

    It’s what makes you feel good. If that’s what they’re feeling today, that’s what they do. And people can say, “Well, Maxine Waters and her James Brown hair.” He was trying to be offensive. Okay?

    And he talked about Gabby Douglas. They were saying that her hair was nappy when she was in the Olympics. So you have straight, wavy, curly, and extra curly hair. If your hair gets wet, it’s a different texture. If you sweat, what do you do to fix it? It’s natural if you sweat. It’s going to happen. I mean, we should know and understand that, and not take away from her Olympic ability to focus on her hair.

    So the thing I’m saying about hair is it’s how you want to wear it and what that expresses. It’s a lot of different things. Some people wear their locks, and they’re sticking straight up. Some of them are twisted and very neatly going back. We do a lot with hair, but I don’t think that hair is offensive to anyone.

    Will to Adorn
    The 1985 Folklife Festival brought African American cornrowers as an example of “Cultural Conservation,” and they shared their skills with visitors of all ages.
    Photo by Kim Nielsen, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    How does this salon benefit your community?

    We offer a service to anyone in the community. We do all textures of hair, all races, nationalities.

    And we don’t just do hair here. We have art events, like Art All Night, one we do every year. We’ll feature an artist, we may have a band, we have refreshments, we may do some face painting, and people just come in. We’ve had over 2,000 people come through our salon in a night. They dance. We have these flash mobs that come in and do the Soul Train line for thirty minutes. We really party in here, and it’s so much fun!

    We had a Sip-and-Shop, where we move our stations. We have fourteen vendor tables around the salon, with fourteen different people selling products. They would come in at the door for $5 and get a complimentary glass of wine, and they just sip and shop.

    Right now we’re working with the city on Books and Barbershops: kids come to the barbershop, and they’ll read a book instead of being on a laptop or computer. We do internships for students in high school that want to become cosmetologists or barbers. They’ll get paid through the city. We’ll let them come and spend, like a job, five days a week to come in for about five hours. So as much as I can get involved with the city, I do.

    And you want to start your own hairdressing school?

    Cosmetology school, barbering school. It gives back to the community also. Let them learn a trade and understand how cosmetology really is, the hard work and how if you want to make a lot of money, this is what you want to do, then make sure that they learn everything that there really is about cosmetology.

    We’re still working on that. We’ve been to the city council. I went down to the Department of Small and Local Business Development. I would like to be based Shaw, but Shaw’s very expensive. I may think about over in Anacostia or somewhere over there near a Metro.

    Angela Calonder and Wanda Henderson
    Wanda Henderson chats with her receptionist, Linda Mack (left).
    Photo by Angela Calonder

    That’s great. Whenever I’ve come in here, I’ve enjoyed talking with you and have a lot of admiration for you and all the things you’ve done.

    That means a lot, because growing up, it’s always important to have that person that you can look up to. I’ve had some young ladies that were customers, or that have been in the area, and said, “Ms. Wanda, I do hair now. I used to watch you.” I get so touched, because they do so well now. They say, “I just watched you when I was growing up. You just didn’t realize how much I was watching you.”

    Wanda’s on 7th is located at 1851 Seventh St. NW in Washington, D.C. Its next Art All Night event is on Saturday, September 23.

    Angela Calonder is a freelance photographer, videographer, and blogger who has done documentation work for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival and Freedom Sounds, heralding the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Find more of her work on her LAZYAC blog.

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