Melissa Harris-Perry: Welcome back to The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry.
First Lady Michelle Obama has been on tour for her new book, The Light We Carry. During one recent event, she revealed that she intentionally waited until she left the White House to finally wear her hair in braids.
First Lady Michelle Obama: As black women, we deal with it, the whole thing about do you show up with your natural hair. Braids y'all. As First Lady, I did not wear braids.
Melissa Harris-Perry: The first lady went on to describe being worried that the country was still adjusting to having a Black first family and one that looked too Black might be too much.
That hyperawareness of how her hair could be perceived as bound up in the experiences of Black womanhood in America. Even for those with positions like the First Lady or the Queen of All Media, Oprah Winfrey.
Oprah Winfrey: I've understood for a very long time how political hair really is and how when we as Black women move through the world, we are making a statement in however we choose to wear our hair.
Melissa Harris-Perry: That's Winfrey speaking in the first episode of The Hair Tales. It's a new show from the Onyx Collective, now streaming on Hulu and on-demand on OWN. Every kink pearl and Coil in a Black woman's crown has a hair tale. Through conversations with Black stylist historians, celebrities and more hair tales celebrate the truth of who we are through the stories of our Hair. Winfrey is co-executive producer, along with actor Tracy Ellis Ross, and-
Michaela Angela Davis: I'm Michaela Angela Davis, creator and co-executive producer of The Hair Tales.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Since we can't see one another, and this is radio and our audience can't see, how are you wearing your hair today?
Michaela Angela Davis: It is up on top of my head in a very happy puff. I know people now call it what, pineapple, or whatever, but it is a big Afro puff.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, I want to ask you the question that your host, Tracy Ellis Rocks asks of all the guests on the show when you were little, who did your hair?
Michaela Angela Davis: Who did your hair, is that portal-opening question? I developed the hair tales using hair as a tool to talk about Black women's identity and humanity. In doing the anthropological work and done hundreds of interviews with women all over and wanting to find the question that would unlock the memory, because this is also about Black women's memory, right? Who did your hair became that question. Who did your hair is what starts a hair tale, whether it's on television with Tracy Ellis Ross, or at a kitchen table at your house, or on the yard at Howard, right? Who did my hair? Who I sat in those quiet, sacred moments? Precious Butler, who is my grandmother.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I love that her name is Precious because sometimes those memories are precious and at the same time, there can also be trauma or shame. Talk about that a little bit.
Michaela Angela Davis: Melissa, that's literally why hair became this perfect metaphor for Black women's humanity and also just how we have to move through the world. We are constantly in both worlds, right? Yes, you're sitting in the sacred, beautiful moment with your grandmother, but at any moment you may literally be burned or at any moment there is a tangle that may rip the roots out of your head. Danger and pain are always companions in our lives as Black women, even as we create beauty and joy, and sisterhood. That's why these stories in our hair help us affirm the complexity of our existence and the beauty of our existence but also helps explain because I know people don't know who we are.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I was struck by a moment in the first episode where Oprah Winfrey recounts a hair tale from her early days as a reporter in Baltimore.
Oprah Winfrey: I remember once a woman's house had caught on fire and she is out in the yard in rollers, and I ask her to take the rollers out. You know why?
Speaker 1: I'm with you.
Oprah Winfrey: Because I understood that the image of this woman standing in the yard with her rollers, somehow she would be perceived as less because she's sending her in the yard with the rollers in her hair, even though your house has just burned down.
Michaela Angela Davis: The inhumanity. That's the starting point with a lot of Black women and the complexity of that moment like you said, she's losing everything. There may be no compassion for you if you have curls in your hair. Then you flash forward, I don't know, 30 years, 25 years. Where we are is encouraging. For some people, I know during the pandemic they learned how to braid their own hair or crochet their own hair to hold onto their sanity. That whole trajectory from her being a young reporter to this moment of pandemonium, hair still being a way to talk about what we're going through. Again, a metaphor to showing us like where people are and where they're at.
I was having a conversation with a male friend and saying that his mother got so depressed during the pandemic. When she wasn't doing her hair is when he got really scared. Wasn't like whether she lost or gained weight or whether she was sleeping. He was like, "She wasn't doing her hair and I got really scared," because he knew how much that meant to her. Her first visit back to the salon was like going back to church, even more so. The salon is more democratic than any church I've ever been to. More open. You could be sitting next to an atheist or a Muslim or a Pentecostal or a trans girl. All of those people can be in a salon at one time. I don't know any sorority or church or any other social group that lets everybody in like a beauty shop.
Melissa Harris-Perry: It's profoundly leveling and democratic as well, because the woman who is doing your hair may own that business, might have only graduated from high school, may not have quite finished high school. You may be a lawyer, a doctor, a candlestick maker, but boy, you are reliant on that person. Without her, you not keeping your job on Monday.
Michaela Angela Davis: You not keeping your mind. I mean, this is also really centered in the labor and Black women's labor. They have the Black women standing on their feet with their hands in our heads, giving us dignity to go to church, go to work, putting some money in our pockets, and we go to college. Holding down communities. It is Black women's, not just our labor, but our economy and our spaces. One of the joys of doing the hair tales was also bringing in all the scholarship that has been done around Black women and Black women's hair.
Particularly Dr. Tiffany Gill with Beauty Shop Politics, where in her text, that's what she lays out is all the organizing work that has been done in beauty shops by beauty workers because it was Black women were the clients, Black women's money, Black women's spaces. For instance, if you were a Pullman porter and you went to an NAACP meeting, you could lose your job, you could lose your life. Nobody was checking for Black women doing hair. Those are just Black ladies so they're in there doing clandestine NAACP meetings, registering people to vote, hiding people out. These are spaces of liberation and organization and creativity.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Talk to me about you, how the other creators, how the women who are giving us so much of their humanity knowing that not everybody is watching with soft eyes or loving eyes or eyes seeking to understand.
Michaela Angela Davis: White folks were so in the peripheral, we weren't thinking about them. I think that's part of the liberation of it. Also all the Black women, the cast, and the crew were very Black, but behind the camera it was very diverse. We had Meshell Ndegeocello was doing the music. [Ndegeocello] who works with Saint Heron did the graphics.
There were just Black women surrounding the project. Creating this fortifying forcefield so we didn't have to think about white people, and that's what is even going to make it better for them, right? Because this is also very much a Black women space and they're getting to see it in this really authentic way. Everyone, if you just leave Black women alone, everybody benefits.
Melissa Harris-Perry: As you talk about not having to think about white folks, former First Lady Michelle Obama recently revealed that she intentionally waited until after leaving the White House to wear her hair in braids. It's not that we didn't know, but is that not wild?
Michaela Angela Davis: Well, it's so crazy. The first interview that I listened to with the former First Lady Michelle Obama was Two Dope Queens. She said, "I just wanted to get out of there with some hair on my head," and the notion that there was pink lotion and flat irons and ovens in the White House was radical. You know there was like wafts in the hall.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You know there were.
Michaela Angela Davis: You know there was.
Melissa Harris-Perry: It give me such joy. [laughs]
Michaela Angela Davis: Such joy, like even if there's like a little bead, or little like burette, a little Black girl accouterment just in the halls under those portraits, that shook it up. The fact that she just said that, an Oprah said something simpler. Oprah knew she couldn't be Oprah without painting her hair. We have to strategize because the hair is such a flashpoint for our Blackness. It locates us and it connects us and those can be dangerous notions that we are located in an Afro-centric world and we are connected as sisters. It's such a glorious expression of our divine imagination. The dynamic and that imagination of Black women can be seen in our head through our hair.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Michaela Angela Davis, thank you for Hair Tails. Thank you for joining The Takeaway.
Michaela Angela Davis: It's my pleasure, my joy, all of it.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Michaela Angela Davis, co-creator and executive producer of The Hair Tales.
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