diptych afro sheen spray and woman with afro on green background
Left: Nakeya Brown for The Atlantic. Right: Kwame Brathwaite Archive

Cutting My Hair Was My First Revolutionary Act

I joined the Black sisterhood at Soul Scissors salon.

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What seemed like an eternity ended at 13. I decided that was the appropriate age to swap my fat pigtails out for a fantastic, fluffy ’fro. In lieu of a debutante cotillion or other social ritual, the coming-out of my hair would mark my transition from girl to teenager. An afro, my afro, would also serve as a talisman of acceptance—indisputable evidence that, no matter my light-skinned flesh nor the thousand shades of blond in my thick hair, I was Black. My mighty afro would mark my militancy.

I saved up my money for a whole year doing odd jobs. My parents were artsy, intellectual, and damaged, and I’d learned early on that I would have to pay my own way for things outside of basic survival, for extra things, pretty and fly things. I had a hearty appetite for pretty and fly, and I did not like to wait. So, most Saturdays, I tended the wild garden of a nice hippie white lady just on the Maryland side of Piney Branch Road.

Back then, she and her white neighbors were harmless, folksy even. Her children’s children had not yet begun to pick apart our solid-Black D.C. blocks one house at a time. Still hippies, not yet hipsters—not yet invaders. I pulled weeds. I cut grass. I even turned her compost heap, but this I could never disclose to my Black friends. Stirring garbage into dirt was seen as a weird white thing (though my grandfather, former sharecropper, former farmer, always did till fruit skins, eggshells, and coffee grinds into the soil in his backyard garden). Round my way, the upkeep of yards and cars was part performance art and part competitive sport. No one on our side of the road was about to let some little girl cut their grass all crooked and dig in their flower beds, let alone pay for it. So I did the digging for that nice white lady, and put my liberation money aside.

Once I’d saved up enough to buy my head some freedom, I took the long ride down Georgia Avenue on the No. 70 bus to the heart of downtown D.C.: Morton’s department store on F Street, between 12th and 13th. Morton’s stores were beloved by the Black community. Owned by Mr. Mortimer Lebowitz, a Jewish New Yorker, the chain had had integrated dressing rooms and bathrooms ever since the first store opened in 1933, and many of its salespeople were Black—bucking the norms of the times for southern cities. Morton’s not only provided its Black shoppers with dignity and safety, it also had the baddest threads. The window display alone was an attraction, a frozen fashion show of the most current trends, a Soul Train snapshot you could dream over from the curb. The prices were low enough that working-class folk could afford them—if not outright, then on layaway. And at the top of Morton’s was the gem, the Oz of the Afroverse: Soul Scissors hair salon.

diptych: left soul train dancers 1974. right ad for soul scissors
Left: Soul Train dancers 1974 (Getty). Right: Soul Scissors hair salon ad (newspapers.com)

Soul Scissors! The first national hair-salon chain for Black people, it was created by the Harlem-born hair pioneer Art Dyson. Dyson had served in the military and worked as a mechanic before enrolling in beauty school, where he’d completed the requisite 1,600 hours of training—only 6o minutes of it dedicated to Black hair. While working at a department-store salon, he started training programs to teach others how to cut and style Black hair and opened Soul Scissors in 1975.

The moment I exited the elevator I was seduced. The smell—complex layers of hot sweetness, like melting watermelon Blow Pops. The sound—buzzing, chatting, laughing, and a soft swish-swishing beneath all that, a low bass rhythm. Lord, the feel of it, stirring the marrow in my bones, like I was a saint or a sinner approaching the altar for the very first time. A faint vibration pulsed in my palms as I pulled the handles of the smoky-glass doors toward my chest.

Inside, the bustling salon was Blacker than anywhere I’d ever dared to believe in. I mean true Black, honest Black, not dimming-or-dipping-’cause-white-folks-is-tryna-be-up-in-it Black. Everywhere: fine bodies wrapped in fly threads, gorgeous pristine orbs of fluffy hair floating on top of them. It was as if The Wiz had transformed into a beauty parlor, and I was on the inside. I was of it.

When I regained focus, I saw a foxy receptionist sitting behind a big desk, her perfect sphere of hair mimicking the curve of the furniture. I approached her domain, announced that I was here for my appointment, and presented her with a page I’d ripped from the newspaper and cherished, probably, for years. It was an advertisement—a stunning woman sporting an immaculate afro with the word OUTASIGHT emblazoned across the top and the Soul Scissors logo at the bottom. I want that, I said. I was reporting for my liberation.

The receptionist glanced up at my beaming, barely teenaged face framed by two thick dirty-blond pigtails that went past my shoulders. She took a beat, tilted her head, and asked, “And who gave you permission to cut off all that hair?”

She had me mistaken. Apparently, I was passing for Jack and Jill material, the child of a proper light-skinned, professional family that cared more about Black appearances than Black advancement, let alone Black liberation. Lady, don’t let the yella gal or Redbone facade fool ya, that ain’t me or my family. We did not live up on the Gold Coast hill with the doctors and the lawyers. We were not their respectable kind.

Permission? Why would I need permission when it was my hair and my hard-earned money? “Permission?” I politely asked her in my most grown-up voice. Clearly she could tell that I was an independent thinker, a doer of things. She wasn’t about to block my destiny! Was she? Unfazed by my assurance, she informed me that I needed permission if I wanted that. So I said my mother worked just a couple of blocks away—which was true—and that I would run to get a note, which I had absolutely no intention of doing.

Still life of Jet magazine, hair products, and photograph on blue
Nakeya Brown for The Atlantic

I wasn’t afraid my mother would say no. Fact was, 13 was damn near grown in my world, and my parents weren’t part of most of my decision making. Their lives were so dense and difficult and completely distant, I didn’t want to add to the weight by attempting to fill them in on who I was becoming. Especially my mother—I didn’t want to burden her with any unnecessary information, particularly my desires.

I ran to the five-and-dime store around the corner from Morton’s, bought a pen and paper, and forged a permission slip absolving Soul Scissors of any liability for potential regrets or repercussions after cutting off all that hair. All my hair. Returning triumphant, I presented the note with authority. The receptionist must have known it was from my hand, but she also must have recognized the determination seething through those lines. She nodded and escorted me into the waiting area.

The waiting area at Soul Scissors was a place where I might could be content for the coming eternity. The sounds shifted time itself onto another frequency. And this ancient wave was one I instinctively knew how to ride. It was smoothed-out time, slowed-up time, time to catch unseen and lovely things between beats, and I had no desire to check my watch or ask when I was next. On the contrary, I luxuriated in the passage of that thick, syrupy, sensual time. I allowed myself to be drenched all up in it. It was Black-beauty-shop time.

Around me was a slow, steady swirl of activity. No one rushing, nobody pushing the pace—like the perfect slow drag in the corner to the Isley Brothers’ “Let Me Down Easy.” Not even the girl who swept up the never-ending precipitation of hair, little tight clouds of black cotton and droplets of coils, showers of curls that fell softly to the tile floor, seemed rushed. There was an unspoken agreement that up in here, in this secret soulful space, we were in an in-between time. Sacred. Like the kitchen in the off-hours of cheap wine and cigarettes, the salon was one of the precious few places where Black women could linger while they worked. This linger was almost leisure, almost luxury, because there wasn’t anyone messin’ with you. It was a kind of peace but also a kind of rebellion, because in the world I knew outside, Black women were restlessly, relentlessly working, and constantly being messed with.

I sat. I sat still for the first time since this afro odyssey had begun. I was right on time and in the right place. A few women shot inquisitive looks my way as if to say, What’s this chile fitnah do with all that thick long hair a’ hers? Those eyeballs could not break the spell, though. I knew I belonged in this enchanted kingdom, the epicenter of the Black-girl universe. The soft scratching sound of picks pulling through tightly coiled strands and the soothing drone of blow-dryers blended with the music flowing out of the speakers. Oh, the glorious music. It was deeper and sexier than I’d ever experienced in the light of day. Hello my love, I heard a kiss from you, from “Strawberry Letter 23.” Yes, The Brothers Johnson. (Da Brothas had very impressive bushes—Chocolate City’s nickname for afros.) He’s waited at bus stops all his life / He’s been in and out of those spaces, lamented Chaka for Rufus. No mere R&B oozed through WOL-AM 1450 radio. This was stone-cold soul poetry. “Lady of Magic” by Maze was grown and smooth, and the opening bass line alone on “Son of Slide” by Slave made all kinds of new things activate inside me. I could feel my inner combustion maturing.

The spellbinding music and machine humming muffled out most of the ambient chatter until “Miss THANG!” snapped me back. Then I heard it again: “Yas, Miss Thaaaang … I read her!” I cleared my eyes to take in the long luminescence of him. A star. I just knew that he was a star. It was the dangerous, lyrical way he moved—part disco twirl, part pimpin’—and the daring but elegant way he was dressed. (I believe there were brocade and patchwork denim involved.) But it was his speak that defined his singularity for me—a whole new vernacular. The way he leaned in on Thang and dragged out the name Maaaaary (he addressed several people that way) was totally mesmerizing. His words had the undertones of what my mother and aunties and their girlfriends sounded like on Saturday nights in the kitchen—you know, grown-ass women puffin’ on Newports and picking at chicken wings, just talking and telling tiny dirty jokes or reminiscing through their own stuff, for their own selves. He talked a bit like that, but he flipped it flamboyant. His talk was big, not kitchen-table big but stage big. His delivery was flashy, bright enough to light the whole room. He made “Miss Thang” sound like a coronation, a beauty-queen title. I desperately wanted him to notice me and crown me a Miss Thang too.

Another young woman in a smock that failed spectacularly at hiding her Thelma–from–Good Times curves led me to a styling station. She sat me down and unleashed my pigtails, raking through them with a big, heavy, serious comb, like a miniature pitchfork. And pow! Like Jiffy Pop, my hair exploded out, becoming a solid lumpy curtain of a billion long, fuzzy threads swallowing my face. With a kind of reverence, she took a small section of my hair and ran her fingers down from my scalp to the ends (which were several inches below my shoulders). “Lord, look at all that long hair,” she moaned.

diptych: hair supplies and a picture; three women with afros poising
Left: Nakeya Brown for The Atlantic. Right: Kwame Brathwaite Archive

That hair, my hair, the wild golden thicket of locs, had always attracted strangers’ attention, gotten tangled with their history, with hysterias I knew nothing of. I was a child, but I wanted to define myself for myself. I didn’t want my hair to mark me as different, to push me out of the safety and love of the soulful flock. The color and the length—they were a burden, and it was time for me to lift it. Before the onslaught of hormones and the attention of teenage boys and the vicious competition from girls that accompanies it, before I internalized the message that a random act of the DNA gods, who’d assigned my skin, eyes, and hair, had in some way anointed me a “special” kind of Black. Before I could equate light and long with good.

The lady in the smock shot me a You sure about this, li’l girl? type a’ look. I had no idea why she had an emotional attachment to the length of my hair. I had none. Couldn’t she see it was weighing me down? I needed it to go up and out, not out and down. Up! Up, like the Sylvers’! Up to the ceiling, up to the heavens. I gave her a stern nod.

She blew the hair out and the length dropped more, just about to my elbows. Another look, bordering on pleading. A tenacious glare back from me. I had worked in the dirt and waited my whole little life for this moment! Come on, foxy lady, this is your job!

She reached into her pocket and the slim gleaming silver scissors came out to do their soulful service. All of a sudden, a downpour of hair. With each snip I was growing lighter, lifting out of my chair. Hallelujah! Freedom from the bondage of my pigtails, the hairstyle and heaviness of my childhood. Then cut, wash, condition, roller-set, sit under the hood, the famous Soul Scissors blowout with a handheld blow-dryer and special pick attachment, finished with a glistening oily cloud of Afro Sheen spray—and voilà!

There it was, there I was. A revelation. And everyone in Soul Scissors saw it and knew it. I had earned my halo, gathered my helmet for the battle ahead. On this day I was free. My bush was big and bouncing, transcendent and absolutely outasight, baby.

woman with blond afro from behind wearing yellow on blue background
Nakeya Brown for The Atlantic

This article has been adapted from Michaela angela Davis’s forthcoming book, Tender. Headed: An Autobiography of My Youth.