Bodies Once I Had Black Hairdressers, I Learned That Black Hair Did Not Equal Pain
These women showed me how to love and care for myself—the only way a Black woman could.
The ritual was the same every Sunday: My feet planted on the linoleum floor, knuckles clenched and big toes pressed into the ground, as my mother slid the comb through my hair until it stopped. I screamed as I gripped the edge of the counter, trying to keep my head from swinging all the way back. Mom apologized, but there was still so much left to untangle. Her hand turned red as she gripped the ends and forced the comb to the bottom. I didn’t know what was wrong with me; why I couldn’t wash my hair without crying.
When I was a child, almost all of my neighbors and teachers were white. So is my mother. My Black father has one brother—no sisters—and my grandmother lived in Bermuda, a three-and-a-half-hour flight from Toronto, which itself was five hours from my hometown. This left my mother virtually alone in trying to find the right combination of products and styles for my tightly-coiled hair.
Mom and Dad worked on the opposite side of the city; a forty-five-minute commute through mild traffic. In search of a cheap house with a large lot, they bought one of the first homes in a nascent upper-middle-class development in the city’s east end. To make up for the distance, I spent hours before and after school at daycare, starting from the time I was six months old.
The daycare was a multi-story building with wraparound blue siding and a backyard big enough to hold the center’s seventy-five kids during playtime. It was the only facility of its kind that offered infant care: In the late 1980s, Canadian women were only allowed to take six months of maternity leave. I spent four hours there each day until I was ten years old. And it was at daycare that I first encountered a number of women who were from a place called the Caribbean.
Later, in university, I learned about the generations of women from the Caribbean who came to Canada to care for the country’s children. In 1955, the Canadian government created the “West Indian Domestic Scheme,” an immigration program intended to bring single young women to work in Canadian households. It was one of the few ways Black women could migrate to Canada during an era of racially restrictive immigration policies. Because applicants could only come to Canada alone, many of these women left their own families behind.
The daycare was run by a supervisor, Eulalie, who demanded strict discipline. Her matching skirt suits were neatly-pressed, sheer stockings running into black leather heels. Her office was on the second floor at the back of the cafeteria, which made for a long walk whenever I had to follow her to her office, chasing the echoing smacks of her heels. Born in St. Lucia, she spoke with a French Creole accent. Even when she was angry, she never yelled. Although she was intimidating, Eulalie seemed to have a good rapport with some of the workers, especially Janine and Harriet.
Janine was tall enough that she often peeked her head above the divider separating the kindergarten section from the toddler area where she worked. Whenever I thought I was getting away with a minor prank, I dropped my head and hid chuckles behind my fists. But when I looked up, I always met Janine’s watchful eyes. She signaled over to Harriet, the worker in charge of the kindergarten kids. I could hear their Caribbean accents over the din of children playing. Harriet, whose voice carried across any noisy room, would say, “Miss Wright.” I sighed, walking over until I stood in front of her.
Harriet whipped her head around, eyes wide. “Don’t back talk.” She’d been in Canada for many years, but her Eastern Caribbean dialect seeped into her speech when she was angry.
But more than just disciplinarians, these women were the first people I met who knew how to care for my Black hair. I didn’t have to ask for their help—they just knew I needed it. Some days when I got to daycare, Harriet would already be standing behind a chair. Before I could throw my backpack into the cubby, she’d motion for me to sit. My head fell back and my feet dragged along the floor as I walked towards her. I just wanted to have a snack and play with my friends, but there was no arguing with Harriet.
I sat down in the chair, kicking my legs back and forth so my thighs didn’t stick to the plastic. I felt her hand grab hold of my ponytail. The tip of the comb slid against my scalp from my forehead to the back of my neck, separating my hair into two halves. Her fingers dipped into a small plastic bag on the table and pulled out clips, elastics, and bows. I was amazed that these foreign objects didn’t tug at my roots like the hair ties my mother used. Even though Harriet sometimes pulled too hard, she never made me scream. I didn’t have to grip the edge of the chair the way I gripped the counter on Sundays. What was her secret?
Mom noticed the change in my hair and finally spoke with my grandmother and Harriet about what other products she could use. I remember the first time she put grease in my hair. Her fingers wrapped around the bottle and white liquid oozed into the palm of her hand.
“I don’t want to have white hair,” I said.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “I’ll mix it in so no one will notice.”
It became a new addition to our Sunday ritual, easing the pain and the pulling. But my hair was still too much work for my mother to manage alone. One afternoon, she plopped the phonebook on the kitchen table, picked up the receiver, and dialed without a word.“Yes, hello. Does your salon do Afro hair?”
Afro hair? I thought to myself. I’m not African. Mom hung up the receiver.
“You have an appointment next weekend at a new salon with a hairdresser named Eunice,” she said. A few weeks earlier, Brenda—my hairdresser for the past ten years—had finally thrown her hands up and quit. I would miss going to the salon, watching Brenda’s white-blonde hair dance across her shoulders as she tried to detangle the knots after each wash.
The salon where Eunice worked was in the corner of a strip mall, down the street from the daycare I had left just a few years before. The tile floors didn’t shine and there were no comfortable chairs to wait in, as there had been at Brenda’s. Not much taller than me, Eunice was stocky with broad shoulders, strong arms, and short hair.
“This is Angela, and we need help with her hair,” Mom said.
“Don’t worry,” Eunice said, her fingers already tangled in my knots, “we’ll fix this.” I hadn’t heard an accent like hers before. She later told me her family was from New Brunswick, one of Canada’s maritime provinces with a small but long-standing Black community.
It was the first time a stranger was going to do my hair. I think Eunice could sense my nervousness—she smiled throughout the process and repeatedly assured me that I would love the end result, though she didn’t say what that result would be. She ushered me into a tiny room in the back of the salon and slammed a large tub on the counter. As soon as she opened the lid, I scrunched my nose and shut my eyes.
“Ugh, what is that smell?”
“I know it smells terrible, but it will make your hair look beautiful. You’ll see,” Eunice said. She sunk a large brush into the tub and slobbered the thick white substance on my head. “It’s going to tingle a little bit.” She continued to dunk the brush into the tub until my entire head was covered in white goo. “Let me know when it starts to burn,” she said, before walking out of the room. Burn? I thought. What kind of burn? My scalp began to tingle. I was used to my hair causing me pain, but this was the first time someone treated it as a good thing.
I alternated between plugging my nose and closing my mouth so I wouldn’t inhale too much of the substance. I didn’t understand why Eunice was so excited. What was so important that she didn’t want to tell me? As soon as my scalp started tingling, I called for her to come over and she took me to the sink. I tipped my head back and shut my eyes as the cold water soothed my scalp. When it was time to go to her chair, she turned my back to the mirror. While she was trimming the ends, I realized with shock that the comb slid through my hair without a fuss.
She waited until she was finished to swing the chair around. I didn’t recognize the person in the mirror. My hair was straight. How is this possible?
Eunice looked at me and smiled. “What do you think?”
“It’s different, isn’t it? Your hair looks so beautiful.” I smiled, not knowing how to ask why my hair wasn’t beautiful before.
Mom walked into the salon. “Oh my goodness! Wait until your father sees this.” She laughed, and not knowing whether her reaction was genuine or uneasy, I laughed too.
In the car, I stared at myself in the rearview mirror on the entire ride home. My hair lay flat on top of my head. I glided my fingernails against my scalp until they reached the ends and hit my shoulder. No hold up at knots or detour around curls. I had never felt that before.
I became entranced by the relaxer and returned to the salon every six weeks to keep up the new look. I wanted to be beautiful. I wanted it to be easy. I wanted to stop the pain of every Sunday.
I was wrong. Although the relaxer ended the Sunday ritual, I still had to fight to keep my hair straight. It would be five years—during a trip to Bermuda where I had to use a curling iron at least twice a day in the humidity—before I stopped using a relaxer. It’s been curly ever since. I resented Eunice for many years after I stopped using the relaxer.
Growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood of a city just coming into its multiculturalism, I came to see myself as the odd one out. As a Black girl with no Black female teachers, I had to teach myself how to be a Black woman. What to say, when to speak, how to act, how to do my hair. Janine, Harriet, Eulalie, and Eunice were the first to show me my hair wasn’t a curse.
These Caribbean women were the latest iterations of a story that began decades ago. The accents that contoured their speech served as a reminder that they came from another place. They cared for me and the dozens of other Canadian children, but never mentioned their own families. I only knew Janine was a mother because her daughter attended daycare as well. I only found out Harriet had a daughter when my father told me, though I never asked how he knew. I didn’t learn anything about Eulalie’s family.
Over time, I learned to see them not just as workers but also caregivers. I finally have the answer to the question that bothered me for years: Why did they do my hair? Unbeknownst to me, they were showing me how to love and care for myself. The only way a Black woman could.