About the Author
Michael Cunningham is the originator and photographer of Crowns and the photographer of Spirit of Harlem. He is the executive director of Urban Shutterbugs, a photography and mentoring program for inner-city youth. His works have been featured in museums across the country. Visit his Web site at www.mcphotog.com
A frequent lecturer on pop culture, George Alexander is the author of Why We Make Movies, and has written for VH1, Black Enterprise, Daily Variety, and American Legacy. He is a graduate of Morehouse College and Columbia University Graduate School of Business. He lives in New York City.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Journalist and Madame C. J. Walker Biographer
As a child growing up in Indianapolis, I was too young to really appreciate everything my great-great-grandmother Madame Walker did as a hair products entrepreneur, philanthropist, and political activist. I was just a kid playing in a dresser discovering things that had belonged to her and her daughter, A'Lelia Walker.
The first time I had my hair pressed was at the Walker Beauty Shop for the sixtieth anniversary of the Walker Company. People came from all over the world. When they cut the ribbon to open the celebration I was standing there and my hair was pressed, it was all down my back.
Then came the late sixties. The day that Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated I was elected vice president of my high school's student council and my school was 95 percent white. The next day some white parents called the school and said that they were going to take their children out of the school because I was elected. That was the beginning of my "real" personal radicalism and my Black identity. I read The Souls of Black Folks by W. E. B. DuBois and that was particularly important because it was the first book I read that truly deconstructed race and power in America. That book transformed me. I was going through this identity transformation and hair was very much a part of that. In my household there was a big battle about whether or not I could have an Afro. My father, as president of Summit Laboratories, which made hair-straightening products, said, "What do you mean you're going to get an Afro? Who do you think pays the mortgage and tuition?" It was an intense battle. My father traveled a lot to hair shows and he was leaving town and I had a nightmare. I was screaming. I had to get an Afro. The next day my father called and he and my mother must have talked because he got on the phone and said, "Okay, you can have your Afro."
My mother took me to the Walker Beauty School and the students rolled my hair up and created this huge Afro for me. I had always had long hair, big braids, crinkly, wavy hair, and I'm proud to say that I have all of my ancestors in my hair, but in the era I grew up in, people only valued whatever part of your hair that was straight. With long hair people did say I was cute, but with my Afro I was considered strong. The older I get the more I realize that what endures is "strong," not "cute."
After I graduated from Harvard I later went to graduate school at Columbia to study journalism. My advisor was Phyllis Garland, who was the only Black woman on the faculty at the journalism school. We sat down to talk about my final project and I threw out some lame topics. But she said, "Your name is A'Lelia. Do you have any connections to A'Lelia Walker or Madame Walker?" And I said, "Yeah, they're my great-great-grandmother and my great-grandmother." She said, "That's what you're going to write your paper about." She was such a blessing to me because if I had had any other advisor they would have looked at my name and thought, "This is a weird colored name this girl has." But Phyl validated my name and my family history. People had told me before that I should write about Madame Walker, but no one like Phyl, who was a role model and a published journalist, who said that it was an important story and told me you're going to write it, and I'm going to support you in the writing of it.
Anita Norgrove, 17
Hairdresser and High School Student
I was born in Africa, but moved with my family to London when I was small. My mom is from Nigeria and my father is from the U.K.
People don't see me in an Afro normally. I usually wear my hair in cornrows or braids. Where I live you don't walk around town in an Afro if you're a girl. They'll make fun of you. On Saturday I went into a pub and everyone was laughing at me. It was mostly white people. Maybe they just find it funny. Most white people will just laugh because my hair is a different texture than theirs. I just laugh with them. I don't want them to think I'm upset.
An Afro to me means natural Black beauty. A Black person who has an Afro, and who has the nerve to walk around the street in it, means that they're proud of their own natural beauty. They're not ashamed of it. I'm not ashamed of my natural look. When I wear braids people always ask me if it's my real hair. When I get my hair braided I get extensions because I want my braids to be long. But that's the only thing that's ever not real on me. Apart from that, I don't wear makeup. No makeup for me. I'm proud of the way I look. I'm happy with my weight, my figure, and my height. People should try to look as natural as possible and not worry about what other people think because that's the way you were created.
Linda Egwabor, 23
Research Scientist and Hairstylist
I grew up in London. I’m the oldest of five children. My mom couldn't do hair to save her life. I was about eight when I started doing my own hair. When my mom styled my hair as a child, I used to wait until the last minute and go back in the house to change it. At first she had a problem with it, then she realized that I might have a talent in hairdressing. Then I started learning to braid and I'd braid my own hair. I used my mom a lot as my guinea pig, and people liked what I'd do; she got me lots of clients. I was self-taught. I was always in front of the mirror.
When I was thirteen or fourteen, I came across a book in the library on Madame C. J. Walker and learned about what she went through in getting her product to the market; it was all very interesting to me. From all of the information I read about her I think that's what got me more into hair and beauty.
Monday through Friday I work for a pharmaceutical company as a research scientist. I've always wanted to make my own hair-care products. I always used to use a lot of gel. My aunt walked into my room one day and said, "What would you do if you actually ran out of gel?" I said, "I'd have to learn to make my own." That's how my interest started. I've always had a fascination with science. I just wanted to incorporate what I've learned in science with hair, to come up with something new and different. Because I do hair, I know what I want, so if I can go to the theory part of things, to the stem of things, my dream is to combine them together and come up with something that other people are also looking for. My dream is to have my own hair-care products and cosmetics company. And I do believe that dreams come true.
Jennelle Byron, 23
I grew up in Brooklyn, new York, with my mother and father, who are both from the island of Nevis in the Caribbean. I love fashion, hair, and modeling.
My mother started doing my hair when I was young because I've had long hair from birth. My hair has always been straight so I have never had to deal with naps. I have done my mother's hair since I was big enough to pick up a comb. As a little girl I would always play with my mother's hair and put styles in it. It was a great way for me to bond with my mother. I still do her hair to this day.
As a little girl I always watched Shirley Temple movies and I loved how her curls bounced and I wanted my hair to be just like hers. So for my eighth grade prom at St. Thomas Aquinas School, a Catholic school in Brooklyn, I was able to get my hair exactly like Shirley Temple's hair. At St. Thomas the school didn't allow us to have extremely outrageous hairdos, so every day I wore my hair in a bun or in pigtails and it was always very neat.
In the early nineties there was a hairstyle called the flamingo. You would wear your hair back in a ponytail then stiff the ponytail with gel and have it stand up like a flamingo's tail. Most of the girls who got the style had short hair and it was easier to do the style with short hair. But a friend of mine wanted to give me a flamingo, so she put a lot of gel in my hair. But because my hair was long, it wouldn't stick out like a tail. It looked ridiculous. I had no mirror to see what was going on and I told her that I didn't like it, but she told me that I looked pretty. When I got outside, everyone laughed at me because it didn't look right at all and I couldn't get it out. When my mother got home I got in trouble for letting my friend play with my hair.
Working with Veronica Forbes, the stylist who designed the Twin Towers I'm wearing, makes me feel like an actress playing a role. I know I don't look like myself when I wear this outfit and that makes me feel good. It's great to step out of your own shoes into something else. It's fun and exciting.
And wearing the Twin Towers is an honor. My cousin Claudia Sutton, who was twenty-six years old and a mother of two, died in the World Trade Center on 9/11. It was a difficult time for me, for the country, for the world. Wearing the Twin Towers brings back good memories because the hairstyle is uplifting. It's white and silver and sparkles. It gives you hope. I have hope for the world. I have friends overseas in the war and I pray every day that God will bring them home safely.
Veronica Forbes, 52
I’ve always wanted to be a beautician. when I was growing up in Jamaica my mother would send me to the beauty salon and if the beautician told me to come at noon, I would tell my mother that the
appointment was at 10:00 a.m. just to get there early, so I could help the beautician because I've always been fascinated by hair.
I came to New York from Jamaica at fifteen and went straight to beauty school at Wilford Academy in Brooklyn. I was one of the top students there because I was anxious to learn. I was the first one to put my hand up and my teacher idolized me because I would arrive early and would be the last one to leave.
I graduated from Wilford in 1975 and after working with a number of other stylists, I opened ...