Ieesha is nervous and trying not to sneeze when she steps at four in the morning to the front door of Sassy Hair Salon and Beauty Supplies in the Central District. After all, it was a sneeze that got her fired from this salon two days ago. She has a sore throat and red eyes, but that’s all you can see because the ski mask covers the rest of her face. As she twists the key in the lock, her eyes are darting in every direction, up and down the empty street, because she and I have never done anything like this before.
Let’s start with some interesting writer’s choices. First, the observer-narrator. Ieesha’s boyfriend doesn’t even get a name, but he’s our filter. Why the distance? Is it because Iessha’s narration would be too raw? Is an observer necessary to screen out the roiling emotion and provide a more organized narration of events? Or is he taking the story, and (given the ending), making it his? To take another tack: (given the ending), is he making it their story? It’s a question I’m always asking when I read: whose story is it? In this case, I’m not really sure, but given the title and the ending, the third option is pretty tempting.
The plot is more or less about the theft of hair extensions from the salon Ieesha was fired from a few days before, when an unexpected sneeze caused a slip of the curling iron that burned a councilwoman’s ear. If it seems ridiculous to be fired for such a mishap, well, that’s a good reason for Ieesha’s anger. The burglary itself is kind of fun, just enough detail (like evading motion detectors) to make it a real part of the story. A different story would’ve played it for laughs and left it at that, with perhaps a pithy comment or two, but this isn’t a story about burglary; it’s about much more.
Every day, the customers at Sassy Hair Salon and the wigs lovingly check each other out for some time, and then after long and careful deliberation, the wigs always by the women. Unstated, but permeating every particle in that exchange of desire, is a profound, historical pain, a hurt based on the lie that the hair one was unlucky enough to be born with can never in this culture be good enough, is never beautiful as it is, and must be scorched by scalp-scalding chemicals into temporary straightness, because if that torment is not endured often from the tender age of four months old, how can one ever satisfy the unquenchable thirst to be desired or worthy of love?
Perhaps because it’s extruded living tissue created by our bodies, people take hair very seriously. Many religions have hair requirements both for religious functionaries and for worshipers, and this will come into play shortly. The generation gap in the 60s focused on hair length as often as it did on politics or Vietnam. A TV series can be cancelled because of a haircut (anyone remember Felicity?). But all that pales next to the furor over black hair in America, both inter- and intraracially.
And lest you think this is all a little silly: the US military had different standards of hairstyles for black women than they have for black men or white women, and those standards include wigs, braids, chemical straighteners, and weaves, but not natural hair – until outcry forced them to change the restrictions. Immediately after winning the extremely competitive Olympic Gold Medal in All-Around Gymnastics in 2008, victorious teenage athlete Gabby Douglas was twittercised for… you guessed it, her hair. The University of Pennsylvania held a symposium on the politics of black hair. Girls are occasionally threatened with expulsion from private schools for having natural hair. And, by the way, the phrase “good hair” itself, a term dating back to slavery, speaks volumes. It’s not about fashion; it’s about survival.
Johnson discusses the genesis of this story in an interview in the Iowa Review. His initial impetus was beauty, but his preexisting interest in the socioeconomics of black hair soon took over. He watched the Chris Rock documentary Good Hair, and a news story about a hair salon break-in provided some plot scaffolding. But he built the story from his own experience and convictions, and it goes way past a comedic caper.
And that’s where the title comes in: while there are bags of hair in the story, there is no weave. I think the weave is between Ieesha and the donors of the hair, whose story is also told:
The bags, she says, come from the Buddhist temple near New Delhi, where young women shave their heads in an ancient ceremony of sacrifice called Pabbajja. They give up their hair to renounce all vanity, and this letting go of things cosmetic and the chimera called ego is the first step as nuns on the pastor realizing that the essence of everything is emptiness…. They didn’t care what happened to their hair after the ceremony. Didn’t know it would be sewn, stitched, and stapled onto the scalps of other people.… From India, where these women cultivated outward life of simplicity and an inward life free from illusion, the merchants transported the discarded, did hair halfway around the planet, where, ironically, it was cannibalized as commerce in a nine-billion-dollar hair-extension industry devoted precisely to keeping women forever enslaved to the eyes of others.
Interesting that, although this tonsuring is seen as a way of freeing oneself, it is still a requirement imposed from without. Wouldn’t true freedom lie in letting the women do whatever they want with their hair? But the way it’s written it serves more as a commonality between women separated by a globe, and that’s pretty nice too.
I do wish Johnson hadn’t hammered his point home so directly through his narrator, but it’s great imagery and irony, so I can’t complain much. And that’s what an observer narrator is there for, to observe and comment, while Ieesha, is wrapped up in the action, experience and her own thoughts. The final scene has that effect I so enjoy, that “projecting into the future” quality as characters take on lives of their own beyond the page. I’m not sure what will happen to these people, but I’m sure they’ve understood something on a level much deeper than their follicles; I think the reader will, too.