How black women are creating good hair days during pandemic

There was something oddly satisfying about the crunch of hair fibers between a pair of round-tip scissors when I was a kid. I could enjoy the frequent chopping here and there, as I saw fit, without any repercussions while playing salon with my dolls. The only fallout would be my mother’s inquiries about the unique shaping of their styles.

They were dolls with no real consequences to any missteps.

Thirty years later, I did not feel that same thrill for cutting and styling as I held hair clippers in my hand, hovering over my six year old’s curly head. The salon is now “Mom’s Barbershop,” thanks to COVID-19. I had two unexpected and reluctant first clients — my child and my husband. Instead of a thrill, there was fear, and there would most definitely be repercussions with one wrong swipe here or a miscalculated snip there. 

The unprecedented challenges brought to each of us by the COVID-19 pandemic have catapulted many of us into roles we never planned to occupy. We have made adjustments and made do. This story is just one example.

Initially, my focus for this story was on the natural hair movement by black women, returning natural en masse and shunning the harsh chemical treatments that had been a part of our cultural existence since 1909 when Garrett Augustus Morgan was credited with creating the first relaxer.

Women of color have begun to embrace textured hair, reject a beauty standard not of our own culture and secure job opportunities without discrimination based on wearing our natural locks. The CROWN (Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair) movement has led to the passage of anti-discrimination laws based on natural hair in states like California and is under consideration in Michigan.

At the 2020 Academy Awards, the animated short film Hair Love highlighted the story of a black father learning to style his daughter’s natural hair. Black culture is reclaiming black hair. 

I received my last relaxer in January 2016. I had been wearing a relaxer since I was three years old, and my scalp couldn’t take it any longer. Even the relaxers labeled “sensitive” left me with chemical burns on my scalp, and my hair was shedding. Though it has been a journey with obstacles and frequent testing of products to find what best suits my hair, I too have loved returning natural.

My relationship with my hair took a slight turn on March 27, when Smith County Judge Nathaniel Moran issued a two week stay-at-home order as COVID-19 began to spread in East Texas. Then, on April 2, Gov. Gregg Abbott announced the closing of hair salons and barbershops. I found myself with a dilemma, not just for a story but for my own hair.

My natural hair was braided under a sew-in protective style, a weave, to reduce the stress on my strands that can come with constant styling. When the stay-at-home order came down and salons closed, I did not consider the scope and implications to their full extent.

I was wearing a weave, everything was fine. Until that moment when it was not. 

Tangled, disheveled and clinging on to the hope of extending its wear, I finally accepted that I had to cut it two weeks later. It has all become a new learning experience for my multicultural family. My sew-in had to be cut out and unbraided with my husband’s help, as he snipped at each thread. My son’s biracial curls and fear of the loud buzzing from a decade-old set of clippers, and my husband’s thin, soft, short hair all have different approaches to maintenance.

While it would be easy to lament the process, I do still have hair. My stylists and the salon where she works, however, do not still have a steady income.

MarQuita Erwin, Hair Glory salon owner, with client Breanna Henry. Photo by Gabrielle Shackelford.

Hair Glory on Second Street in Tyler sits opposite the Tyler Junior College Robert M. Rogers Nursing and Health Sciences Center. If you arrive early enough in the morning — some days as early as 5:30 a.m. — you can find a parking spot out front. Any later in the day and you may be pressed to park on the street.

The vibrantly colored, bustling shop is normally alive with dozens of conversations, laughter and music. These days, it sits dark and empty, another small business grimly impacted by the pandemic.

MarQuita Erwin, the salon’s owner, says she was caught off guard by the closures, financially and personally.

“I received the news, and I was in shock,” Erwin said. “We had to be home by 11:59 p.m. We had about five hours to get out of the shop.”

Almost 10 stylists rent booths at Hair Glory to serve anywhere from eight to 12 clients each day. Erwin said even during the closure, stylists have an obligation to pay rent to secure their booth.

“They’re still responsible to pay their booth rent just like I’m still responsible to pay for that building,” Erwin said. “I have three [suites] put together. I’m still responsible for that, to still pay those light bills, water bills, gas bills, insurance, you know, the rent for all of that.”

No clients in their chairs has made it difficult for some stylists and Erwin to meet the business expense.

“If they can’t work or see clients, and they can’t pay, I said, ‘Hey, if anyone cannot pay their booth rent while we’re out, let me know and we can work out a plan,’” Erwin said.

Erwin was optimistic there would be financial support for businesses like hers. She submitted an application for a Small Business Administration Disaster Loan. She was hurt and disheartened when it was not approved.

“The money ran out,” Erwin said. “It felt like they gave it to bigger businesses first, and us small business owners, we’re just still trying to make it.”

While Erwin is the owner of Hair Glory, my stylist of the last four years who rents a booth there is Marlissa Giles. Giles’ experience with the salon closure was a bit different than most. In mid-March, she was on vacation in Thailand. Although she had seen news reports in previous weeks about the virus, the panic had not yet reached the U.S. borders.

Marlissa Giles on a virtual consultation while assembling a wig. Photo by Marlissa Giles.

“We came back through Bangkok, then Taiwan, and then it was a straight flight to the U.S.,” Giles explained. “I had to go through extra precautions, all sorts of extra screenings, in every airport except for the U.S. I came back on [March] 21, and I worked that entire following week. I was literally at work on that Friday, and they closed us down starting the next day.”

Before earning her cosmetology license at the now-closed Star College of Cosmetology in Tyler, Giles studied accounting. She said her background in finance prepared her for facing the second economic crisis in her lifetime.

“[COVID-19] has impacted me tremendously,” Giles said. “After making the wrong decisions when I was younger, you learn to stay prepared because you basically work for yourself. You don’t have paid time off, you don’t get furlough or anything like that. So, I always tell anyone in the beauty industry that works for themselves, always keep at least six, but six to 12 months of income saved up.”

“I was kind of prepared, but not having any income, period, is just a real eye opener.”

The salon might be closed, but Giles has adapted to working with her clients online, providing virtual consultation services and giving step-by-step guidance on home styling. Her chair is vacant, but she has seen a styling boom of another form: wigs for pick-up.

“I have been making wigs in the plenty,” she laughed.

Giles said she has received minimal pushback about the salon closure but has had multiple inquiries about seeing a client covertly. It is something she is adamantly against.

“I had a lot of clients that sort of tried to hint around me doing it at home, or do I make house calls, and I was like, ‘Absolutely not. The virus is real,’” Giles said.

Though Erwin and Giles are both ready to move beyond financial constraints and get back to work, they want to do so cautiously. 

On April 27, Gov. Abbott said salons could potentially open their doors during the second phase of the state’s reopening process in mid-May. 

“Before we go back to work,” Erwin said, “I’m going to go into that shop and deep clean from head to toe, from the ceiling to the floor to the restrooms — anything that a client or an employee can touch, I’m going to deep clean it myself.”

Erwin is also mother to a special needs child with fragile health. Reopening will be done cautiously. Clients will face new restrictions when they sit back down in Hair Glory chairs.

“COVID-19 is still here, it’s not gone,” Giles said. “If you’re going to get service, only you can come and get your service. There’s no extra people. When you open that door, you have to wash your hands, sanitize your hands, that’s a must. If you’re coughing, showing flu-like symptoms, anything, you cannot be serviced because if it gets into the shop, I’m going to have to close down again eventually.

I’ve been off of work for almost a month now. If I go back to work and then get sick in the first two days, then I’m off for even longer.

They don’t understand how quickly it can spread in a beauty salon, and there’s absolutely no way to be six feet away from any client when you’re tending to them. I look at it as, I’m one person, but I have about eight to 10 clients a day. So, if everyone has a family of four, if I get it from one person, I could potentially go from spreading it from one to 40 in a matter of hours.”

Though clients might be ready for some professional assistance with the process, the health and safety of those in the chair and standing behind it matters more than a trim or deep conditioning.

“All money is not good money,” Erwin said, “And I’m not going to get sick to where I can’t go to work to make the dollar.”

So, what can be done until the magical fingers of professional stylists reach our tresses again? Giles offers these tips for women of color styling their textured and curly hair.

“I actually have been telling my clients to deal with their natural hair as least as possible,” Giles said. “Get it into a nice protective style, don’t leave it loose or anything, but keep your scalp moisturized, keep your ends moisturized.”

Giles said avoiding styling stress shouldn’t be your only priority. Avoiding physical stress and toxins should also be considered for healthy hair as well.

“Most of the health of your hair is about whatever you take into your body,” Giles said. “So, make sure you’re drinking plenty of water, try to eat as healthy as possible. I know we are in the house with snacks and good food, but eating fruits and vegetables, drinking water is key. Basically less is more in this case.”

Giles and Erwin will continue to monitor news updates for a potential date to welcome clients back through the doors of Hair Glory. When that date arrives, a restricted but joyful welcome awaits.

Maya Golden Bethany is the founder and executive director of the 1 in 3 Foundation. She is the former executive director of the Lindale ISD Education Foundation and the Tyler ISD Foundation. She is an award-winning television and print journalist and novelist and the first female sports director in East Texas television history. Maya currently is a freelance journalist and a frequent contributor for Fox Sports Southwest, Inside High School Sports and a sideline reporter for Legacy Sports Network. Her work has appeared on, Dave Campbell’s Texas Football, IN Magazine and the Tyler Morning Telegraph. She currently serves on the advisory board for the Nurse-Family Partnership.

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