What It’s Like To Be A Black Woman Living In A City That Doesn’t Care About Black Hair

Photographed by Rochelle Brock.
My hair requires delicate care. From the front to the nape of my head, my 4C coily hair is soft, moisturized, and full of lustre, when treated properly. When it’s not, my hair becomes very dry, leading to tangling, breakage, and ultimately, damage. Frequent trips to the salon are not only necessary, they are also a joyful part of my hair upkeep.
But I live in St. John’s, N.L., a city where Black hair salons are hard to find.
In fact, today there’s only one storefront Black hair salon in the entire province, Joana Smits’ Braids & Fades. There are other at-home Black hair care services available, but Smits’ salon is the only active physical space now open. This could be read as a mere omission, but to me, it’s an insidious example of the lack of inclusion of Black women in beauty schools and the hair industry in Canada as a whole. It also shows a complete disregard of the Black women, like me, who live in Newfoundland. 

Black women and our hair have always been, at worst, seen as something to fix or change, or at best, an afterthought.

Salons like Smits’ are born out of sheer necessity. Chioma Azera’s Bellezza Hair Braiding Salon, which opened in 2015, was one of the first Black hair salons to operate in the city. As a new immigrant to St. John’s from Nigeria, Azera could not find a hair salon that could style her hair. So, she started styling her own. Shortly after, she ran into a man named Promise Enahoro, who owned the barber salon, Rouge (now called 1949 Barber Shop). “He complimented my hair and wanted to know where I got it done but I told him I made it myself. So, he pitched us becoming partners and we partnered up; he ran Rouge and I ran Belleza in the same building,” says Azera.
At its peak, Bellezza Hair Braiding Salon was booming. The business got popular through word of mouth. Black men would get their cut at Rouge and then tell their friends or girlfriends that they could get their hair styled at Bellezza. It brought in a great roster of clients for Azera. The salon specialized in different hairstyles such as box braids, dreadlocks, weaves, and many others. It was truly one of the first-ever public spaces made for Black women in St. John’s. But this boom was short-lived. 
“I think my challenge then was the fact that I was doing it out of a rented place. So I had to consider all those expenses into my pricing,” says Azera. “More [Black] people started moving into the province but some started doing [hair] out of their houses. These people would charge ridiculously low prices just to get people to come to them and people would prefer to go to the houses even though it wasn’t a better [service].” Azera simply wasn’t able to compete and the salon, a haven for Black women, closed in 2017. 
Smits, who runs Braids & Fades, also saw an incredible lack of hair options for Black women and men in St. John’s. With Belleza no longer operating, she wanted to create a space for Black women again. “I decided to open my salon because I always dreamed of having my own business and I could see the need for the services I provide: braids, extensions, and also men’s cuts,” says Smits, who was previously a hairdresser and barber at 1949. “My salon is for everybody but I do offer African styles.”
While the salon is for everybody, it’s a safe space most importantly for Black women, a place where they can feel seen and valued in the community. “I’m proud to offer my services to Black women of course,” Smits says. Smits didn’t attend any of the beauty schools in the province. She learned how to do hair back home in Angola when she used to work in her cousin’s salon before she started barbering.

How can I know that my hair is going to turn out great when these salons are sending a clear message that they follow a Eurocentric standard of beauty?  

If she did attend Newfoundland’s beauty schools, it’s unlikely that she would have learned to work on Black hair. St. John’s has two hairstyling programs offered at Keyin College and Academy Canada. The schools follow the standard curriculum Plan of Training administered by the provincial government, which lists a wide range of courses needed to become a certified hairstylist. Yet, none of these courses are specifically about Black hair. Reps from both schools told R29 Unbothered that students do work with different hair textures in the schools’ salon when clients come in, but because of the population in St. John’s, however, the majority of these clients tend to be white.
Which speaks to a larger issue: the long-standing devaluing of Black women and their hair. From the commercial push of chemical hair relaxers to convince Black women with kinky hair textures that the only way their hair is beautiful is when it’s straight, to Hollywood actresses such as Taraji P. Henson suffering hair damage caused by hairstylists inexperienced with Black hair on Hollywood shoots, Black women and their hair have always been, at worst, something to fix or change, or at best, an afterthought. We are left on the sidelines and not at all included in society’s definition of beauty.
I know this from experience. When I visit the websites, Instagrams, or storefronts of salons in St. John’s, the photos they use to advertise their services are of white women with hair textures nowhere close to mine. How can I walk into these salons and feel comfortable and confident enough to get my hair done? How can I know that my hair is going to turn out great when these salons are sending a clear message that they follow a Eurocentric standard of beauty? 
I don’t think they would know what to do with my hair if I requested a simple Black hairstyle like box braids or crochet hair. Based on what hair services they offer and how they advertise them, I don’t feel welcome. This leaves me with two options: going to someone’s house with my hair already washed and prepped to be styled (which by the way, is a whole task in and of itself), or do it myself with the help of YouTube.
Because I have 4C natural hair, I can’t just wash my hair quickly in the shower, dry it, and go about my day. I have to have a wash day. Considering how much work a wash day is, I would prefer to be at a salon in a comfortable chair letting someone cater to me — especially if I’m getting a style like box braids that can take up to eight hours. So, I usually turn to the other option: YouTube. But using YouTube has definitely been a trial and error process. There have been many times where the hairstyle I wanted did not turn out right. The frustration that arises in these situations is devastating because as a Black woman, my hair is not just hair. It represents a large part of who I am. Ever since I was young, getting my hair done has always been this grand experience where I come out feeling more beautiful than I did before. So when I fail at doing it myself, it affects my self-esteem. (On the other hand, the times I have succeeded, all I felt was pure joy. I remember when I finally learned how to cornrow my hair after months and months of trying. I was so proud and felt like I accomplished something major!)
With the growing Black population (which nearly tripled from 2006 to the latest census in 2016) in St. John’s, I know there are other Black women who have had similar experiences to mine. This is why Black women such as Pearl Ashibuogwu, owner of Capearla and Pearl’s Hair Boutique, have created their own home-based hair businesses catered to Black hair. Yet, there doesn’t seem to be a rush to improve and diversify beauty schools or the beauty industry in the province.
Other beauty schools in Canada, like The Blanche Macdonald Centre in Vancouver, have shown that it’s possible. After recognizing how it played a part in the exclusion of Black women and their hair, last spring the school added a new 60-hour module to teach students the necessary skills needed to work on Black hair. They also created a Black Canadian Scholarship Program to give Black people across the country access to joining their program. In addition, the school has also been making efforts to hire more Black instructors.
It’s the Newfoundland beauty industry’s turn to have an internal look into itself and how it has been and continues to be complicit in perpetuating Eurocentric beauty standards when we all know that there is not only one definition of beauty. Braids & Fades hair salon shouldn’t be a rare sight in St. John’s. We need to enter a new era where Black hair gets its much-needed recognition. 
The feeling I had when I stepped into Braids & Fades was one of belonging. To know that a Black woman was behind it all made the feeling even greater. My hope is that there will be more salons in the province, and around the country, where my 4C hair and I feel understood and taken care of.

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