PHOTOS BY DESTE LEE
mug of Melony Armstrong
Nina Lyons, left, and Melony Armstrong braid Katrina James’ hair at the Naturally Speaking salon in Tupelo.
Katrina James sits patiently as the hair-braiding process continues.
Hair braiding up close.
Suggested hed: Natural style
Deck: Leaving smooth, straight tresses require plenty of patience
BY LENA MITCHELL
Daily Journal Corinth Bureau
“In the West, hairstyle choices range from the purely functional to the complex fashion statement. In the African continent their significance is far greater. Hair can be an indicator of age, authority, social status and religious affiliation, as well as part of a long tradition of aesthetic adornment or a strictly contemporary style statement. In some cultures hair itself is used as a potent substance with supernatural power.”
TUPELO – The quote from a description of the book “Hair in African Art and Culture,” edited by Roy Sieber and Frank Herreman, aptly summarizes the complexity of African-Americans’ choices of hair styles.
For centuries African-American women looked for ways to turn their natural curls into smooth, straight tresses to conform to Western styles.
The invention of the straightening comb early in the 18th century was the first major step toward making hair-straightening more convenient, then hair “relaxing” chemicals evolved to bring the process into the modern day.
Generations of women have gone from early childhoods of natural hair braids through the adolescent transition to straightened-hair styles that continued throughout life.
However, the 1960s brought a movement among African-Americans toward self-awareness and acceptance, together with a definition of beauty that did not equal Western-styled hair.
Since hair has often been as much a social statement as a personal style, the increasing numbers of people who chose to break away from long-standing traditions created a major opportunity and market for natural hair stylists.
“The most challenging thing is having the patience to go through the process” of returning to a natural hair style, said Melony Armstrong, owner of Naturally Speaking salon in Tupelo. “If you don’t have that patience you’ll usually go back to relaxing (straightening) your hair.”
Armstrong helped expand the opportunities for natural stylists and her clients as party to a lawsuit to separate state licensing for natural stylists from the requirements for other cosmetologists.
A person transitioning from straightened hair styles to natural styling still has many choices: Afro, cornrows, braids, twists, Bantu knots, coils, dreadlocks and a patented dreadlock process called Sister Locks.
“I let the client know that at some point she will have to cut her hair,” Armstrong said. “It can take about six months to a year of new growth until the hair is at a comfortable point to cut off the relaxed ends.”
Katrina James of Tupelo, one of Armstrong’s clients, said during a recent braiding appointment it was her first time in many years to wear braids.
“I saw other people with braids and saw styles in magazines and thought it was something I wanted to do,” James said. “It’s going to be quite a change.”
James also said she wanted to give her hair a rest from chemical treatments with the style, give it a chance to grow.
A major attraction for braids like James’ or dreadlocks – a style worn by Armstrong’s associate Nina Lyons – is the longevity of the style.
“Braids and twists will last up to three months,” Armstrong said. “I do the majority of them with extensions, but I have a large natural hair clientele, too.”
Extensions are synthetic hair that is woven into the braids or twists along with the client’s own hair to add volume and/or length to the style.
The major drawback of the natural styles is the amount of time spent in the stylist’s chair – as much as four hours or longer in some instances, depending on the kind of style.
The benefit, though, is the client doesn’t need to return to the salon as often, but can wash and perform other maintenance tasks herself if she chooses.
Armstrong and Lyons formed a duo braiding James’ hair to shorten the amount of time to complete her style to about four hours.
“It’s a plus for us also when we work together like this,” Armstrong said.
Interest in natural hair care is growing nationwide, and that’s also true in Tupelo, where Armstrong’s business has grown steadily.
“It was slow starting off, and I had to do a lot of traveling, but I knew it was just a matter of time before more interest was here and natural hair became more accepted,” Armstrong said.
Contact Lena Mitchell at 287-9822 or firstname.lastname@example.org