by Sharlyn Pierre
Melissa Harris Perry, a political science professor at Tulane University, author, columnist, mother and host of a self-entitled show, took some time to chat with us about her hair regimen, how she’s teaching her daughter to value hers and why she’s Kerry Washington in her dreams.
TM: What is your hair routine and how is your relationship with your hair?
MHP: I have been either in braids or two-strand twist extensions for, gosh, going on two years now. I used to wear it on and off in a perm and then maybe six months out of the year, wear it in braids, especially during the summer. Now, this is silly (*laughs*), but I was losing weight for my wedding, which meant that I was running all the time, and I was like you know what? I’m just going to braid it; that’ll make my life a little bit easier. But I hadn’t reached that point to decide to transition.
I got about a year into wearing the extensions [straight] where basically I took out the edges every four weeks to have them redone, and then take out the whole thing every eight weeks and redo my whole head. Because I wasn’t on TV all the time, I would take it out and go for about a week, or press my hair. Then I realized, “I don’t ever want to have a perm again.” It was more of the process of watching my own natural hair growing and growing. So one day when I took the twists out, I just cut the whole perm off and that’s basically where I am now. I’m growing my hair underneath all this. I mentioned my four-week routine, then my eight-week, and it’s really only because I’m on television. If I were not dealing with high-def cameras, I would not be redoing it that often! (*laughs*)
TM: How are you teaching your daughter about her hair?
MHP: You know this has been really interesting. My goal has been that she would wear her hair natural; in little girl braids or whatever until she was a teenager and then make her own decisions. But when we moved to Princeton, N.J., she was in school as a kindergartener or first grader there and was feeling a lot of pressure. She would ask, “Why doesn’t my hair lay flat?” and all those questions.
It must have been the end of second grade, in the summer of her going into third that I let her get a perm for the first time and she loved it! She was so happy and so excited! She wore a perm through the first part of third grade and it was just killing me, but it made her very, very happy so I just kinda went with it. After we moved here to New Orleans and she was in a community with people who have a lot of natural hair—and after I started wearing my hair in braids and extensions—her feelings really changed. She made the decision to cut off all her perm and she wore her hair in extensions for a while, and is now wearing it mostly in a little natural fro.
When she’ll sit still long enough, I’ll put it in two-strand twists with just her own hair and in the summer, when she’s swimming, we put it in extensions just because it’s a little easier to manage. Now, she’s extremely committed to her natural hair and in fact, had a little bit of a fight apparently with her paternal grandmother. I wasn’t around but this happened last month because apparently her grandmother was like “I don’t like that” and she was like “Whatever!” (*laughs*) and kind of went off. I had to go in and mediate and explain, “We don’t talk to our grandma like that.”
TM: That’s awesome. Not about the fight! (*laughs*)But about her being so adamant about wearing her hair naturally.
MHP: (*laughs*) Oh, I know! She is now … it’s just so much of a reminder that what we see everyday has such an impact on our sense of what’s normal, what’s beautiful, what’s good. And when she saw something that was different, her opinion changed.
TM: That’s true, very poignant. Why do you feel natural hair etiquette is so important, specifically, to those relative to us?
MHP: I just feel like a lot of our childhood pain—and maybe this is in part from seeing my daughter go through this—but a lot of our childhood pain as women, of all races, has to do with what we look like. You know that transition into adolescence and the first time you realize people are looking at you and judging you based on what you look like, and all of that kind of thing.
I think for white women, probably the primary angst is about body size. There’s a lot of good feminist research about don’t use the word “fat,” even to talk about yourself in front of your daughter because it impacts her. But I think for us, certainly body size is part of it, but I think it’s hair. I think our feelings about whether or not we are beautiful, and whether or not we’re desirable, whether or not we’re going to have jobs and happy lives and all of that is just really, really caught up with our hair. So when people just out of ignorance make comments because they just don’t get it, it still takes us back to like a childhood pain moment. So I feel like it’s your job to try to get it people! It’s not that hard! (*laughs*)
TM: Right?! OK, let’s switch gears. What are some topics that you are going to try to tackle on your new show?
MHP: Omigosh, you know, I have such a fantastic team and the main thing that makes them so fantastic is that they are completely fearless; in fact, they’re probably even braver that I am. We recently did a porn segment, which was not my idea! (*laughs*) That was my team’s idea; they were like this would be interesting for us to do and I was like OK. You know, part of it is that I don’t really know where we’re going but I’m really sort of excited to find out because I have a lot of things I’d love to talk about. And I have a great team who’s willing to help me think about the smartest ways to talk about them, and I feel like there’s nothing off-limits right about now.
TM: We’ll be tuned in! All right, lastly, if your life was a movie, what would the title be and who be play you?
MHP: Well, you know only in my most egotistical, narcissistic, insane, fantasy, Kerry Washington would play me because you know, in my dreams, I am Kerry Washington! (*laughs*) I mean I totally get that I’m not Kerry Washington, but it would be her. Hmm, what would it be called? A movie about my life that was honest? It would be called I Need A Nap! But you know, I really do love the title of my book and maybe if it was a good movie and Kerry was playing the lead, maybe we would call it Sister Citizenbecause you know that’s what I’m going for and that’s what I’m about.