Erica Whyte, HelloGiggles

In Hot Comb, Ebony Flowers illustrates the intimate relationship between Black women and their hair

August 14, 2019 12:00 pm

Black women are the central focus in Ebony Flowers’ collection of graphic short stories, Hot Comb. Flowers, an ethnographer and cartoonist who studied at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, expertly captures the complex dynamics of Black women’s relationships, our struggles with identity, and our hair experiences through coming-of-age stories, fictionalized tales, and her own ethnographic fieldwork. Flowers gives a voice to the intimate moments of Black womanhood that are often reserved for “family business” or spoken about behind closed doors.

Hot Comb, at times autobiographical, starts with Flowers’ story of her first hair relaxer. Each scene is hand-drawn and simply rendered, leaving the focus on the dialogue and character interactions. Characters project complex emotions in a slightly downturned lip, furrowed brow, or wide eye. No emotion is hidden from the pages, creating stories that are heart-breaking, informative, and uplifting.

Ebony Flowers, Drawn & Quarterly

To completely understand the narrative depends on paying close attention to details that might be overlooked if the reader passes them quickly—or lacks the cultural reference. The story “Big Ma,” for example, references the crack epidemic that largely plagued Black American communities. “Last Angolan Sunday” includes references to the Black “diaspora wars,” colonization discourse, and more. But in each story, we are immersed in intimate moments and simmer in heavy revelations. We are thrown in the middle of uncomfortable social exchanges that quickly dissipate without resolution, leaving us to figure out what we missed. The characters feel familiar, allowing the audience, especially Black readers, to think about their own aunties, grandmothers, or sisters as they read.

Flowers’ debut novel is receiving due attention from outlets like The New Yorker, and her work will also be featured in Drawing Power, a comics anthology scheduled to release in fall 2019 that is centered on sexual harassment, abuse, and survival. In our conversation, Flowers shared her insight on Black women’s relationships, how racism and misogyny shape our hair experiences, and relinquishing self-imposed boundaries on our hair to make room for new life.

HelloGiggles: Black hair has often been treated as an otherworldly, even mystical feature of the Black body by those outside of the community. By writing Hot Comb as a collection of graphic short stories, you are allowing a wider audience to better understand some of the more intimate aspects of our hair culture. What inspired you to publish Hot Comb in this format?

Ebony Flowers: I hope Hot Comb allows a wide audience to better understand some of the more intimate aspects of our hair culture! More and more, all kinds of people experience comics as a powerful literary medium. Comics influence all aspects of pop culture, our movies, video games, and TV shows. Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis are two books that have helped carve out new literary landscapes for comics. I was inspired to make Hot Comb as a comic because of these graphic novels, as well as others. By making comics about Black lives, and about a topic as intimate as hair culture, I also help disrupt the genre’s troubled history with regards to the depiction of people of color.

Ebony Flowers, Drawn & Quarterly

HG: The stark black-and-white contrast of the novel forced me to sharpen my attention and connect details with the narrative in a way that I would not have if it were in color. What was your intention behind illustrating in black-and-white?

EF: When I first began reading and making comics, I gravitated towards handmade stories drawn in high-contrast black and white like the Hernandez brothers’ Love and Rockets, as well as gray-scale. There’s something about images intentionally rendered with such a limited color palette. When I work with my round brush, sumi ink, and a little cup of water, the possibilities for how I can use these simple tools, to tell a complex story, are endless. Drawing my comics by hand, I am energized by the surprising storylines, character developments, and gradients that emerge.

HG: While at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, you learned how to make comics under the tutelage of cartoonist Lynda Barry. What was it like being mentored by a legend like Barry? 

EF: Taking Lynda’s courses and working with her while earning my doctorate changed the way I do qualitative research and how I tell stories with my drawings and comics. Our relationship has been defined by a lot of laughter, good conversation, and experimentation in teaching non-artists how to make comics.

HG: Opening Hot Comb with your own hair journey felt like a natural way to begin telling our stories. Why did you decide to start with your first perm? Is this a rite-of-passage or hair culture inception point for many Black women?

EF: As for your first question, it actually wasn’t my idea! My publisher, Drawn & Quarterly, has a wonderful senior editor named Tracy Hurren who, with the rest of the editing team, came up with the order for my stories and hair product ads. Of all the stories, that one was the first that I cartooned.

And yes, a perm is one of the many hair culture inception points for Black women, along with other ways we manipulate our hair. I remember my first perm partly from the physical pain caused by the chemical burn I sustained on my scalp. Most Black women, I think, would agree that a first perm hurts like none of the other subsequent relaxers. In one sense, the memory of my first perm was literally etched into my scalp. I also thought that if I straightened my hair, I would better fit in with my new neighborhood friends and better align with the visual style of Black girlhood and womanhood on early 90s TV and movie screens.

HG: I think it’s interesting that you had agency in asking for a perm. It was something that I received at a young age because my mom didn’t know how to take care of my hair. Getting perms later was somewhat intentional but also based on an established habit that I didn’t know the origin of at that time.

EF: I appreciate you mentioning your mother. An unanticipated but joyful result of Hot Comb’s publication has been the sharing of these personal histories and recollections of childhood and family. Thank you. And let me tell you about my mother. She believed that a perm was for older women, or young women who were seeking the attention of men, or Black women who wished they were white. Relaxers were not for her daughters, that is, as long as we lived under her roof.

My sister has never had a perm. I’m not sure why my mother let me get one when I was 11 years old. I’ve never been able to ask her because she died when I was 15. I used the short story “Hot Comb” to speculate as to why she caved in after all my begging. I think it might have been because I was having such a hard time finding friends. Getting a perm didn’t help me in the friends department! Of course, I did eventually make friends, and those friendships were not predicated upon me having a certain hairstyle or the “right” hair texture.

HG: Getting back to the idea of capturing Black women’s hair experiences, how did you decide which stories to tell and which to leave out? For instance, there isn’t a vignette about weaves or having short hair and being called “bald-headed.” Or do you hope to save those stories for later?

EF: Yes, there are so many topics to explore and stories to share! I have made comics about weaves, about being “bald-headed,” and about other aspects of having Black hair, such as hair product obsessions and hair texture discrimination. I didn’t include these because I thought the narratives either weren’t strong enough or didn’t flow well with the other stories. Revised versions of these comics might show up in some of my future work.

HG: Something that struck me is the way that parts of the story and your “hair journey,” as we like to call it, parallels my own. I received a perm when I was young, 6 or 7, then later insisted on more relaxed hairstyles in junior high because I was being bullied. I later shaved my hair in graduate school, which resulted in some interesting perceptions of my sexuality. Now I wear headwraps, and I think the subway story in Hot Comb represents how I feel every time I step outside and someone makes an awkward comment about it. How were you able to encapsulate hair experiences that resonate with so many Black women?

EF: A lot of Black women with kinky hair have shared experiences that encompass milestones like a first relaxer, a first weave, and the “big chop.” Of course, individual history and personal decision-making are impacted by larger social realities. Racism and sexism play a significant role shaping my story—and your story—into a shared experience. I think if any Black woman with kinky hair made comics about her experiences, whether as fiction or creative nonfiction, many of us would end up with stories that encapsulate a shared spectrum of emotions that reckon with racist and misogynist encounters. These stories would also resonate with a lot of people whose visible differences and everyday decisions are too easily othered.

Ebony Flowers, Drawn & Quarterly

HG: You take a lot of care and nuance in depicting Black women’s relationships, especially motherhood. You show the fraught nature of our identities in your own story of wanting relaxed hair, but your mother seeing that as acting white. Even later on, in “Big Ma,” we see a mother’s struggle to enforce boundaries against her adult daughter’s behavior at the expense of the mother’s own safety. All of this happens around hair. Do you see our hair styling as a medium, a metaphorical therapy session, for us to have conversations with each other in a way that we may not be able to do in other circumstances?

EF: Definitely. The combination of how long we can spend getting our hair done and undone (removing braids or a sew-in takes time!) coupled with the intimacy of someone else touching our hair produces this dynamic. The duration, frequency, and intimacy of getting our hair done creates the conditions for deeper conversations. Also, having the same hairdresser or friend do our hair gives the experience a healing touch.

I show this aspect of our hair culture in “Big Ma” as a way to explore the impact of the 1980s and 90s crack epidemic that ravaged Black communities and families. Hair styling shows the care and love that family members have for one another. Even when they are having tough conversations and giving hard ultimatums.

‌HG: For the non-autobiographical portions, did you still draw on your own life or the lives of women around you for inspiration?

EF: I did both. With some stories, I drew upon my own life and the lives of people around me to create fictionalized scenarios or storylines. Like “My Lil Sister Lena.” I drew upon memories of me and my sister playing softball. The story was also inspired by my friend’s dissertation research. She studied the experiences of Black women who played collegiate sports like swimming, softball, and gymnastics. A lot of the women she interviewed discussed anxieties around how they wore their hair during sporting events. These anxieties impacted the players’ athletic performance and academic success. I hope the story provides nuance to what Black women mean when we say, “Don’t touch my hair.”

HG: Hot Comb had a very “for us by us” feel in that not everything was explicitly detailed or explained, but you had to draw on your own experience, not just the context to understand a story. This was really for Black women, but I’m sure other women of color will be able to relate. Do you intend for non-black readers, or those who may not be familiar, to understand them?

EF: If they are not able to relate, they might be able to empathize. They might also reflect upon their own experiences that parallel some of the broader themes of family, place, and belonging in the context of racism and sexism. Hot Comb will be a mirror for some people and a window for others. For people who do not have direct personal experience with some of the themes in my book, it will be an opportunity for them to look, listen, and witness. They will get a chance to see Black people in our everyday, just trying to live our lives. I am drawing new chapters of our people’s everyday narrative through comics. I make stories, which happen to be comics, about Black people and Black lives without having to explain their existence to non-Black readers.

Ebony Flowers, Drawn & Quarterly

HG: A lot of readers will understand, to some degree, the poignancy of the section headings with the young girl drawn standing in the rain. For me, they resonated on a very intimate level. I remember the first time I intentionally let rain fall on my hair. I was 21, in Washington D.C. for a conference and my friends and I got caught in a rainstorm leaving an Ethiopian restaurant. It felt so good to just let it pour on me. It felt like I was being cleansed, released from something. Was getting your hair wet in the rain a significant moment for you as well?

EF: Yes, it was. I remember a night of dancing in Luanda (Angola’s capital). I had been living there for a few years, and I was teaching at the time. Anyway, I had spent the afternoon at a Brazilian salon getting my hair pressed and wanted to go out. Luanda hugs the Atlantic coast, and the weather is pretty warm year-round. Most bars and nightclubs are partially open to the outdoors. It was January, during the country’s rainy season. My friends and I were dancing, and it started to rain, though not much at first. We stopped dancing and stood over [by the bar] hoping the rain would pass. Then the rain became steadier and harder. My feet were getting wet. More people were seeking shelter, but a lot of folks were still dancing. Suddenly, it was pouring rain, and it didn’t matter where anyone stood.

My hair was ruined. I was mad. Then, my friends ran back onto the dance floor and started dancing. I refused. I couldn’t get over my hair. Then the DJ played a version of a Yola Semedo song that I loved and so I just let loose and danced with my friends. My hair was a hot mess and I didn’t care! For some Black women, trying not to get our hair wet can put boundaries on fun. That one evening in Luanda, attempting to avoid ruining my hair prevented me from just enjoying life and being in the moment. The girl featured throughout Hot Comb’s title sequences reflects that sentiment. Sometimes you need to let go and be in the moment.

HG: I’m interested in your thoughts on the permissions that we as Black women grant others who are non-Black, but not white, in touching our hair. “Fieldwork Follies” reminded me of the time I was in Argentina and my program director’s abuelita thought I was at first Puerto Rican and then Dominicana. When I said I was Black, she asked to touch my hair. I would never have let her touch me if she had been an older white woman. I got the same impression from your story.

EF: Yeah. It’s hard for me to be “intelligent” analyzing these types of circumstances, especially with white women, because it’s so emotional and personal. These are very complex social interactions that are heavily intertwined with legacies of racism and white supremacy in the United States.

HG: What was challenging for you as a Black woman in telling these stories?

EF: The most challenging thing for me was mustering up the courage to share my comics with a wide audience, with people I don’t know. When I started to make comics about hair, I was just cartooning for myself and only shared drafts with Lynda Barry and some of my cartoonist friends. It’s a wild experience seeing a lot of other people read my stories, comment about them, analyze my cartooning styles. And also share their stories in response.

HG: I think I could spend days just studying the hair advertisements you created. They stand out in comparison to ads we see in Essence, Ebony, Hype Hair. In the past, I would envy the women in the ads and wish I could be like them. You’ve created ads that uplift Black women. What was the moment that inspired you to flip that perspective?

EF: The last few years, I’ve been revisiting old hair magazines from my youth and beyond. Those magazines were all the ones you mentioned. I’d also add Jet to the list. When I was younger, I didn’t think much about what these ads were trying to sell me besides a jar of edge tamer pomade. As I revisited and redrew them, I spent time thinking about how harmful these messages were and still are for many girls and women. That’s when I started revising some of these old hair ads to give impressionable Black women another view of themselves. I wanted to depict Black women and girls having more critical agency in the world. I also made up entirely new ads like “Kinky Mane” and “Kenya Kare.” Some of these ads make not-so-subtle references to pop culture that uplift and celebrate Black people, such as Black Panther.

Ebony Flowers, Drawn & Quarterly

HG: Now that I have two daughters, both biracial, I’m taking a lot of care in unraveling the “good hair” and “bad hair” discourse and working through my own intergenerational baggage associated with hair. It took being pregnant with my first daughter to start embracing my natural hair and thinking about teaching her beauty, body-confidence when I didn’t fully love my own hair. As a mother, do you see yourself doing the same to some extent once your newborn is older? Or have you already started doing that?

EF: My newborn son is also biracial. I would like my son to respect the choices that other Black people make about how they wear their hair. I anticipate guiding my son to a place where he doesn’t judge a person’s character, intelligence, or worth based upon their hair texture or style preferences. And I hope he’ll be the courageous person who keeps others in check when, inevitably, someone is discriminated against because of their hair. I’ll be curious to see how my son experiences hair culture and self-expression on his own terms. He’ll be growing up in different circumstances and at a point in time when certain conversations about hair have evolved in positive ways.

HG: Through conversations I’ve had with my sister and seen on social media,  it seems like this is becoming the norm. We’re beginning to recognize how much trauma is associated with our hair and we’re trying to undo it through younger generations.

EF: Yes! I hope these types of conversations do become a norm in families. In classrooms, and, of course, at hair salons. And maybe stories and comics, like Hot Comb, can help push those conversations forward.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.