Queens: Portraits of Black Women and Their Fabulous Hair
Black women’s hair, ranging from silky to coarse, has spawned love-hate relationships for generations. Recently, though, more and more black women are experiencing a love-love relationship with their tresses. Black women sport braids, locks, Afros, twists, and chemically treated hair sculptures with beauty and pride. Queens: Portraits of Black Women and Their Fabulous Hair chronicles black women and their hair from America, the U.K., and Africa.
Author George Alexander and photographer and Maryland native Michael Cunningham were inspired to make Queens by the women in their lives—Alexander from hanging around his aunt’s beauty shop in Mobile, Ala., Cunningham growing up with his mother and four sisters. The Morehouse graduates longed to work with each other on a photo book, and hair felt to them like the ideal subject.
No book about black women’s hair would be complete without reference to Madame C.J. Walker, who became America’s first female black millionaire thanks to her hair-straightening and -styling products. Queens begins with Walker’s great-great-granddaughter A’Lelia Bundles speaking on the influence her ancestor had on hair-industry development. Despite her family’s hair-straightening success, Bundles wore her hair in a natural Afro in the 1960s, and she wears a close-cut, natural style today.
Like Bundles, Queens features women who use hair as a form of expression. A freelance art director rocks a mohawk to reflect her unconventional character. The regal 82-year-old woman who graces the book’s cover admits that cornrows and twists are usually worn by younger women but says the styles suit her active lifestyle and bubbly personality. A Ghanaian teenager explains how she gets her hair permed (relaxed) regularly for manageability, but still gets her hair traditionally braided to pay homage to her culture. In Luton, England, a woman describes how she has fun using colors—blue, green, pink, and yellow—in her elaborate, asymmetric hair sculptures.
It’s a styling focus that emphasizes the importance of beauty salons in black communities. Black women are often consumed with maintaining home and family; going to beauty salons is like therapy, where women gather and are pampered by someone else, and these salons house artists in their own right. Queens offers some of these high-fashion “fantasy” hairstyles, featured in magazines and hair competitions. These amazing, multicolored sculptures can be a few feet tall and require as much skill and imagination as a sculptor. A New York stylist recalls winning an award for creating a “Twin Towers” design in memory of Sept. 11; to match a sky-high hair sculpture, a London stylist created a dress made out of hair extensions. And even in black and white photos the vibrancy of these women is as breathtaking as their captivating stories.