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Sia Amma: A One Woman Show

The streets were a perfect balance of calm and chaotic, the air was cold, and the sound of a new apartment complex being built echoed throughout the shaded street. Sia Amma’s hair salon, Best Hair Braiding Salon, is in the middle of it all.

Amma was a feminist to say the least; in every sense of the word and in every facet of her passions.

“You are questioned for everything as a Black woman for everything we’re fighting to survive, fighting to claim ourselves,” Amma explains.  “I’ve learned a lot, women of color are born feminist, the stigma on those feminine issues has always been there but it is much more difficult for women of color.”

 

White feminism and Black feminism are two different realities that can be explained by intersectionality, but on the other hand Women Gender Studies professor Brooke Lober states, “Not all women are born feminists, feminism is a set of theories and politics –not a condition of birth.”

To say that she does it all would be an understatement. Amma acts, is a playwright, writes books, and is a comedian, just to name a few of her passions. But braiding hair has always been a constant in her life, and her main source of income.

In response to what kind of comedy she does, she says a lot of her jokes are racially based. “People always say things like ‘go back to Africa!’ I am like, ‘Do you know how much the tickets cost?!’” she shares as an example of one of her popular jokes.

“I just try to balance with trying to make a living and trying to survive,” she says in a matter-of-fact tone.

Outsiders cannot walk into the shop with ease, a protective gate served as a barrier in front of the door. It is a quaint salon with three chairs and two washing stations. The wall directly to the right had a plethora of rows full of braiding hair packs hanging on the wall, ranging from straight hair to kinky hair, and black and brown colors to green and blue. The brown walls gave it a warm feel that one gets from being in a living room at home.

She talks over the score of a PBS podcast playing the background. Her hands move vigorously as she and an associate micro braid a client, occasionally speaking in her native tongue to her braiding counterpart to comment on the podcast, which happened to be discussing the topic of gun control in America. She would take a little pause when resting her hands or to shake her head with disapproval.

A hairstyle of micro-braids can have a person in the salon for hours, nothing that Black women are not used to already, so two hands are definitely necessary. Amma does all sorts of braiding styles at her Tenderloin salon and has been for decades while in and out of school.

Amma left her home on the coast of Liberia during the civil war that took place in the 1990s and came straight to San Francisco with her family.

According to Peace Building Data, the civil war in Liberia, which was from 1989-2003, left hundreds of thousands of people dead, included an ethnic divide, elites who abused power, a corrupt political system, and economic disparity. All of that violence caused many to flee to the States.

In San Francisco she eventually went to community college before transferring from City College of San Francisco to San Francisco State University in 2008. At the university she double majored in communications and drama. But her true passion lay with performing.

No relationships are stirring for Amma at the moment. “I think I’m much more married to my performances, nothing makes me happier than making people laugh or performing, I think that my biggest fear is losing myself,” she elaborates.

She even has a space for a theater around the corner from the salon, literally. She has had the space since 2003, but she put that theater dream on hold as the area was getting heckled by people who had intent to gentrify. “I braided all day then I would go over there and perform,” she recounts the past.

 

She still has it, but instead uses it as a storage space for the products that she sells at her salon.

“With gentrification comes a lot of stalking and harassment,” Amma continues. “I was getting stalked and followed so I shut it down for my safety.”

She explains how San Francisco was very different when she first came here. “I remember there was more black people and more black neighborhoods,” Amma explains.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau in 2000, Black people made up 7.5 percent of San Francisco’s population, by 2016 that number went down to 6.5 percent.  

“The first African braiding shop in the Bay Area was in the Fillmore!” Amma exclaims excitedly. That is where she met Satta, her fellow braider and colleague at the salon.

“I known her for over 20 years, we met at the first braiding salon in the Bay Area ever called African Safari, everyone that came from Africa worked there. I worked at this shop with her for 5 years,” says Satta.

In her most recent one woman show—titled Uncle Sam’s Children in Africa—she tells of her life in Liberia and what brought her to America, accompanied by a crash course on Liberian history.

She has a voice made for performing, the same booming voice that emerges in between laughs at the hair salon, it finally gets to take the main stage. She paints pictures with her hand gestures, giving the audience a virtual tour of her village in Liberia.

“It was really inspiring, with lots of drama, history, and a beautiful song,” commented a spectator Elizabeth Loyola.

Amma has a book that she says is finished, but she just cannot seem to put down the pen, she explains while continuing to laugh. When she gets to the topic of her love for performing that her eyes light up, and the volume of her voice grows with excitement. With her laugh booming throughout the small salon, she gets into some of the topics that she covers in her book, which is a feminist bible, so to speak, and based entirely on interviews and conversations that she has had with various women.

“One of the things that I learned from those interviews is the tremendous amounts of silence about these kind of topics, these interviews would happen after I performed or just people would tell me things while I did their hair.”

She touches on first dates, to women discovering sexuality, the difference between infatuation and love, vaginas and more.

“I will finish, then I’ll be like ‘okay maybe just one more, how about a first date? Or teenage pregnancy?’”

Her goal is to increase the dialogue for all of these topics that women feel the need to be silent about, through interviews with various women. “For a lot of us the separation between us and our parents comes from discovering ourselves and our sexuality,” she explains.

Her salon, and many like it, become a sanctuary for women, a safe space where your hair in its natural form is not judged and such a comfort then becomes a catalyst for open conversation and if you are lucky… a little gossip.

“It’s getting way too expensive, I wanna go far away from here,” she says, her voice trailing off into silence.

One reason she wants to go back to Liberia eventually is because she finds it harder to be Black here. “I never questioned my Blackness it was just there, but then you come here and everywhere you go, you have to prove yourself,” she admits.

She hopes to go back to teach children or to be an ambassador for women’s health.

Between the Old and New School

Photographs and story by Alex Kofman

Coffee shops, bars and restaurants are typically places people have in mind when considering where to meet their friends. They want a place where they can all come together to catch up, share a few stories, and spill the latest gossip. The barbershop, just like these other institutions has served as a communal gathering spot for decades, especially for ethnic communities who historically turned to the barbershop as a place to collectively converse.Two barbershops in particular, Chicago’s and Sperow Hair Gallery, have maintained their own unique styles over the years and continue to be popular amongst barbershop enthusiasts.

Chicago’s barbershop, originally a sister of a three-shop franchise that began in the 40’s, is located in the Western Addition. Although Chicago’s has been around much longer than a majority of San Francisco barbershops, the barbers working there take a more new school approach to cutting hair and keep up with the trends that are constantly changing. 26-year-old Eshawn Scranton, a barber from Chicago’s, has been cutting hair for four years and has witnessed a huge transformation in not only haircut styles but barbershop culture.

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“When I was in Barber College, shorter hairstyles were in style,” Scranton said. “It was really cool to have a dark Caesar, or a taper or a bald fade and then the longer hairstyles came into effect so I had to learn a lot about the different textures of hair and how to do a lot of styling like comb overs and switchbacks and pompadours so there was a lot that had changed from when I first got into the barber game. I would also say there was a change in the industry. It’s a lot trendier now.”

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In the Outer Sunset District is Sperow Hair Gallery, first opened in 1973 by owner and barber of 45 years, Anthony “Tony” James Sperow. When walking through the front door of Sperow Hair Gallery, your eyes are greeted by a mishmash of vintage collectibles. Walls of posters, photos of Sperow and his clients, stacks of marvel comic books from the 60’s and a large wooden cabinet full of odds and ends collected over the years fill the space. Although his barbershop only has one chair, it is almost always filled by a client from the time he opens shop until closing. Sperow is not your average barber. At 84 years old, he has seen the evolution of the barbershop and barbershop culture over the years, but continues to cut hair the same way he did back in 1951. Tony’s “old school” approach to cutting hair differs greatly from the styles of more “up to date” shops. He likes to keep his hair cuts simple, but appreciates the trends that other barbers are implementing.

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“There’s a lot of different barbers, there’s a lot of classic barbers. These new barbers today, they cut beautiful hair, they cut a lot of lines in your hair, they put X’s and O’s, they put their names in it, and I just give a good old fashion hair cut.,” Sperow said.

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Although Sperow and Scranton’s styles of cutting hair differ from each other, they both view the barbershop in the same light; as a community and haven for people to gather and enjoy each other’s conversation and presence without the disturbance of the outside world.

“Being a barber means salvation to me,” Sperow said. “Meeting and talking to people is the most satisfying thing about being a barber.”

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How I Learned to Stop Tripping and Embrace My Natural Hair

Hair is an integral part of the black female experience. Black women spend tons of money on weaves, relaxers, and various hair and hair products every year. So much money in fact, that the African American haircare industry will be worth an estimated $761 million by 2017. I have done it all; I have had a weave, braids, and a year and a half ago I finally weaned myself off of relaxers, arguably one of the most damaging processes black women put their hair through.

Relaxing one’s hair is lengthy, expensive, and super bad for your hair. It involves applying a chemical laden lotion—the relaxer—to the root of your hair and leaving it on long enough it to alter your natural curl pattern. The relaxer is mostly composed of a chemical called sodium hydroxide, which is super acidic (there is a  scene in Chris Rock’s film Good Hair where Rock looks on in horror as a chemist shows him an aluminum can that had completely disintegrated after sitting in sodium hydroxide for four hours), and if left on too long it can cause chemical burns to your scalp. I spent over eleven years willingly applying this damaging substance to my hair every six weeks, sometimes not speaking up when it started to burn because I wanted to ensure my hair came out as straight as possible. It is honestly a miracle I have any hair left. It was also costing my mother $85 a session. In an effort to manage my expenses after I got a job and mom stopped paying for my relaxers and save the hair I did have left, I opted to stop getting my hair relaxed.

A selfie of the author wearing and her natural hair.
A selfie of the author wearing and embracing her natural hair.

Even after deciding to stop chemically straightening my hair, I still went to the salon every two weeks to have a professional wash and straighten my hair. This too was a lengthy, expensive, and damaging process. After having my hair washed, I would sit under a dryer for forty-five minutes, have my hair blown out, then have it flat ironed—with the edges being gone over with a hot comb, just to make sure my hair laid as flat as possible. The process cost $65 and three hours out of my day. The excessive amount of heat being applied to my hair in such a short period of time caused my hair to break, and I would notice long strands of hair on my bathroom floor every time I combed it at night.

Despite its damaging effects, I continued to have my hair straightened, accepting the strands lost as a small price I would have to pay for smooth, silky hair. Why? I have no idea. Maybe it was because after eleven years I did not know how to handle my hair any other way. Maybe it was because Western beauty standards had instilled into me that straight hair is beautiful hair. Maybe it was a little bit of sheer laziness. Either way, I saw no problem with having my hair altered from its natural state on a regular basis.

Until last week. After spending all day at work, I went home and washed and dried my hair. And instead of busting out a straighter to begin the two and a half hour process that is straightening it, I said, “fuck it,” and left it alone. And it looked awful. It was huge, and you could still see the remnants of relaxers past on the ends of my hair, which were bone straight in a sea of naps. I proceeded to spend the whole weekend devouring YouTube tutorials devoted to the styling and maintenance of natural hair. Overwhelmed, I eventually gave up and went to a salon and had a professional style it into a manageable afro. But I am committed to learning how to maintain my hair on my own.

Embracing my natural hair may not seem like a big deal to someone who is not knowledgable about African American hair. But for me, one of the thousands of black girls who was taught from a young age that straight hair is beautiful hair, it is. I spent years and hundreds of dollars trying to get my hair to behave a certain way. I avoided activities I enjoy like swimming and dancing just to make sure my hair did not get wet and revert to its natural state. Wearing my hair natural, I can do what I want when I want and do not have to plan for a hair catastrophe.

‘No Shave November’: put down the razors for charity

Illustration by Catherine Uy
Illustration by Catherine Uy

November is finally upon us, and for most people this means getting mentally and physically prepared to gain tons of weight during the holidays. But November is much more than just turkeys, elections, and veterans, the month has been re-named ‘Movember’ or ‘No shave November’, giving men and women (but mostly men) the justification to put down their razors and let their hair be wild and free.

Starting on November 1st, all partakers in this holiday agree to go for an entire month without shaving any hair on their body, resulting in some pretty epic beards by the end of the month. Many men look forward to this month, as it gives them an excuse to express their inner manly man with some next level facial hair.

What many people do not know about Movember is that the whole point of the event is to raise awareness of cancer. According to No-shave.org, the goal of Movember is to raise awareness by embracing our hair, which many cancer patients loose.   The Movember Foundation, which started in 2003, runs official campaigns in over twenty-one countries committed to changing the face of men’s health. They have raised over five-hundred-and-fifty-nine million dollars that go towards improving the lives of men affected by prostate cancer, testicular cancer, and mental health problems.

So to all of you folks who wish to partake in this year’s hair-growing festivities, remember the true meaning behind the event. And to all of the facial-hair-disapproving girlfriends, brace yourselves Movember is here!