NEWPORT — She recalled an experience at a Thames Street salon some years ago. She was there for an errand that many people consider to be not only basic upkeep, but therapeutic and special, yet she was made to feel uncomfortable, like “an alien.”
Some of the stylists circled her, prodded. Spoke about her like she wasn’t there.
Niko Merritt, a Black woman, said in a phone interview with The Daily News that she’s been told by stylists that “they don’t do ethnic hair.” She goes off island, now, to get her hair done.
“Some stylists are intimidated because they don’t know how to deal with our hair,” Merritt said. “Our hair is a different process, you dry it differently…[but] I’ve never seen a Black hair salon turn away anybody.”
When a Black woman is told that a particular salon doesn’t work on Black hair, “it’s just that [the stylists] don’t want to put the time in or the effort, or they don’t feel comfortable,” said Frank Barbosa, owner of Frank Antonio Hair & Make Up on Bellevue Avenue.
“It’s almost cultural to go to Providence now,” Barbosa said. But what options are available for Black women on Aquidneck Island? Are all hairdressers, during their professional training, taught to work with various hair textures?
The Daily News asked if Barbosa himself is proficient in Black hair care and styling.
“Oh, definitely,” Barbosa, who’s been styling hair professionally for over 20 years, said. “And so is everyone in my salon…I wouldn’t feel comfortable opening a business if I had to turn somebody away.”
“We’re all trained to work on every hair type and texture in hair school,” Barbosa added. “It’s almost like working with fabric.”
“We teach all textures of hair in our school,” said Heidi Medeiros, admissions leader at Paul Mitchell The School Rhode Island, located in Cranston. “Every student will learn [how to dreadlock hair], it’s part of our Paul Mitchell curriculum,” Medeiros said. “Our education leader’s a Black woman…she focuses on a lot of dreadlocks.”
Barbosa noted that not every cosmetology school has a Black educator, or Black clientele for the students to practice on. Students learn through literature, but that hands-on experience and those real-life models may not be there, in some cases, for all students.
“If a stylist says ‘I’m not comfortable, but I’d like to learn it…’ [clients] have to also be open,” said Monique Peoples Graham, master stylist and creative partner at Frank Antonio Hair & Make Up, and an African American and Cape Verdean woman. “I’m always asking clients, ‘will you be my model?’…education is all about a continuum, it doesn’t end.”
Peoples Graham said about 25 to 30% of the clientele at Frank Antonio Hair & Make Up is African American or other-than-white. She pointed to the ethnic diversity of the staff, too.
When it comes to hair care, Peoples Graham is a seasoned veteran herself, and she said a mental shift is long-overdue. No longer can stylists look at the depth of a client’s skin and assume the hair texture or fear that hair type.
“I know some Jewish women with a curl tighter than some African Americans,” Peoples Graham said. “All it is is fabric, hair is fabric.” An educator, she’d teach her students this concept. Thicker hair may need more heat, more product. “Once they learn those things, they weren’t afraid…it wasn’t anything to fear.”
Kareen Fox’s business, Khania’s Beauty & More on Broadway, specializes in Black hair care, but her business is also inclusive. “For every ethnic group,” she said on a Tuesday morning inside her shop, the walls saturated with a rich, pink hue.
Wigs, which line the shop’s wall, are her business’s bread and butter, Fox said. But she also sells a slew of products — creams, shampoos, jellies — many infused with nutrient-rich ingredients like olive oil. She braids hair in her shop, as well.
Fox gestured to her hair stylist’s chair, behind a black curtain and facing a floor-to-ceiling mirror. Once the customer takes a seat, he or she is the boss; it’s only when the customer leaves the chair that the power shifts back to Fox, she said with a laugh.
She is warm and welcoming, like the space she occupies. From Jamaica, Fox said she started coming to Newport years ago for a work exchange program. Asked why she decided to start a business in this particular city, she said it chose her. “Newport reminds me of my home,” she said.
Does Aquidneck Island need more businesses like Khania’s Beauty & More? There could be more, she said, but clientele has to be considered. It’s possible “they’re not going to get the clientele to keep the shop going.”
According to the United States Census Bureau, the population estimate for Newport as of July 1, 2019, was 24,334. 83.8% of the population was white; 6.4% Black or African American.
Fox stressed inclusiveness, and the need to make everybody feel comfortable. Most of her clients are Black women, but she welcomes everybody; a white woman may be looking for a wig or extensions to add fullness and length. All people — “gay, straight,” — come in to her shop, and she welcomes them with open arms.
“To me, it’s a loving place,” Fox said. “As people we have to learn how to love and respect each other.”
Asked if there’s a need for more businesses like Fox’s, Peoples Graham said “I think we definitely do [need more].” She noted Fox’s natural hair braiding specialty. At Frank Antonio Hair & Make Up, “we’re a full-service, multi-cultural salon, there’s nobody on the island that can say that…we do need more salons that cater to our natural textures or just African textures period. We need more people that know how to do that.”
“It’s not just about styling someone anymore,” Peoples Graham said. “Our job goes way deeper.”
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