For generations, many Black girls learned more about the intricacies of life in a beauty salon than in a classroom.
Swiveling salon chairs transformed seamlessly into lecterns as womxn spent long Saturday mornings getting their hair braided, weaved, flat ironed, twisted or blown out. The scent of freshly pressed hair, Pink Oil and Let’s Jam mingling in the air paired with the loud droning of hooded dryers indicated that class would soon commence.
The beauty shop’s course offerings were always broad and interdisciplinary, boasting classes ranging from The Sociology of Microaggressions to Black Representations in Contemporary Film, Media and Literature. Amongst the visiting faculty were mothers, lawyers, corporate Americans and entrepreneurs — all united in their pursuit of a new ‘do and a new perspective.
Beauty salons represent just one of the many historical pillars of multigenerational discourse significant to Black culture and specifically Black womxn.
Generations of womxn — from Baby Boomers to Generation Z — find solidarity and kinship in the face of disparity and oppression while sharing in dialogue that not only serves to affirm our identities, but also plays a key role in socialization.
However, recently, the way we experience these networks has changed at the hands of millennials.
Born between 1981 and 1996, millennials are our cool aunts, our older siblings, even some of our parents. As the most highly educated generation of Black women in history (at least, until Generation Z), Black millennial womxn are more conscious about intersectionality and more engaged politically, often drawing ideologically closer to Gen Z and distinguishing themselves from their Gen X and Baby Boomer predecessors.
This action is motivated in part by the context in which they grew up. Millennial womxn attended university as Gen Z was still growing up at the genesis of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, the midst of the contemporary natural hair movement, the modern renaissance of Black entertainment (shoutout to Queen Bey) and as Barack Obama notably took office as President of the United States. But they also witnessed tragedies like the Rodney King beating, Hurricane Katrina and the horrific and racist mistreatment of our first Black president and first lady.
With the flurry of change that has occurred in their lives, millennials have sought to disrupt the workplace. According to the critically-acclaimed writer, scholar and millennial, Morgan Jerkins, “[…] learning more about systemic racism and hierarchies […] definitely influenced [her] sense of self and professional trajectory.”
In addition to serving as a center for their activism, millennials have harnessed the internet as a forum for non-traditional, creative careers. Jerkins’s dope ass Medium publication, ZORA, features important narratives for and by women of color. Across the internet, Black Millennial womxn are creating natural hair & beauty tutorials and comedy sketches, empowered by platforms that amplify their diverse voices.
According to a case study from Google’s Think with Google initiative, 7 in 10 Youtube subscribers say that YouTube creators shape culture. So not only has the rise of the creative class produced culturally relevant and fresh media, but it also plays a role in cultivating a new pillar of intergenerational discourse within the Black community — one that lives online.
Our salon chairs, church pews and street corners have now turned into webcams. And for me, this transition has meant being able to find home even without the scent of Cantu curling cream to guide me.
When I was in seventh grade I moved to a new city, leaving behind the familiarity of my regular beauty salon, friends and extended family. After the move, I rarely saw people that looked like me in my neighborhood. And for a long time, it felt like the sense of cultural community that I grew up with was nearly 200 miles out of my reach — that was until I found YouTube.
Because I no longer had access to my regular beautician, I had to learn how to do my hair. YouTube vloggers like Naptural85 and Halfrican Beaute not only guided me in styling my hair, but they were also my gateway into a global online network where I feel seen and understood for who I am.
Beyond the beauty tutorials, channels like The Grapevine, For Harriet, Tea With Queen and Jay and Insecure (all publications produced by dope Black millennials) have allowed me to view literature, social issues and even pop culture in a cultural context.
While one may never get to peer beyond the anonymity of a profile photo, YouTube videos, online chat forums, comment sections and live streams provide a digital space where folks can discuss the products they’re trying, upcoming political debates, the latest “canceled” celebrity or any other buzzworthy topic. Emulating the familiar comfort of a salon, viewers can interact with people who look like them, talk like them, and act like them. When they log on, they can find a sisterhood powerful enough to transcend physical space.