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Hot Comb (2019)
Book Reviews

Hot Comb (2019)

Ebony Flowers’ impressive debut is a celebration of black hair in all its natural, pressed and relaxed glories.

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Hot Comb is an interesting debut from an interesting artist, both artistically and culturally. The word “diversity” is tossed around a lot these days, usually applied as a qualifying noun the same way “organic” is supposed to make us feel better about spending more on bananas. So much of our “culture” has been predetermined by slick advertising campaigns looking to capitalize on keeping the status quo the status quo there’s a need to widen the conversation, to offer gentle reminders of what exists just outside of the immediately familiar.

Case in point: hair, or in the case of Ebony Flowers’ graphic memoir, black hair. In the United States, African-Americans make up just 13 percent of the population, half of which are women and young girls. In numerical terms, that simply isn’t large enough a figure to justify spending outside those lucrative “key” demographics in mainstream media markets, meaning unless you subscribe to Ebony magazine or happen to live near a large urban area, there’s an entire industry of hair care products – and treatments – you’ve probably never heard of.

For those in the majority, however, cosmetology is a completely different ballgame; a world where Keri Russell or Jennifer Aniston’s change of hair style can become (seriously) a water cooler moment, talked about in the same news cycle as the economy and military conflict in the Middle East. Given the choice, it might be helpful to know getting a “perm” is completely different when you’re black and blessed with a big mop of beautiful, natural hair.

The first time I’d ever heard the term “hot comb” was in Spike Lee’s 1994 Crooklyn, where little Troy Carmichael (Zelda Harris) and her family leave the stifling heat of Bedford–Stuyvesant in Brooklyn (for reasons I won’t spoil here) and head for “the South” where Troy will spend the summer with relatives. It doesn’t take long before busybody Aunt Song (Frances Foster) takes a “hot comb” to Troy’s hair, helping straighten out the kink with her sizzling toolset. I had no idea what was going on, only that whatever was happening to poor little Troy looked like it hurt an awful lot.

In Ebony Flowers’ Hot Comb we see the whole painful process in full in the book’s titular opening story, also the longest and probably most revealing as well. Tired of being picked on by kids at her school, little Ebony begs her mom to let her get her hair permed, i.e. chemically straightened. “Can’t you see you all are acting like crabs in a pot?” she tells her disappointed daughter as she drives her to Dee’s Salon, not so much changing her mind but giving in. Peer pressure, of course, can be stronger than metaphors.

It wasn’t that long ago that this very website chatted with filmmaker Matthew A. Cherry about this very topic, albeit in a slightly different format: animation. At the time, Cherry was in the middle of finishing his love letter to the joys of black female hair – specifically his young daughter’s hair – with an animated short called, appropriately, Hair Love. At the time of this writing the animated short still hasn’t been released – though Sony Animation has bravely stepped in to help “nurture” a project that began long before they arrived. How kind – and timely – of them.

The real charm of Ebony Flowers’ sometimes funny, sometimes serious graphic memoir is how she never passes judgement on her characters, never wading into the “natural” versus “relaxed” debate directly. As an educator well versed in ethnography she uses drawings and humor to drive home the point that even when hair itself isn’t the main draw, the idea of hair as a communal agent is what binds many of these characters together, sometimes literally.

In “My Lil Sister Lena” the sheer otherness of black hair itself on a young girl’s softball teammates begins to eat away at young Lena’s confidence, and soon the object of their well-meaning (but misplaced) attention. Or like in “The Spaniard”, where a balding middle-aged (and non-native English speaking) Jorge shares his specific follicle fetish with friends. “I love the black women’s hair,” he tells them while extolling the virtues of braids. “It’s like I have a new girlfriend every week.”

Accompanying the stories are parodies of “black” hair care advertisements, the old “one-sheets” you’d see listed in magazines (remember those?), inside beauty shops or elsewhere. Most are tongue-in-cheek, promising “hair like sweet mango” thanks to Kids ‘n’ Koils (presented by Pinnacle, naturally). Like the ad says, “To be the Queen of Curl, use Kinky Mane.”

Hot Comb was a delightful, eye-opening look at a world of wigs, weaves, extensions, moisturizers and more I barely knew existed…and frankly, never knew how to approach. And there are millions more just like me, curious about all those ‘strange’ hair care products and beautiful styles that seem to be popping up all over the place but not wanting to offend by asking questions. Did you know what “virgin hair” is? I do now. For others who’ve lived and luxuriated here since the beginning, this celebration of black hair in all its natural, pressed and relaxed glories could be seen as a validation of something they knew all along.

About the Author: Nathan Evans