For many Black women, our relationship with our hair is a life-long journey that is difficult to capture in one conversation. The relationship is so important and encompassing for so many of us, that we need the space to understand that complex journey in an in-depth and meaningful way. Thankfully, we not only found the perfect show that does just that– The Hair Tales– but we were able to unpack the series with one of its creators!
The Hair Tales, which features six episodes, is executive produced by none other than Oprah Winfrey, Tracee Ellis Ross and Michaela angela Davis– and I was lucky enough to sit down with the Ms. Michaela angela Davis (yes, Michaela angela Davis!)– writer, creative director, producer and image activist– to discuss the developmental journey of the docuseries, as well as Black women’s developmental journey through the relationship we have with our hair.
Ms. Davis and I started by discussing the development of The Hair Tales. I was so intrigued by the storytelling format of the series, and wanted to know how the idea came about.
You’re such a multi-platformed story-teller, and you use so many different formats to have these conversations. What inspired you to use documentary format to tell the story of Black women’s hair?
You know, it’s interesting because I always thought that this was going to be a book before a docuseries. I initially took the traditional anthropological route, and I used the same methodology as Eve Ensler with The Vagina Monologues. She used the vagina to talk about sexual violence with hundreds of interviews, and I did the same by using hair as a tool to talk about Black women’s identity. I started with live interviews, one on one conversations– I literally brought a kitchen table to AfroPunk in Brooklyn, the hair show in Paris, I brought it to South Africa, and I was just collecting these stories. I thought I was gathering narratives in this very classic way. And then I thought, you know, you turn the narratives into a transcript and then you turn the transcript into a book, like I was thinking very linear.
Michaela continued to discuss how her vision for the conversation on black hair changed and evolved into the larger-than-life story being told right now on Hulu.
You know, the universe has a way of changing your best plans. When the massacre in Charleston happened, I had kind of, like, an existential breakdown. I was a cultural critic at CNN at the time, and from Trayvon Martin to Charleston it seemed like all we were talking about was Black murder and catastrophe. And there was something about Charleston that made me snap, and I was like “I have to make something that’s about Black life, resilience and joy that I can just send out”. And so, the urgency of the time made me make a pilot of mini mobile-docs that had like Regina King, Tasha Smith, Kim Cole, Patrice Colors. And that opened a door, like, “Oh, we can do the storytelling from this perspective, and the reach will be bigger and more immediate.” So, the docuseries wasn’t really my plan, but you know.
Wow, I really love that. I noticed the format switches between personal interviews and scenes and the salon– was your inspiration there similar?
So the documentary is in three parts– we have “the hair tale” which is the interview at the table, then we have “at the root” where cultural critics and scholars give context to the theme that came out of the story, and then we have “the salon” which to me is the heart of the story, because that’s our sacred space– it’s where we gather. So those three acts were developed once we started to see this bigger picture. I attribute the expansion of this to Tara Duncan, who was my Executive Development Director, who’s now the President of Freeform and Onyx Collective. She was one of the few Black women who were greenlighting, and she helped me develop it with Disney. That’s when this brilliant, Black women collaboration started– because that’s what The Hair Tales really is now. There’s so many amazing Black women who are a part of this now. Being able to tell this story was such a blessing– from the top down, and the talent we worked with… everyone was amazing!
Michaela went on to name the incredible Black women involved with the making of The Hair Tales. She included her co-Executive producers, the musical director of the series, their archivist, their graphic designer, and many others. She emphasized the role that Black women executives played as blessings in the journey of getting the story told– especially in a media space dominated by individuals who might not understand the need to talk about Black women’s hair.
When discussing the expansion of The Hair Tales as a series, we can also think about the ways the series dives into our ever-changing relationship with our hair, and how that relationship expands and changes over time too.
Watching the series made me think about our relationship with our hair, and how it starts when we’re young. I wanted to know what your relationship with your hair was like when you were young too.
My hair when I was young…well it still is now like a flashpoint. It locates me, but also is complex because it’s blonde and nappy. And usually those two words don’t go together. And so the texture is very Black, but the color is very outside of the common Black experience. I was the only one in my family with blonde hair, but then it was also the thickest in my family. I don’t identify as mixed raced and my parents aren’t mixed race, but they have that kind of looser curl pattern. But mine was thicker. And so it set me apart from my family, but it also gave me all this time with my grandmother, because she always did my hair.
Michaela moved to discuss a recurring question throughout the series, a question that she explained starts every Hair Tale: “Who did your hair?” She explained that this question opens the door to memory, especially Black girls’ and women’s memory and interior lives.
My answer to that question is my grandmother. My hair was so thick and long, and that meant every morning I had at least an hour and a half with my grandmother. So I loved that my hair made me different from my family, but in general the relationship was complex.
Michaela went into more detail about how her desires for her hair changed at certain points, but emphasized her love for her natural hair overall.
I loved my hair, but there was a period where I did want it to be long and black and pressed. There was this girl Anne [in sixth grade], and Anne’s hair pressed so beautifully. It was like patent leather. She was real cute, all the boys loved her. But I didn’t get that the boys loved her because she had like, a butt in the sixth grade [laughs]. I thought it was her hair. But it was because she was staaaaccckkkedd. She had this beauuuutiful hair that she could press herself. So I was obsessed with her hair– there was one period where I wanted that traditional pressed black hair. But it didn’t last long!
After joking about flat iron season (although to our knowledge Michaela doesn’t press her hair), we talked about my own trip to visit the hair stylist who had been doing my hair for years, and how a huge part of our hair story is the relationships we have with the people who do our hair.
Yeah, I had to go back home to get my hair pressed because it’s soooo hard to find a stylist who knows how to do your hair.
Yes, and that’s a part of the story! We have these relationships with the people that do our hair in the spaces that we get our hair done in. It’s way beyond just the beauty of it– it’s our sense of safety, our sense of community. They know your hair, they know your stories. If you see the part of the series with Jessica Cruel (the editor-in-chief of Allure), she speaks to that. Like, what those spaces mean and what happens in those spaces. I’ve known people who leave New York and go to Detroit to get their hair done. Like, without question! And I get it. That holds a big part of why we use Black women’s hair to talk about culture and identity.
We ended the interview discussing just that: Black women’s hair, culture and identity. We discussed the emotional impact the series had for viewers, especially Black women viewers, and where the series situates Black women within our cultural contexts.
It’s [our hair] complex for us, and most people are…basic. And like Beyoncé said, “We don’t do ‘basic’”. Even basic Black girls don’t do basic, in comparison to the rest of the culture! And so this is an on-ramp for us to celebrate and acknowledge each other, but also for other people to be more educated and enlightened to the identity and humanity of Black women because arguably, we’re holding up this democracy. And so it’ll behoove others, as my daughter says, to “appropriate our strength”. In this way, I hope that others are inspired by the humanity, resilience, and the vision of an Oprah, of a Chole, of a Chika. That they see these women who arguably have what society sees as barriers and they become these incredible beacons.
Yes, the show and its interviews were definitely a beacon– I was even getting emotional while watching it!
Yes! Exactly, and we made it for Black women. It’s really an honor and a privilege to tell our stories.
The truth is that for Black women, much of our identity, and our culture is related to the ways that we style and wear our hair, and we need the space to unpack that intuitive relationship in the multifaceted way that it unfolds. The Hair Tales docuseries on Hulu does exactly that! The series delves deeply into Black women’s relationships with our hair through three-act episodes, featuring interviews with powerhouse Hollywood Black women like Oprah Winfrey, Issa Rae, Chika, and more.
The interviews are situated within broader historical contexts and examinations of Black women’s identities, in relation to our hair, provided by prominent scholars like Dr. Tiffany Gill (author of Beauty Shop Politics: African American Women’s Activism in the Beauty Industry) and Dr. Joan Morgan (Program Director for Center for Black Visual Culture). The interviews are also situated between casual conversations held in the most sacred of spaces for Black women: the hair salon. If you’re looking to go in depth with Black women’s relationship to our hair, look no further than The Hair Tales, available via Hulu’s ONYX Collective and OWN.
Vanessa is a third-year graduate student studying Psychology at Rutgers University, with a passion for all thing’s wellness, research, creativity and empathy. In her spare time, Vanessa enjoys learning guitar, reading and writing fiction stories as forms of expression and vulnerability. Vanessa can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.