Chicago Tribune interviews Ebony Flowers

“A poignant comic on black women's hair” / Chicago tribune / Darcel Rockett / November 26, 2019

There’s something about hair. No other body part has good days or bad days.

Songs are written about it. Consider the Broadway musical “Hair”: “Gimme head with hair … / Flow it, show it / Long as God can grow it / My hair.” Relationships with stylists are weighed and measured.Hair connects us to culture.

So seeing a book chronicling the rites of passage black women go through when dealing with their hair is not extraordinary. But the journey as told through short stories in a comic book format?

That’s what cartoonist/ethnographer/teacher Ebony Flowers does with “Hot Comb,” a book that chronicles such touchpoints in a black woman’s life from first perm to scarring interactions with people of other ethnicities.

“Hot Comb” is nostalgic, telling and poignant as Flowers explores the story through mother- daughter relationships, self-identity and conversations about the female experience.

Flowers attests she wrote “Hot Comb” for black women, but she hopes anyone who’s curious about Black hair, culture and comics will read it.

“For people who do not have direct personal experience with some of the themes in my book, ‘Hot Comb’ will be an opportunity for them to look, listen and witness,” she said. “They will get a chance to see black people in our everyday, just trying to live our lives. Maybe they’ll begin to absorb our full humanity.”

The Denver resident talks about her mix of fiction and creative nonfiction as well as how her graphic novel enabled her to confront standards of beauty, racism, classism and notions of community. The interview has been condensed and edited.

Q: How do you hope “Hot Comb” adds to the black narrative in America?

A: For some readers, maybe “Hot Comb” will be a window into aspects of black life. For others, “Hot Comb” will directly reflect personal hair memories and journeys. It’s hard for me to disentangle my experience as a black woman and my various narratives being a black woman in America from my experience with hair.

Racism and sexism play a significant role shaping the stories in “Hot Comb” into a shared experience. I think if any black woman with kinky hair made comics about her experiences, many of us would end up with stories that encapsulate a shared spectrum of emotions that reckon with racist and misogynistic encounters.

These stories would also resonate with a lot of people whose visible differences and everyday decisions are too easily othered.

Q: There are so many aspects of black life to capture; how did you land on hair?

A: Hair is such an important aspect of our life. Black hair is about spending time together. Hair is expression and intimacy. Hair is also pop culture. Hair is shared and personal history. Black hair, both in America and around the world, is intertwined with the legacy of white supremacy, class, inequality and capitalism. By choosing to create stories about black hair, I knew I’d also be addressing so many other aspects of black life. The text is hair — my stories feature braiding, getting a perm, wrapping our hair and wearing wigs. And the texture is what I also care to discuss — family bonds, loss of innocence, everyday racism perpetuated by the ignorant.

Q: Why do the stories in this book need to be told now?

A: It’s never not been a good time to tell stories about and for black people in America. In one respect, now is a great time to tell these stories because of momentum to decriminalize black hair across the U.S. One day, I hope that black women can manipulate and style our hair however we want without fear of being discriminated against for our culturally relevant choices. By making comics about black lives — and a topic as intimate as hair and hair culture — I am also helping to disrupt the comics genre’s troubled history in regard to the depiction of people of color. A lot of comics that are considered classics and seminal to the genre have drawn and depicted historically marginalized people using blatantly racist tropes and caricatures. Some contemporary comics still offend when depicting people of color. I make comics primarily for and about black people. I draw and depict black people in loving ways.

Q: Can you choose one of the stories from the book and discuss why you chose to include it?

A: In “My Lil Sister Lena” I drew upon memories of me and my sister playing softball. The story was also inspired by my friend’s dissertation research. She studied black women who played collegiate sports like swimming, softball, and gymnastics. A lot of the women she interviewed discussed anxieties around how they wore their hair during sporting events. These anxieties impacted athletic performance and academic success, themes that are echoed in “My Lil Sister Lena.”

I hope the story provides nuance to what black women mean when we say, “Don’t touch my hair.”

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