/ 24 January 2008

Hair, nails and politics

At first sight, Salon Fabulous doesn’t quite live up to its name. A trailer in a car park in a neighbourhood of dilapidated houses and rusting cars on the outskirts of Columbia, the state capital of South Carolina, it doesn’t hold out much promise of transformation.

But inside the salon’s three rooms, lined with brightly coloured bottles of treatments and unguents, Salon Fabulous dispenses political discourse alongside hair and beauty treatments.

The owner of the salon, Danyelle America, is weaving extensions into a client’s hair while delivering a crash course in the forthcoming Democratic primary. ”Nicky, do I need to ask you who you are voting for?” she growls at her client with a tone of mock intimidation.

There’s no doubting who the soldier-turned-beautician will be voting for on Saturday. Alongside the pictures of elaborate hair styles pasted over the walls are posters of Barack Obama sitting in a barber’s chair under the banner ”The Future is Now”. His policy statements on the Iraq war and health reform are also on display.

”Obama has given people a little more hope,” America says, still working on the weave. ”If young people see a black man doing something positive, that will give them hope.”

America was already interested in Obama when volunteers from his campaign came knocking on the trailer door a few weeks ago. ”At first I was sceptical, but as we got talking I was excited to hear what they had to say.”

She signed up as an Obama organiser for the local area, and for the past few weekends she has set up a stall outside Salon Fabulous offering passersby Obama literature. This Saturday she will shut the salon entirely so she and her staff can help get out the vote.

The Obama campaign targeted America and her fellow owners of South Carolina’s beauty parlours and barber shops for a good reason. These businesses are far more than somewhere to have your hair done — they act as therapists, social meeting places and debating chambers for the local black community.

The black vote is important here, accounting for about half the Democratic electorate, with women making up almost two-thirds of that group. That is why Hillary Clinton and Obama are scrambling to woo black women.

According to Carey Crantford, a Democratic pollster in Columbia, early opinion polls put Clinton ahead of Obama among black women who remember Bill Clinton fondly as the so-called ”first black president”. But since then there have been Hillary Clinton’s ”tears” in New Hampshire and rows between her and Obama over sensitive areas such as the legacy of Martin Luther King. ”Gender politics held firm initially among black women against racial issues, but things are moving so fast now we don’t know whether that’s still the case.”

The indication from Salon Fabulous, and other beauty parlours visited by the Guardian in South Carolina, is that Obama has been making deep inroads into black areas of the state. Part of his success has come by dispatching volunteers to proselytise within the hair salons — a trick borrowed from King, who used beauty parlours as a civil rights recruiting ground in the 1950s and 60s.

Then, as now, the salons made perfect political incubators. Clients spend up to three hours in their seats having their weaves redone, which makes them a classic captive audience. ”We try to steer away from religion,” says America, ”but we do talk about all sorts of other stuff: sex, marriage, men, and now politics. Things get heated, yeah, but they’re always peaceful.”

One hundred and twenty kilometres from Columbia in a small town called Summerville, Felisa Geddis runs Fantastic Fingers, where women of all ages and ethnicity come to ”lay down their nails and their troubles”. She has voted Republican since Bill Clinton’s second term, but this time her thoughts are with the Democrats.

”My clients are suffering, they are losing jobs and I’ve lost a lot of customers because people have been forced out of the area. If the Republicans get back in I’ll be out of business before too long.”

She is impressed by both Clinton and Obama, but is swinging toward Obama because she believes he has the most potential to heal a divided country. She has also been disturbed by Bill Clinton’s recent attacks against his wife’s main rival. ”That raises a red flag for me. The black community has been such a friend to the Clintons, and now there’s opposition to them from a black man their real feelings seem to be coming out.”

Commentators have pondered whether African-American women are more likely to vote out of loyalty to their gender or race, but Geddis dismisses such thinking. ”When you know there’s a qualified candidate, are you concerned about the colour of their skin?”

At Shear Creations, a paradise of tropical plants and subdued lighting on the rundown edge of Charleston, Ursula Kershaw has a similar reaction. Asked whether she would be more proud to have the first woman or first black president, she refuses to prioritise one above the other. ”If Clinton wins she’s doing well for all the women out there who will think: ‘Yeah, we can be strong, we can do it.’ Same for Obama — he would make African-American men feel like they can get out and do anything.”

But back at Salon Fabulous, any suggestion of parity between a Clinton or an Obama victory is swiftly shot down. ”As black women, we deal with more black and white issues than we do with man and woman issues,” says America, and the way she says it, no one in the parlour looks in a hurry to disagree. – Guardian Newspapers Limited 2008