Art Books In Conversation
EBONY FLOWERS with Naomi Elias
(Drawn and Quarterly, 2019)
In her first book, Hot Comb, Denver-based cartoonist and ethnographer Ebony Flowers blends fiction and creative nonfiction into a graphic novel about Black women and their hair. The book’s eight stories depict the central role hair plays in the lives of Black women who are coming of age, managing daily microaggressions, and embarking on journeys to self-love. The titular “Hot Comb” is the first and most autobiographical, set when Flowers was in elementary school and transitioning from living in a trailer park to living in urban Baltimore. Flowers studied anthropology as an undergraduate and went on to receive her doctorate in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a dissertation she completed partially as a comic. Her career is a successful marriage of her love of drawing and her academic background, writing comics and conducting educational workshops in comic making. Hot Comb is a confirmation of Flowers’s ability to keenly observe and illustrate the lives and habits of her friends and family. Featured stories like “Big Ma” and “Sisters & Daughters” showcase the type of stand-out cartooning that won her a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award in 2017. In June, I spoke with Flowers about how the book is an homage to many of her lifelong passions—from the relationships Black women have with their hair, each other, and to pop culture.
Naomi Elias (Rail): How did you land on Black hair as a subject for your first book, and why did you decide to tackle it as a graphic novel?
Ebony Flowers: I was drawing the story of my first perm while I was doing my dissertation as kind of another creative outlet. I started doing that and then I started making hair product advertisements for fun as well. When I showed Drawn and Quarterly the work, they said that this would be nice to put together as a book, so then I started to specifically make stories about hair. Another thing I was doing while I was writing my dissertation was looking at YouTube videos of Black women hair bloggers who blogged about their hair care products. A lot of them were talking about the first time they got a perm, the first time they cut off all their perm to grow their hair out naturally. I was inspired by that to explore my own experiences around hair.
Rail: Is there a reason you drew the book in black and white instead of in color?
Flowers: I just like black and white. I think there’s a lot to explore around diffusing ink and ink wash in a brush and until I feel like I’ve exhausted that, I’ll probably stick with that as my primary way of making comics.
Rail: Did your background as an ethnographer influence your approach to this subject?
Flowers: It did. Part of my PhD coursework included anthropology courses and qualitative research courses that revolved around ethnographic methods. I spent so much time in school it’s hard to not have that carry over into pretty much everything I do. I consider myself to be a very observant person and I think that shows up in my storytelling, where it’s based in reality and it focuses on the everyday experiences or the more mundane experiences in a person’s life. That’s what I have always been curious about, just how people live day to day.
Rail: In one of the stories a woman on a commuter train confuses a Black woman’s hair wrap for religious garb, and that small quotidian encounter demonstrates just how unfamiliar people are with Black hair culture. When did you first realize that how you wore your hair was more than just a statement of style?
Flowers: The first story, “Hot Comb,” was around the time I realized this, so maybe when I was in third grade. When my family moved closer to Baltimore from the trailer park, my hair became an issue with the people I wanted to become friends with. I realized ok, it’s not just the stuff that grows from my scalp, it’s more than this and I have to address this if I’m going to be friends with my new peers. That’s around the time I started to notice that hair for Black women is more than just hair.
Rail: In “My Lil Sister Lena,” a young Black girl who is the only Black girl on her softball team develops an anxiety disorder after her teammates obsess over how different her hair is from theirs. You write, “Lena’s hair became their little curio.” It clearly delineates the connection between hair, identity, and mental health. How did that story come together?
Flowers: My sister and I played softball growing up, and so I wrote about softball because of our own experiences. We were each typically the only Black person on the team and even though I don’t think my sister directly experienced any kind of microaggressions being on the team, there was that awareness that we lived in an all-Black neighborhood and played softball on an all-white team. Of the longer stories, that was the quickest one I did. It felt like a fever dream. I wrote it in less than two weeks. It was something that I felt like I had to get out.
In that story as well I was thinking of a gymnast [Gabby Douglas]. She was in the Olympics and had her hair in a certain way—I think it was in a ponytail—and she was a Black woman and she got a lot of pushback from people on Twitter about how her hair looked while she was performing. Also, earlier this year there was the wrestler on a high school team who was forced to cut all of his hair off in order to play. I hope people don’t think “My Lil Sister Lena” is an extreme case that might never happen because these situations, or something similar, happen more frequently than a lot of people realize. It’s an added pressure when you’re an athlete—especially an athlete at a certain level of competition—because ultimately a lot of athletes just want to perform well for the team. Part of the thing that gets erased is specific identities that they might care about outside of sports, like hair for Black people, that gets sacrificed in order to be part of the team.
Rail: There are interstitial pages between the stories in this book that feature parodic reimaginings of traditional magazine ads for Black hair products. How are those advertisements part of the story you are trying to tell?
Flowers: Making these hair product ads was a way for me to participate in this idea of the Black imagination and to kind of have fun with aspects of Black people’s identity that have been painful at times. When I was a kid I used to flip through Essence, Ebony, and Jet magazines all the time. I’d see these ads and not think anything of them. I was just looking at the hair styles and fantasized about the one that I wanted. When I got older, looking through these magazines I started to be a little critical of the messages, of the standards of beauty they were trying to sell to me and to my peers. I went to an estate sale and this person had this whole basement full of these old Black magazines from the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, and some from the ’90s, and so I took as many as I could. One thing I like to do as a cartoonist is copy comic panels from other cartoonists so I can get a sense of what they might’ve gone through in order to create their story. So I started copying ads that appealed to me in these magazines. Again, I recognized this issue I had with the beauty standards that were really unattainable, this proximity to whiteness, and also this heteronormativity that was messaged throughout all of the ads. Then, on the other side, there was a playfulness that I think is pretty prevalent and profound in the Black community where we make lemonade whenever we can. For example, there was this hair ad for Summit Curls in the 1980s and it was these storm troopers who were Black and they had Jheri curls—or at least that’s what they were selling, setting lotion for Jheri curls—and they had a flag for Summit Curls and they were on the moon. This ad was tying together two important historical markers of US history, one was pop culture for the Star Wars phenomenon in the ’80s—creating Black storm troopers because there weren’t really any in the 1980s—and then also putting Black people on the moon.
When I started making spoofs of these ads and inventing my own, I very much wanted to honor that aspect of the Black hair products being part of this Black imagination. But then also at the same time, I wanted to critique the beauty standards they attached to the product. Instead of having the products be about trying to keep a man, find a man, be sexy or whatever for men, I had a lot of my products be about womanhood and friendship and love among women. I also wanted to pay homage to some of the Black people who have been important to me. The ad for Kali serum where there’s two women wrapped up in tentacles and it says: “Change Your Hairform To Fit Your Lifeform,” is my homage to Octavia Butler and her characters from her Xenogenesis series.