Let me just say, this is the longest amount of time I have ever spent on a blog post. It is a wide open door into a hidden part of me that I never thought I would put on a public platform. But this is my blog and this blog is about my life, regardless of where I am in the world. This post is a very long one, so grab a cup of tea or a glass of wine; I hope you stay along for the ride!
I should start by saying my story is no different than any other black girl or woman’s story out there. This is simply just my story. Over the span of my life, I feel I have been exposed to an incredible amount of positive representation for black women in media and in my life. I feel so empowered to be black and every day I am reminded how amazing black people are. But I didn’t always appreciate it this way. Like many other black girls, I grew up wanting my hair to be different, to avoid getting ‘too dark’, and to be less curvy. It may seem silly to some people reading this, but it may not to others. This is the story of how my hair journey led me on an identity journey.
It took me a while to get to know you. I moved from a predominantly black school to another school in third grade where other people of color were the majority. I eventually cherished this experience once we went to college because they were beautiful, necessary years that forged my outlook on life; I was exposed to a multitude of ethnicities at such a young age and I saw that as a gift because it opened my mind and gave me skills and knowledge that, unfortunately, many people never get (hence: our 45th President). But even being immersed in this beautiful, multicultural universe, I did not find the pride in myself or my culture that other students had the privilege of showcasing in the annual International Day Parade for each of those nine years.
I was always thankful we had a large number of black girls compared to other grades, but this was the beginning of our relationship. Unlike literally every other black girl in my grade, you were different. You “didn’t move,” you weren’t long, you weren’t thick. You were styled the same as everyone else’s—straight—but you were…different. I tried so hard to tame you, to get you to ‘lay down’ by asking my friends what hair products they used, thinking if I copied it step by step, you would magically change textures and turn into theirs.
But I wasn’t listening to you. I was getting relaxers every month and I lived for those few days of silky smoothness. I had no understanding of what it was doing in the long run, but I just remember that feeling of elation just as well as the feeling of sadness when it was gone. I was so desperate for that feeling that I would wear jacket hoods on my head at home to “feel what long hair felt like” on my back.
I remember a specific time that is still etched so deeply in my memory. You were blowing in the wind after school. When the wind passed, you were sticking straight up and one of my brother’s friends commented that I looked like a Super Saiyan. I don’t remember being mad about it at the time, but I can still feel that physical response of recoiling into myself as I type this. This shame of being different. I didn’t know yet that going towards the sky was just your natural growth direction, but I knew it wasn’t like everyone else. I couldn’t wait until I was older and could get a weave because long, straight hair, especially as a black girl, equated beauty to me. I was convinced once we got to college, everything would be different. Disclaimer: it wasn’t.
We gave you a quick weave for junior prom (right). Senior year, we put you in a sew-in (left) and that became our new routine. It became my security blanket, especially as I entered college. I would spend so much time making sure you would blend into the weave so non-black people wouldn’t know. I finally felt pretty with my 12-inch hair because it couldn’t be too long or it wouldn’t be “believable,” you know? I also started seeing other black girls with weaves and felt this sort of silent solidarity that other black girls felt the same way about their hair.
Even with this silent solidarity I felt, I didn’t necessarily go out of my way to make a real connection with these girls. I didn’t join the black student association on campus, or any club/organization, because I wanted to focus on my studies. I didn’t realize that I was really isolating myself from the already-small black community.
I can’t say for sure if I came to a realization about it, but I noticed that it was almost like I was trying to make my first friend group as ethnically diverse as possible because that was my norm—for a while it worked. Still, I was regularly reminded that I couldn’t blend with everyone else no matter how hard I tried. Just like blending you with the hair sewn in would not make you the same type of hair. The most cringeworthy part is how I would boast about knowing so much about other people’s cultures so people would see me as their own. Shamefully, I recognize now that all of these things were truthfully rooted in a fear I had about becoming a black stereotype. Ultimately, I was missing out on a grand opportunity to learn more about myself and my people.
Let me make one thing VERY clear since I haven’t already: I have never wanted to be white or another ethnicity. Mixed? Yes, I can admit that, mostly for the hair stuff. But I have never not wanted to be black. What I mean by fear of becoming a black stereotype is how black people have always been stereotyped in media and how this could directly result in how non-black people treated me platonically, professionally, or romantically. Let’s be frank here. I know what other people are thinking when a group of black people are enjoying a meal in a public place and laughing or talking loudly; how people tense up when a group of black men, especially tall or big black men, enter any space; the way people choose to avoid eye contact or never break their stare. We’re seen as a disturbance. Walking confirmation bias. Still traced as the caricatures of the past. People may as well be wearing “You don’t belong here” signs since it’s written all over their face. But this isolation that I accidentally and later purposely created between me and the black community on campus was actually putting me down a path toward becoming another stereotype: the kind that says I am black, but not THAT KIND of black (read: Uncle Tom). I eventually hit a fork in the road and went the right direction, but it’s still a VERY sick mindset that upsets me to even put down into words that I could consciously do that.
This stage of denial and dilemma between worlds would continue. In 2015, we left campus to study abroad in one of the most diverse cities in the world. Being out of the country and all, I naturally had to make a decision about you. Enter: box braids. Do you remember when I ran to Keara’s salon in tears after hours in the chair at the African braid shop? I don’t think I was prepared just yet to see you in such a different hairstyle, but I got used to you in a couple of days. There was one black girl in my study abroad program and she also had box braids and I felt that familiar feeling of solidarity again. She and I would bond over the weird feeling of keeping the same hairstyle for that long of a period and how othering it could feel sometimes. There were more black girls in the journalism program in a different part of London at the same time as us who also had box braids; I truly thought we would all become a little group together, but that didn’t happen. Instead, I went on almost every European excursion with non-black people and it was a test for both of us.
One of those trips was going to Ireland where I went out on the town and seven individual people grabbed my braids in one night. On an otherwise fun trip, seven different people felt so comfortable in invading our space and touching you and then further had the gall to have a negative reaction in response to my negative reaction, like that experience was owed to them. I cried in the streets from frustration because I knew that no matter how I broke it down and what my friends felt for me in that moment, they would never truly know what that felt like, how it was bigger than hair. There was even a moment where I was apologizing to my friends for getting upset because I didn’t want them to think I ruined their night by overreacting to something only I and other black girls would know was not an overreaction. When I finally had my box braids removed, I was already anticipating the questions from non-black people about “why I cut all my hair off.” Walking around with that anxiety for the last week of my program was enough for me to immediately put you back into my sew-ins once I got back on U.S. soil. I hated part of myself for it because I still hadn’t realized what it all meant.
In 2016, I decided to start your natural hair journey. Keara (my hair stylist) had been taking care of my you since I was 13, so I trusted her advice even when I didn’t want to hear it. When I finally accepted relaxers were only hurting you instead of helping you, we decided to trim you as low as she could to do a sew-in. In 2017, I got heat damage out of nowhere and had to move toward heatless styles. I panicked and cried, but Keara put you in braids and I actually loved it. Once summer hit, we went back to sew-ins as a way to give you time to grow and Keara continued to advise me on how to best take care of you in this transition, from what to do at night to the new types of products I should be using. Something she has always said that absolutely rings true is “Good hair is healthy hair.” Though I can’t remember explicitly saying to her, “I wish I had ‘good hair’,” the concept of good hair is pervasive in black culture that loose curl patterns equals good and tight while coily curl patterns equals bad (read: nappy). Unfortunately, many women are still plagued by this and it contributes to the major debate about natural hair within the black community; even the queen, Beyoncé, who herself has what we would consider “good hair” felt the need to emphasize this in her famous line, “Better call Becky with the good hair,” as a way to highlight that despite all of her great qualities and being BEYONCÉ, there are still a horrific amount of men, including her husband, who chase after non-black women simply because they are not black. They look at it as a prize or–subtly put–a “preference.” Keara opened that door for me to see myself as attached to but also separate from my hair and understand that I need to love my hair as it grows out of my head. This was a turning point.
In 2017, my mom attempted a feed-in hair hairstyle on me from a YouTube tutorial and I fell in love. She revived it in 2018 and we kept up different feed-in styles until our life became all about braids. It was one of those moments where the empowerment wasn’t loud or bold, but strong enough that I knew a change was happening within. Here was I bouncing between short and long hairstyles and leaving that straight-hair security blanket behind. In 2019, Keara put you into a twist hairstyle and I went to this exhibition in Dallas where my friend took some super fun photos of me that still make me so happy. I could finally see how much you had grown in two years. I stopped feeling nervous about how I presented you until I had my first date with my now-boyfriend a week after that exhibition.
Like many other women in the world, I could not figure out, with my obviously, extremely limited knowledge, how to style you the same way my professionally-trained hairstylist had you. You were frizzy and your curls were not defined. I tried to spray you lightly with water thinking your curls would bounce back, but it just weighed you down into a clump. Of course, this had to happen on the day of the date, right? I was in full panic and as if matters couldn’t get worse, I caught a glimpse of you in the mirror as I was frantically shuffling in my closet and noticed you weren’t “moving” when I turned my head. I felt myself shrinking into that middle schooler with ‘Super Saiyan hair.’ If you do not follow me on social media, you probably need to know that my date/now-boyfriend is not black. I almost canceled, imagining all the worst case scenarios about him looking at, asking about, or touching you like the strangers in Ireland. Against every fiber of my insecurities, I conjured up enough strength to push through. That date, almost a full year ago, was a wonderful date and every date since has been better than the last.
Here we are in 2020, the weekend of Valentine’s Day, and I am writing a love letter to you. Two months ago, we got our first silk press since going natural to see the wonders it did for you in terms of length, thickness, and body. It wasn’t so much about how long you were, but how clearly strong and healthy you were.
As I look back on these 25 years, I recognize how many layers there have been in our relationship, many of them sadly negative. But there has been major growth since then—pun intended. I no longer feel ashamed for wearing you in natural, twisted or braided styles, nor do I feel ashamed to have you straight, with a weave, with hair fed in, etc. I wear you how I want to because I have that agency and because you have that versatility. It just took me until now to fully acknowledge the beauty of black hair.
For anyone who made it this far who still doesn’t get it, I cannot be your encyclopedia for the politics of black hair. The beginnings of black people in America is worse than forced assimilation. Every community of color has been plagued by a different, but similar way white people have tried to make us assimilate, and black people have and continue to be policed for the ways we are different. Every day, little black boys and girls are still being sent home for ‘unkempt’ hair, some even having their hair cut off by authoritative figures. People at my job still reach for my hair when I change into a different style. Even in the black community, there is conflict about the natural movement. The history of black hair is deeply attached to how the world views Eurocentric beauty standards and there are layers upon layers upon layers about why this issue was and is still significant.
Learning to love my hair was the same as learning to love my skin–I cannot change it. Though, in the words of India.Arie, I am not my hair or my skin, but they are a part of me and I am so glad I have reached this point. The struggle continues, even with myself, but this month I am reminded of how it is a privilege to wear my hair how I want and not be ostracized, seen as ‘unkempt’ in my place of work, or prevented from obtaining an opportunity because of my appearance.
I want to thank my hair for its resilience, its strength, its ability to shrink and expand, its ability to mold into masterpieces. Black hair is truly remarkable and beautiful in all its forms and textures.
Certainly last but not least, my hair stylist, Keara, a.k.a. the true star of this post, has her own salon called KMS Glam Studio in Duncanville, TX. Any time I have hesitation about a style she wants to try with my hair, her vision brings me to life and I love how I look; more importantly, I love how I feel. Be sure to follow her on social media for more information!! ❤
Thank you so, so much to anyone who read this post. It was a hard one to relive, but so worth it to share. Please let me know your thoughts if you have any! 🙂