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Love is in the Hair
A testament to why hair is beautiful, difficult, and so much more than, well, hair.
Growing up, my sister and I dreaded Hair Day. It came once every six weeks, and we woke up with the feeling of two people resigned to their terrible fate. My aunt would take one of us down into the basement, wash our hair, and then begin the long, tedious process of re-braiding it. At the young age of six, I was always worried that my aunt would accidentally drown me in that basement sink, but the worst part was always the hair braiding. We would sit for half a day as our aunt pulled and twisted at our hair as we were forced to watch reruns of Days of Our Lives, and the only breaks we had were to the bathroom; even dinner was brought down to us on paper plates.
Hair Day is a memory I remember much more fondly the older I get, mostly because I have come to realize it was an experience I shared with many other black girls. Box braids, twists, dreads- whatever the hair style, we all had our own Hair Day memories, all different and yet somehow the same. We could all relate to that feeling of restlessness that comes from sitting in one place for too long, of looking in the mirror and realizing with a sinking feeling that there was still so much hair left to be braided.
Written by Meredith McDuffie. Photography by Remy Usman. Article originally published in January, 2018.
Models: Madison Hardee, Sernah Essien, Jasmine Brooks, Oreine Robinson
"…it wasn’t until high school that I realized I had been trying to cover up the evidence of my blackness; I had tried to fit in by becoming as white as I could."
My sister and I grew out of our braids. We entered junior high and our mother let us get our hair permed, pressed, and straightened. I was excited to finally have straight hair, like all the other kids in my school, and I felt like I finally fit in. With straight hair, I felt less ostracized from my peers, less different. I wore hats and headbands to cover my nappy edges, and it wasn’t until high school that I realized I had been trying to cover up the evidence of my blackness; I had tried to fit in by becoming as white as I could.
In high school, I gradually began to own my blackness, to celebrate it, so I started wearing my hair naturally. I stopped getting it permed and let it grow out in all its nappy, curly glory. But I do remember a moment when I became distinctly aware of how other people saw black hair. In high school, the girls lacrosse team all got cornrows as a team bonding experience. I was the only black girl on the team, and the only person who did not participate; something about it did not sit right. I asked one of my teammates how long it had taken for her cornrows; a couple hours, at most, she had told me, and suddenly I was reminded of Hair Day, of the hours and hours spent sitting in a chair. These girls had ‘black hair,’ yet they did not have the experience that came with that hair. While this had been a fun bonding experience for the team, I felt more isolated from them; for me, what had been an acceptance and celebration of my identity was for them nothing more than a silly group activity.
Hair has always been tied with identity, but in the 1960s black hair became a revolution in and of itself. The afro style became especially popular, as it was a very distinctive style that represented rebellion against and Eurocentric standards of beauty and pride in one’s black identity. Black hair was no longer just about a collective ‘we,’ it was also a call to arms against the beauty standards that insisted eurocentric features were the epitome of beauty, that insisted black hair was ugly, dirty, and less than. And while this particular revolution has not been in the spotlight, black hair has been tied with black identity ever since.
But has society's attitude towards black hair really changed all that much?
White celebrities like Miley Cyrus, who donned multi-colored braids in 2015, and Gigi Hadid, whose Vogue photo shoot featured an afro, wear black hairstyles as if they are a revolutionary new style; the white community commodify and appropriate black hair, but they do so while denying black people the right to their own hair. In fact, the past few years alone have been littered with stories of little girls being sent home because their natural hair was ‘distracting,’ of men being denied employment because their dreads were too ‘unprofessional.’
Solange Knowles herself has written an ode to the microaggression of white people asking to touch black people's hair, a song aptly titled ‘Don’t Touch My Hair.’ Solange repurposed this title as a hashtag when she expressed disappointment in the British Evening Standard Magazine for cropping out her braided hair crown. On a track from her 2016 album, Solange describes her hair as her soul, an integral part of her identity. Actress Lupita Nyong’o expressed similar indignation when a different magazine edited her hair to be smoother, essentially fitting a more Eurocentric idea of what hair should look like.
"Black hair is a part of black identity."
In 2016, pop star Justin Bieber debuted his new dreadlocks at a music awards concert. When confronted with criticism, Bieber responded that his hair was not cultural appropriation, but rather was simply just his hair. But consider the words and connotations associated with dreadlocks: dirty, matted, unprofessional. When Zendaya wore faux locks to the Oscars in 2015, she was criticized for looking as if she smelled weed. But dreadlocks, like the afro, have a history tied with black empowerment and black pride. While the origins of the hairstyle are still behind debated, dreadlocks were popularized in the west by the Rastafarian movement, of which one notable figure was Bob Marley. Rastafarians saw dreadlocks as a connection to their African identity and physical manifestation of their vow of separation to Euro-imperialist structure. Bieber’s locks being considered ‘stylish’ while Zendaya was attacked for hers leaves a clear message: dreadlocks, despite their roots, are ok only when white people are wearing them.
Here, then, is a dual affront on black identity through black hair. Black hairstyles are exploited by white celebrities, toted as fashion trends, while the white community simultaneously tells black people that their hairstyles are not their own. Braids, dreadlocks, afros- these things are acceptable only when the white community is using them. On Gigi Hadid curly hair is stylish- on Lupita Nyong’o it is a mistake in need of editing before publication.
These incidents are not random bouts of prejudice; they are calculated formulas whose purpose is to erode the black self. By punishing black people for wearing their hairstyles and applauding white people for appropriating them, society attempts to discredit and devalue this part of a black person’s identity; it tells them that to wear their hair natural is to participate in something unfashionable, unstylish, something ugly.
And while it may seem like such a minimal aspect, this Eurocentric attitude sows discord within the black community, leading to infighting that causes us to ask if someone is less black because they press and straighten their hair. But the danger in this formula is that it wants us to say yes: it wants us to state, firmly, that our black hair is part of what makes us black, and wants us to be ashamed. The commodification, the appropriation, the judgement, the consequences that come from wearing natural hair are all designed to turn us away from it. These things craft a narrative that become deeply ingrained and internalized, telling black people that they should not want to have black hair—and should thereby not want to be black.
And the truth is, this formula is an effective one because it forces black people to choose: wear your black hair and be black, or straighten it, tame it, and be less black. But the reality is that neither of these are good options because they both constrain black identity into two boxes. Natural hair or straightened. Braided or permed. Black or not black. This duality effectively restrains black identity because it leaves no room for black identity to be anything more than these two things. Black hair is undeniably a part of black identity. But by making black hair the be-all-end-all, the black community holds itself back from exploring the complexities and intricacies of identity.
Almost two decades from my last Hair Day, I remember it fondly. I remember the smell of shea butter and laughing along with my auntie at the ridiculousness of the characters on Days. My sister and I have grown into our hair, though we have both taken different paths. I wear mine braided. She wears hers in a weave. But despite the difference in our hair styles, there is one thing we both know without any doubt: we both love our blackness.
Meredith McDuffie is a Junior at BU studying English with a minor in African-American studies, and themes of black struggle and activism are often at the core of her writing. She is most recently interested in examining identity through the lens of science fiction and Afrofuturism. More of her writing can be found on instagram.