A few months ago I watched the highly underrated movie Beyond the Lights. In the opening scene, the main character (who is Black) Noni and her white mother are desperately searching for a hair stylist who can “tame” Noni’s thick, curly hair. Tears immediately ran down my face because the scene looked all too familiar to me. As a Black girl growing up with a white mother, my hair was also a source of frustration at times. “I can’t run the comb through it” was a common phrase in my household. Hair connected me with a fictional character on a TV screen.
Now some might think hair is a trivial trait, but hair in the Black community has been used as a status symbol and a political statement. During slavery, straighter hair symbolized freedom and access to more resources. During the 1960s and 70s, activists like Angela Davis and Assata Shakur wore their natural hair in Afros in order to tell society that they were proudly Black. In the 80s and 90s, the style went back to straight, flowing hair in the form of relaxers, weaves, and wigs. Moving into the 2000s many Black people started embracing their natural textures again and the Natural Hair Movement began. Black hair has the power to tell a story about identity. Reflecting on my own journey, I realized that how I wore my hair mirrored how I felt about my Black identity.
I attended a predominately white private school from kindergarten until eighth grade. My classmates loved touching my natural hair so much that I questioned if they had ever seen hair before. Despite their fascination with my “exotic” hair, a few of my peers told me I wasn’t Black. I didn’t embody their stereotypical and racist views of blackness. They justified our friendship by labeling me white, but failed to treat me as such. By the time I reached middle school, I attempted to conform to their labels. I couldn’t make my skin lighter so I decided to make my hair straighter. I got my first relaxer when I was twelve and I continued to chemically straighten my hair and destroy my edges for almost a decade. Straight hair didn’t just help me blend in with my white peers, it also symbolized beauty. The media taught me this from a young age by representing beauty as a white woman with long straight hair that flowed down her back and that she could easily run her fingers through.
A couple years ago while I was coping with a break-up, I came to the conclusion that I couldn’t worry about making others happy if I wasn’t happy with myself. I was tired of constantly maintaining my straight hair and I finally acknowledged that I only went through this process in order to please others. So one day I decided to stop and let my curls flourish. It was liberating to finally love and accept myself in my natural state. During this act of self-love, I noticed my Black peers, friends and family members embracing their kinks, coils, and curls. People were forming online communities and sharing tips about hair products and styling. The Natural Hair Movement was now my reality. This community taught me not only to love my hair and my Black features, but also my history and my culture. My perceptions of beauty expanded to include blackness in every shape, shade and texture. When I learned to love my hair, I learned to love myself. I will never again apologize for my blackness or try to conceal it for others’ approval.