When I was just 5, my mom’s hair stylist and close friend led my innocent self to a styling chair, draped a client smock around my petite body and applied a cool, white substance to my curly hair. I came into the place with a prominent afro. I left with straight hair. I felt no anger, no sadness, but rather astonishment with how my tight coils relaxed into linear tresses within an hour.
A new process began. As soon as a sliver of my natural hair sprouted from my roots, I found myself pushed into the stylist chair. As I grew older, I began to dread these hair salon visits. I dreaded the relaxer stinging my scalp, I dreaded the hot comb singeing my neck, but I dreaded the other pain most.
This pain overwhelmed me each time it burned away the shame, the connotations, the degradation — all the sweltering indicators of my blackness. I was only a recipient of a practice that black America has used for centuries. Our community has always labored to burn away attributes of our blackness, choosing to suffer from these painful burn scars in silence. And someday, I was destined to pass this baton of shame to my children.
In a society that has used many tactics to downgrade Afro-textured hair, black America is now using formerly oppressed hairstyles as a symbol of political advancement. Afro-friendly hairstyles such as box braids, Bantu knots, cornrows and the classic Afro have come back stronger than before.
The earliest European accounts of black hair are filled with negative connotations. European slave traders and American slave owners used words such as “nappy,” “bushy” and “wooly” to describe black hair’s unique texture. Instead of empowering, these words only served to dehumanize the attributes of people of African descent.
With the abolition of slavery came millions of displaced blacks. The feeling of “freedom” was an unfamiliar one. Economic, social and political barriers ensured that blacks would struggle to find their place in American society. However, the tight coils of black hair set the finish line of freedom back even further. To fit in with their oppressors, black America turned to hair straightening. Products such as hot combs and chemical relaxers made assimilation a simpler process.
The straightening of Afro-textured hair helped somewhat with cultural assimilation, but a crucial part of black racial identity was lost in the process. With a disconnect between African-American culture and the culture of their African ancestors, many blacks struggled to stay in touch with their roots while moving forward in American society.
Though the Civil Rights Movement encouraged black Americans to do away with straight-hair norms and embrace their natural curls, many blacks still refused to part ways with their hair-straightening products. In fact, though sales of black hair-straightening products began to decline in the 1990s, the amount of black natural hair products on the market remained scarce.
At the start of the 21st century, black America’s perceptions of Afro-textured hair changed from negative to positive. More black Americans than ever before closed their eyes, held their breath and cut off their chemically straightened hair. (Or, for the less daring ones, “transitioning,” the gradual change from a chemically-straightened hair texture to natural hair texture, worked best.) To accommodate to their natural textures, many black Americans swapped their hot combs and relaxers for natural hair care regimens. As of 2009, 70 to 80 percent of blacks were estimated to have used hair-straightening products. However, the number of blacks who spent money on chemical relaxers dropped to a mere 30.8 percent between 2011 and 2016.
By embracing natural hair textures, a variety of black hairstyles have increased in popularity. Twist-outs, Bantu knots, cornrows, box braids, Senegalese twists — these ethnic hairstyles have transformed from outlandish abnormalities to commonplace fashion statements in America. Some, like box braids, require hours upon hours of expertise to create intricate patterns. Others, like the classic afro, are much more simplistic. These hairstyles do not have American origins. Rather, the natural hairstyles prevalent in current American fashion have been in practice for generations in Africa. Yet, they all allow for black America to reconnect to their distant past.
Black America’s gradual embrace of their natural hair textures has allowed for the negative connotations of their ethnic hairstyles to be shed away like dead skin, allowing for positive connotations to shine through. This positive light has made appearances of black, ethnic hairstyles in places of high political, social and economic status more acceptable. For example, Academy Award winner Viola Davis shook the 2018 Golden Globes’ red carpet with her natural hair, and even former First Lady Michelle Obama has allowed for her natural tresses to shine in public light.
As of now, I’ve also allowed my natural tresses to shine in public light for 10 months. Like any other black American in my shoes, coming to accept my natural hair has been physically and mentally challenging. At this stage of my life, a reverse happened. I entered the hair salon with straight hair; I left with the beginnings of an Afro. This time around, I felt not astonishment but nostalgia from being separated with such a crucial part of identity for over a decade.
This new age of black America is rejecting the baton of shame, allowing for it to fall to the ground and roll away into oblivion instead. In its place, we’re accepting a baton of empowerment, and running with it as far as our oppression-fatigued legs can take us.
Writer Tiana Woodard / Photographer Kate Mulligan / Models Mariam Abdul-Rashid, Jade Fabello, Taylor Courtney / Stylist Paris Vincent / HMUA Alexa Lewis, Lauren Smith
Read the full digital edition of Issue No.10 here.