I cut off my permanently straightened hair the summer before I began high school, leaving me with about an inch-long afro. The fresh start of leaving behind the world of chemicals and flat irons began a new journey. Now to figure out who I am and how my natural hair can reflect that.
For me and much of the Black community, our hair has remained a cornerstone of our culture and heritage. Though it has become an increasingly contentious topic within conversations about cultural appropriation and colorism, hair’s significance has remained present throughout Black history.
Its impact must not be lost among rapidly shifting beauty standards and race relations.
Our connection to hair has been there from the beginning, and the unfortunate truth for many is that Black history, their family history, began with slavery. But from the atrocity and desperation of slavery came innovation borne from the need for survival.
Research from Judith Carney, a geography professor at the University of California in Los Angeles, details oral accounts from descendants of African slaves in South America.
Those of whom attribute the introduction of rice to Brazil and other countries to women who would keep grains of rice in their braids to plant and eat once they and their children were brought to the mainland.
In addition to being a survival tool, hair was the only way to keep beauty traditions alive. Various types of braids and haircuts in African countries let others know of one’s status. Gradually, throughout slavery and past emancipation, Black people were forced to assimilate just to be seen as equals.
The late Cicely Tyson, known best for her transformative onscreen presence in films like “Sounder,” “The Help” and the TV series “How to Get Away with Murder,” was an early pioneer of the natural hair movement in Hollywood.
Tyson revealed on Oprah’s Master Class in 2014 that the night before she played the role of an African woman on TV, she got her straightened hair cut short and shampooed to revert it to its natural state. She kept the close-cropped look during her time on the 1963 show “East Side/West Side.”
“I got letters from hairdressers all over the country telling me that I was affecting their business because their clients were having their hair cut off, so they could wear it like the girl on television,” Tyson said.
When I got my hair cut at 14, I didn’t personally know any black women who had their hair styled that way, let alone see it on TV - and that was 2015.
To know that 1960s Cicely Tyson, a talented Black actress at the height of her career, could make such a bold style choice to maintain the integrity of the African character she portrayed gave me the confidence to brave a daily environment where no one looked like me, where I felt like my beauty and worth were stunted by having this short, strange mess of hair.
My own insecurity doesn’t even speak of the systemic discrimination other Black people have faced. It was only in 2019 that California became the first state to ban discrimination against natural hair with the CROWN Act.
This came after countless cases of black girls and women being told their own hair, in whatever style they wore it in, was inappropriate for school or work.
Black people’s hair looks the way it does because of genetics, undoubtedly. But the need to protect our hair and its customs is not as simple as the conflict of being the brunette in a room of blondes; it’s about having the hair growing out of your head being tied to centuries of struggle and degradation, of beauty and celebration.
It’s about our ancestors crafting hairstyles inherently tied to their identity and survival in a world that scorned them.
During this Black History Month and beyond, I encourage those within the Black community and outside of it to appreciate the versatility of Black hair when you see wigs, weaves, box braids, cornrows and afros.
Most importantly, recognize the ongoing fight to be respected for our expression.