With a range of curl patterns and intricate protective styles, there is plenty to love about Black hair and the stories that are interwoven in our coils. Last Thursday, in an open forum, St. Clair Detrick-Jules, author of “My Beautiful Black Hair: 101 Natural Hair Stories from the Sisterhood,” shared this love with myself and a room full of Black peers and faculty.
As a Black girl from Southern California, my own experience with loving my hair has been a long journey. In elementary, middle, and high school, I was often the butt of many racist jokes for my afro puffs, twists, braids — you name it. I stopped wanting any style that didn’t require a flat iron. In 8th grade, I realized my hair was slowly becoming damaged from the excessive heat, and decided to learn to love my natural hair.
Detrick-Jules noticed this same insecurity sprouting in her six-year-old sister, Khloe, who was made fun of at school. Other kids told that her hair looked like “shrimp.” Determined to make Khloe feel better, Detrick-Jules set off on a mission to compile a book full of interviews of Black women talking about their natural hair journeys, past struggles, and newfound comfort in their hair.
“I didn’t want my sister Khloe to have to go through years of self-hatred the way that I and most of my Black girlfriends went through,” she said to the audience.
On a global scale, Black hair is often negatively perceived as unattractive and unprofessional due to racial biases. As a result, many Black folks have been subjected to teasing, harassment, and bullying. Even within the Black community, texturism and unrealistic standards of hair beauty such as perfectly laid edges and “good” versus “bad” hair exist. These harmful expectations from all sects of society, in many cases, cause insecurity and an unhealthy relationship with our natural hair.
I sat next to some of my peers at the forum, and though I did not know most of the people at the table, we immediately found common ground as we exchanged stories of growing up with Black hair around non-Black people.
“Did any of y’all ever try Bantu Knots?” asked second-year politics major Maxwell Edmonds-Drati to the group. Bantu knots originated in West Africa and are characterized by cleanly parted sections of hair knotted into what resembles mini buns all over the head.
“I did. You know what they [classmates] called me?” asked first-year psychology major, Zana Lawrence.
From my own experience, I quickly (and correctly) guessed that Zana was compared to Kodak Black, a male rapper known for wearing his hair in Bantu Knots.
“I don’t think anything hurts more than ‘Kodak Black’ as a woman,” she said.
The open forum created space for Black folks from different locations and generations to be transparent about their own experiences with loving — and even hating — their natural hair, as everyone in the room was invited to share their journeys.
I listened in admiration as my peers used the forum as an opportunity to speak about their own hardships they have encountered navigating life as Black folks with Black hair. Despite progress such as better access to hair products and less stigma around natural and protective hairstyles, my generation still has its own shortcomings when it comes to accepting natural hair.
Zana Lawrence shared her experience living in Corona, California as a Black girl in a primarily Latine neighborhood with the group. Lawrence realized her hair was different from her classmates’ at nine years old. “Crazy hair day was yesterday,” they would tell her when she wore her afro to school.
“I no longer wanted to wear my hair or braids. I didn’t want to wear an afro puff, I didn’t want my mom to do my hair anymore,” she said.
Zana Lawrence, who stood proudly in her beautifully long box braids, no longer holds these sentiments. After seeing representation of her curl pattern on platforms like TikTok, she was inspired to start her hair journey over. “The natural hair movement brought me back to my natural hair,” she said.
A group of Black female faculty sat together at one table, all rocking gorgeous locs, curls, and coils. Black Achievement Success and Engagement (BASE) Director, Emille Lawrence (no relation to Zana Lawrence), gave insight on what it was like growing up before natural hair on Black women was as embraced as it is today. “The conversation didn’t exist, you got your hair pressed until you got a perm,” she said.
During the Civil Right Movement, activists like the Black Panthers wore natural hairstyles and afros as a form of protest against white societal norms. Their activism developed into the Natural Hair Movement which influenced Black folks to embrace their natural curl patterns, take care of them with appropriate products, and wear them confidently in all environments.
Emille Lawrence has been wearing her natural hair since her first big chop during her college days. “I’ve never gone back, I have always had this sort of short, natural look,” she said, motioning to her hair. “I love it.”
Despite its beauty, natural hair is a magnet for racist rhetoric which associates the texture, length, and individual with negative stereotypes. From girls bringing gel to school to touch up their edges after gym class and boys hiding their hairlines during the dozens, these beauty standards affect everyone in the community.
Black men are often de-centered from the topic of natural hair and the stigmas around it, which is a problem in and of itself because Black men have Black hair — and Black hair stories — too. Edmonds-Drati, who wears his hair in a large, curly afro, said, “I’ve been told things about my hair that are untrue. It’s ugly. It’s nappy. It’s disgusting. I’ve been told it’s bushy, bad, unkempt.”
Edmonds-Drati does not let these negative comments deter him from wearing his natural hair with pride. “Is it ugly? Not at all. Disgusting? Same as the previous answer. It’s beautiful,” he said.
As Black folks have continued to create discourse, content, and groups focused on natural hair and Black advancement, the Natural Hair Movement has taken off stronger than ever.
Natural and protective hairstyles are becoming more normalized in film and television. From KeKe Palmer’s short, curly ‘fro in Jordan Peele’s film “Nope;” to Zendaya’s loose curls in Marvel’s “Spider Man: No Way Home;” to the many braided, coiled, and curly styles throughout the entire fictional kingdom of Wakanda — it is clear that natural hair will not be hidden any longer.
Natural hair positivity is expanding far beyond the entertainment world, as policy catches up with the movement towards hair equality.
The Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair Act (CROWN) was passed in California in 2019 and protects from discrimination against natural and protective hairstyles in the workplace and in schools. However, for many Black people in other states like Texas and Alabama, there is no protection.
“I think it’s inherently political in this country,” Detrick-Jules said about wearing natural hair. “But I think that’s problematic because it takes away from our humanity.”
When I left the event with my Black roommate, Nia Bossier, a second-year media studies major, we could not stop talking about how gratifying it felt to discuss such a sensitive topic in our lives in community with not only our peers, but Black women who had learned to love themselves in their adulthood. “I felt like my experience was shared with everyone in different ways — even though it’s not the exact same, damn we all struggled.” she said.
Detrick-Jules’ goal to make her little sister more confident worked. She said that Khloe now feels beautiful in her own skin and strands of curled hair. “She sees herself in these women. If she thinks they are beautiful, it means she thinks she’s beautiful as well,” she said.
Detrick-Jules hopes to continue sparking conversations about natural hair at schools around the country and inspiring other young Black folks to love themselves and their hair, beauty standard or not.
“At the end of the day this is just our hair — a part of our bodies, it’s the essence of us,” she said. “I think there shouldn’t be anything political about it.”