How did I become an advocate for natural hair?
Like many Black girls, when I was little, I wanted to have hair that “moved” like my White and Asian friends. However, my mother had a “no-perm-until-you’re-16” policy at our house (perm refers to the process of chemically straightening textured hair, also known as a relaxer). Back then, I hated my mother’s mandate. But by the time I turned 16, I realized that I loved my hair, just the way it was. So, I decided to stay natural. (Thanks, Mom!)
Growing up in a predominantly straight-haired-Eurocentric world, long before natural hair became a “trend”, I found myself constantly defending my choice to be natural to my relatives (especially my Black ones), friends, and even strangers. It was frustrating to feel like I always had to build a case for wearing my hair the way it grows out of my head! But I did what I had to do to affirm myself at a time when there was virtually no love for natural hair.
When I arrived at Spelman (a historically Black college for women in Atlanta) in 2002, many of my classmates marvelled at the fact that I had never permed my hair. I too was surprised by the fact that so many of my African-American sisters were clueless about their own hair! (I had thought that my having to defend my hair was simply part of the Black Canadian experience, not realizing that the situation in the United States wasn’t much different.) Many of my African-American peers had also been raised to think that their hair was too nappy, too much to handle, and was just plain ugly. As a result, many of them had had their hair straightened for so long that they didn’t even know what their own natural hair felt like, much less have any idea of how to maintain it!
Around this time, perspectives about Black hair were beginning to change–the Natural Hair Movement was in its infancy–and there was an ever-increasing demand for natural solutions to Black hair care, like braiding. Because of my mother’s “no-perm” rule, she had taught my sister and I how to braid at a very young age, and I had been doing my own hair since I was in the fourth grade. As a side hustle, I started braiding hair on campus. The hours I spent braiding my classmates’ hair (including some of my Morehouse brothers!), allowed us to chitchat, bond, and become great friends. Doing so, also gave me the opportunity to teach some of my new girlfriends how to braid and how to take care of their natural hair.
By showing my sisters that it was possible to wear their natural hair in beautiful styles, while still looking “presentable” and “professional”, they found the courage to grow out their perms. You have to understand that for many of those friends, “going natural” was not just about changing their hairstyling methods, but also represented a process of self-discovery, self-actualization, and even liberation! By observing the transformation of my friends, I came to realize just how important it was for Black people to learn about and to embrace their hair in its natural form–that it was imperative for us to start undoing the age-old lies of being told that our hair was not “good” enough, and to start loving ourselves the way God made us.
As a result, when the opportunity arose to apply for the Watson Fellowship (which allows liberal arts college students to travel for a year to pursue a “non-academic” topic of interest, upon graduation), I knew exactly what I wanted to research: hair braiding. Why? Because I wanted to dispel the negative stereotypes that people have about so-called “Black hairstyles”, by demonstrating that braiding and locking are universal human practices, which should be celebrated rather than denigrated.
During my fellowship year, I realized just how layered hair is as a study topic! I was so intrigued by what I had discovered, that when I returned from my travels, I continued doing further research on Black hair, and hair, in general, from an academic standpoint. Through this blog, I would like to share some of the things I’ve learned along the way, to educate, encourage, and empower us all, so we can all feel confident in who we are.