Don’t forget about the hair: Symbolism in “This Is America”

If you have not seen Childish Gambino’s thought-provoking video for his new single, “This Is America”yet, please watch it:

***Warning: Violence and explicit language; viewer discretion is advised***

I myself have watched the video several times, and every time I watch it, I notice something else, from the minstrel movements to the fun-loving children dancing in the foreground while devastation unfolds in the background… With all of the analysis articles and commentaries that have surfaced since the video’s debut, it’s clear that every element of this masterpiece was intentional.  And I don’t think that hairstyle choices were an exception.  

In the video, Gambino dons a freeform Afro and a grown-out beard. Whether we like it or not, Black hair, in and of itself, tends to make a statement, and the Afro, in particular, makes a political one. As we know, Black/African hair is distinctive in comparison to other hair types; as such, it has been characterized as the most important feature to indicate one’s “Blackness”, even more so than skin complexion (Byrd & Tharps 17-18). As for the Afro, a result of the Black Power Movement in the 1960s and 1970s, the hairstyle is often conflated (and incorrectly so) with Black nationalist sentiments. Remember in 2008, when the Obamas were caricatured on the cover of the New Yorker? The Former U.S. President and FLOTUS were “supposed to be” depicted as “terrorists”; note that Mrs. Obama was depicted wearing an Afro to top off her paramilitary gear. 

Ever since the Transatlantic Slave Trade, wearing African hair in its natural state has been an affront to Western society, and, as a result, Black hair has been sought to be policed for centuries. For instance, one of the first things that slave masters would do to the enslaved African people was to cut off their hair, which stripped them of their not only their cultural identity but also their dignity (Byrd & Tharps 10).  Hair was (and still is) a big deal in African cultures: hairstyles provided important information about their wearers, such as their respective clans, social status, and religion. As such, cutting off the enslaved people’s hair robbed them of their humanity (Byrd & Tharps 11). To this day, in many ways, Black hair continues to be treated with disregard and disdain and is a cause for discrimination.

That’s why I think it’s no coincidence that Childish Gambino’s hair is in a freeform Afro: a style that is unapologetically and unmistakably “Black”.  Yes, I do realize that Donald Glover/Childish Gambino tends to wear his hair on the longer side in his everyday life—whether in a TWA, a sculpted ‘fro, freeform locs, or a hard part ‘fro—but in the video, his hair clearly stood in contrast to the styling choices of the other Black cast members, whose hairdos ranged from bald to high-top fades, curly weaves to straight-backs, which could be viewed as options that are more in conformity with a European aesthetic.

Runaway Slave Ad (Public Domain)

Furthermore, in a society where men are socialized to err on the side of keeping their hair short and being clean shaven, when men—and Black men especially—grow their hair out, it has often served as a form of resistance or protest, and I don’t think that Childish Gambino missed that point. Keep in mind this is not a new concept.  According to Tharps and Byrd in Black Hair in America, runaway slaves did the same thing:

“Even though unkempt hair went against the African aesthetic, some historians suggest that … unconventional styles [worn by runaway slaves] were a way for Black people to assert their individuality and humanity in the repressive slave culture. ‘Hair that was worn long and bushy,’ argue Shane and Graham White, authors of Stylin’: African American Expressive Culture from Its Beginnings to the Zoot Suit, ‘emphasized and even flaunted its distinctive texture [and] may have been an affirmation of difference and even of defiance, an attempt to revalorize a biological characteristic that White racism had sought to devalue’ (Byrd & Tharps 15).

And the same goes for Gambino’s beard.  Though beards and beard care have become popular in men’s fashion lately, notice that Gambino’s facial hair is not manicured, but rather scruffy; it does not appear that he’s looking to make a “fashion” statement.  As noted by Victoria Sherrow in The Encyclopedia of Hair: A Cultural History, “[w]hen beards are in style, they may be regarded as a sign of manliness, health, and honor. In places where shaving is the norm, however, a beard might be a sign that something is amiss.  Perhaps the man is in mourning, lacks time to spend on his appearance, or does not care about social conventions? He might even be signaling disregard for convention and conformity” (Sherrow 56). Perhaps Gambino was trying to send all of those messages at the same time. 

Moreover, long facial hair for Black men, in particular, has been disapproved of, dating back to the Civil War era:

“It was considered best for Blacks, especially men, to keep a low profile.  Anything that a Black person had or did in excess was subject to the White majority’s intense scrutiny. This was even true with regard to hair.  In post-Civil War society, it was the fashion for White men to wear longer hair and beards, but when Black men allowed their hair to grow and stopped shaving off their facial hair (think Frederick Douglass), they were considered uppity and wild” (Byrd & Tharps 21-22).

Frederick Douglass, Abolitionist, Orator, Writer (Public Domain)

Taking all of this into consideration, I personally don’t think neither Gambino’s hairstyle choice nor his scruffy beard was an accident—I think he’s making an intentional statement: to be a Black man in America is an offence in and of itself, but it’s not one for which he is begging pardon.

Sources:

Ayana D. Byrd & Lori L. Tharps, Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2001.

Victoria Sherrow, The Encyclopedia of Hair: A Cultural History, Westport: Greenwood Press, 2006.

 

What are your thoughts on the symbolism in This Is AmericaToo deep or not deep enough?

Share in the comments below!

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Phenomenal Professional Naturalista: Mrs. Shaneka Shaw Taylor

What is your name?

Shaneka Shaw Taylor

Where do you live?

Toronto, Canada

What is your occupation?

Lawyer, Partner at Boghosian + Allen LLP

What is your educational background?

Honours Bachelor’s degree in International Relations from the University of Windsor; Juris Doctor from Osgoode Hall Law School, York University

How long have you been natural?

From birth until around 1995; and since 2004 to present.

Why did you decide to “go” natural?

I just really wanted a change and a fresh start. I had just started undergraduate studies when I started my dreadlocks from 2004. I cut my locks in 2011 when they got too difficult to manage and I didn’t have the time to spend on my hair as I previously did. I cut my hair to a low fade, and the rest is history.

What is your go-to natural hairstyle?

Hahaha, a side part with slicked sides and a side tapered afro.

Have you ever experienced any challenges in the workplace due to your natural hair?

Not to my face! I have heard of other negative experiences but I personally have not had any challenges due to my hair.

What do you love most about your natural hair?

The curls! I have tight coil curls that resemble the spring coil inside a pen; however, I have noticed that my curls have changed over time, perhaps due to the chemical colouring of my hair.

What have you found to be most challenging about being natural?

Maintaining the right balance of moisture in my hair and trying to get it to grow. It perpetually seems to be staying at the same length.

How do you maintain your “work-hair-life” balance?

Honestly, I don’t do anything different. From season to season, I try to mix it up with crochet or regular braids, and once per year, I get a blowout. Otherwise, my hair does what it wants!

What words of encouragement would you offer to someone who is considering going natural, but may have reservations due to their profession?

Embrace your curls. Do not feel limited by others’ perception of what your hair should look like. Once you accept your hair, the way it grows and the way it makes you feel, others will learn to accept and appreciate it. Do not feel the need to conform to Western society’s beauty constructs, as that narrative often does not view Black hair as beautiful. The more you embrace it, the more others will. Get a great stylist who is adept at working with natural hair and get him/her to teach you how to properly care for your curls. Be kind with yourself!

***

Follow Shaneka on

Linkedin: shanekashawtaylor

Instagram: shaneka_taylor

Twitter: @shanekashaw

or visit: http://www.boglaw.ca/shaneka-m-taylor

The Crown Was ALREADY Hers: A 2017 Natural Hair Win!

Miss Jamaica 2017, Davina Bennett! (courtesy of davina_bennett_)

Just a few days ago, the popular Miss Universe pageant came to a close. And although my fellow Jamaican naturalista Miss Davina Bennett didn’t win the title of Miss Universe, she has made a glorious win for the natural hair community!  Her confidence was showing, and her hair and skin were glowing, as she displayed her beautiful natural hair for the whole world to see, wearing it loud and proud on that stage!  Miss Jamaica fought back against the Western standard of beauty and owned her look, which must have made her feel empowered in the way that all women and men ought to, regardless of their hair texture.

In doing so, she has personified the following key affirmations which lead to naturalista success:

Miss Jamaica 2017, ripping the runway for naturalistas everywhere! (courtesy of davina_bennett_)

1. “I am not my hair, but my hair is an important part of me; therefore, I will wear it how I see fit.”

2. “The way I choose to wear my hair shouldn’t alter the way that others view me; I am still very much ‘me’- the same mind, spirit, personality- you name it!”

3. “My hair, which is my crown, shines beautifully at all times.”

4. “I have no need to fear: this is me in my purest state, and I’m comfortable enough to share it with the world.”

5. “Even if no one else will cheer me on, my hair stands tall and cheers for me at all times!”

Miss Davina Bennett, a natural beauty! (courtesy of davina_bennett_)

Miss Davina Bennett slays all day, every day; and we, at The Natural Hair Advocate, are here for ALL of it, and then some!!!

Thank you, Miss Jamaica, for making naturalistas all around the world proud!

 

How do you “rip the runway” that is Life with your natural hair choices?

How do you make sure you feel be(you)tiful in the skin you’re in?

Let us know in the comments!

What Are You Gonna Do with that Hair? Book Launch

book-launch-collage

Let’s celebrate Black History Month together at the book launch for “What Are You Gonna Do with that Hair?” at Knowledge Bookstore (117 Queen St W, Brampton, Ontario L6Y 1M3) on Saturday, February 25, 2017, at 2pm!

This is a FREE event! Please register on Eventbrite: zurisbeautifulhair.eventbrite.com

For more information, please visit www.knowledgebookstore.com or www.thenaturalhairadvocate.com

Follow us on:
Facebook: The Natural Hair Advocate
Twitter: @TheNHAdvocate
Instagram: @zurisbeautifulhair
#ZurisBeautifulHair

Coming soon…

Meet Zuri
Zuri loves her natural hair and all of the amazing things she can do with it!

Zuri -Coming Soon

Follow her throughout history and around the world as she learns about the beauty and versatility of natural hairstyles in What Are You Gonna Do with that Hair? 

Coming soon…

Parents, Support the PUFF!

AfroIn case you haven’t heard about it already, this week, a group of Black female students have been reprimanded for wearing their hair naturally, only this time in the Bahamas (sparking online outrage via the #supportthepuff or #isupportthepuff hashtags). Of course, this type of sanctioning is nothing new; there have been a number of other cases where natural-haired Black children have faced punishment at school for either wearing their hair out, in braids, or in locks. It seems like, for many, Black hair is not considered “school-appropriate” (or work-appropriate) unless it’s flat-ironed or permed, which I think is ridiculous.  But what I find most offensive about these incidents is that, in many cases, the disdain for natural hair is coming from fellow Black people! Alas, the oppressed have now become the oppressor!

So, why is this happening?  It is important to keep in mind that this notion of natural Black hair being “unruly”, “untidy” or “unkempt” by default is one that dates back to slavery, and has been ingrained in our psyche ever since. Negative rhetoric about African hair was used against slaves to rob them of their dignity and humanity, especially since hair design and care were integral cultural practices within African societies. Since slavery days, hair politics of this sort (in conjunction with colourism) have played an important role in constructing “otherness” as it pertains to Black people in society; and it has been perpetuated both within the Black community as well as through the media and social institutions.  This is why in 2016, girls are being threatened with suspension from school for wearing their natural hair, in spite of the Natural Hair Movement.  It is clear that Black hair is still considered an affront to mainstream culture.

Therefore, in a world that continues to make it hard for people of colour to feel comfortable in our own skin, I am urging parents and guardians of Black children to please

Support The PUFF:

Pride – We need to encourage our children to feel a sense of pride about their natural hair. After all, this is how their hair grows out of their heads. So why shouldn’t they be proud of it? Our hair texture and our hairstyles connect us to our rich African ancestry. Before slavery (and colonialism), African peoples took great pride in their hair. Back then, If you had a massive halo of Afro hair, it was a sign of good health and beauty! Moreover, African hairstyling was more than just hair maintenance: each hairstyle had significance and carried important messages about its wearer. Hairstyling was a revered occupation; and African hairstyles were (and still are) art.

Uniqueness – We should teach our children to celebrate the uniqueness of their natural hair. We all recognize that Black hair is different from everyone else’s, but that does’t mean that it’s deficient. Our hair can do things that other types of hair cannot: when it’s styled, it keeps its form and it can be sculpted into various shapes and designs. Not to mention the phenomenon of shrinkage—imagine, you can have long hair and short hair at the same time! It’s time for us to celebrate the unique properties of our hair, and to teach the next generation to do the same.

Freedom – We need to help our children embrace the freedom that comes from not feeling the need to conform to a straight- or long-haired aesthetic. Part of the reason why we often experience so much frustration with our hair is because we try to make it do things that it’s not supposed to do! [For more on this topic, check out Tress Stress – Pt. I: Have you ever tried to straighten a slinky?] When our hair is straightened, we try to avoid water like the plague—whether from sweating, showering, or the rain! And then when we decide to go natural, we try to get our hair to look like someone else’s—whether it’s trying to attain their definition, length, or curl pattern! If we would just accept our hair the way it is, and play to its strengths, we would be free to just be!

Fellowship – We should engage in the fellowship of the ever-growing community of naturalistas and natural hair lovers and allies. Thanks to the internet and social media, there is now a wealth of information, advice, and support to help our children wear their hair natural with ease—all available at our fingertips. There is no longer a need a to feel frustrated or overwhelmed by our hair care woes. We can find strength in each other!

So, together, let’s support the pride, uniqueness, freedom and fellowship that can come from wearing our hair naturally! Our children need to grow up knowing that they are beautifulexactly the way they are! And if we don’t tell them, nobody else will.

 

Sources:

Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America by Ayana D. Byrd & Lori L. Tharps.

What will you do to #supportthepuff?

 

 

New logo!

I’m pleased to reveal The Natural Hair Advocate’s brand-new logo! I really wanted something that would reflect who I am- a naturalista and an advocate- while also reflecting how my crown of coils connects me to my African roots.

Big thanks to Dylan Gnitecki of Gnitecki Design (http://www.gniteckidesign.com) for bringing my concept to life!

Do you feel like your hair connects you to your roots?

The Natural Hair Movement is here to stay: Afrofest 2015

20150704_174203

For the past 27 years, Afrofest has been bringing the rhythms, flavours, creativity, and vibrancy of the African continent to the heart of Toronto, in a free festival that attracts thousands of people annually.

This Saturday, I headed down to the festival at Woodbine Park, with my hubby and my brother, to not only celebrate Mama Africa but to also ask some of her daughters the following question:

Is the Natural Hair Movement just a trend, or is it here to stay?

First, I met Marilyn.  “It’s about time!” was her response, when asked for her thoughts on the traction of the Natural Hair Movement.  Marilyn started out her natural hair journey “spit-shine bald” two years ago, and now sports an oh-so-perfect asymmetrical ‘fro!

 

20150704_152532 20150704_152737 20150704_165730

 

20150704_154305Then I had the privilege of running into YouTube sensation, Samantha Gomez of I’m Samantha Gomez (click here to check out her channel), and fitness, lifestyle and hair blogger, Alaina Gomez-Henry of Shorty with a Curl (click here to visit her blog), who were working the festival as representatives for CURLS™ Hair Products.

They both agreed that the Natural Hair Movement is here to stay.  “People are embracing it more and more,” stated Samantha.

These beautiful curlistas were also kind enough to bless me with some samples of one of my favourite styling products, CURLS™ Crème Brule Whipped Curl Cream (love how it defines my curls!), which made my day!

Perfect travel size too!

Who doesn’t like crème brûlée?

20150704_163536Later, I met the lovely Shaniqua, wearing extension braids with grey highlights, at the Black Experience Project tent.  She was recruiting participants for the BEP Project, an important study about the “‘lived experience’ of individuals across the Greater Toronto Area who self-identify as Black or of African heritage” (if you’re interested in participating in the study, click here).

Shaniqua thinks that the Natural Hair Movement is here to stay, as “people are reconnecting with themselves and are embracing themselves.”  She shared that she decided to go natural about 4 years ago, when her hair had broken off from perming it.  The breaking point for her was when her stylist wanted $125 to perm just a couple of inches of hair…needless to say, she has been natural ever since!

 

20150704_170327

Then I chatted with Sipo, whose glorious twist-out I spotted at the City of Toronto tent.  Sipo believes that the Movement is here to stay:  “Once you go natural, and get used to it, you never go back!”

She shared that earlier on in her hair journey, she would go to Afrofest just to check out the hair—the festival offered a great opportunity to see what kinds of hairstyles other people were trying out!

And I agree with her—what better place to get a snapshot of what’s happening in Toronto’s Black hair scene than a gathering of brothers and sisters from across the African continent and the Diaspora?

Honey Fig, the natural beauty supply store (www.honeyfig.com), also had a tent!

Honey Fig, the natural beauty supply store (www.honeyfig.com) had a tent too!

If my conversations with these naturalistas—along with my personal observations—were any indication, it looks like natural hair is not just a fleeting fashion trend, but rather is developing into a true movement of self-awareness and self-acceptance that is really taking root (pun intended) in the Greater Toronto Area.

 
 

Do you agree? Is the Natural Hair Movement here to stay, or is it just a trend?

 

Tress Stress – Pt. I (or “Have You Ever Tried to Straighten a Slinky?”)

stress

/stres/

noun

  1. 
pressure or tension exerted on a material object.
  2. 
a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances.

 

tress stress

/tres stres/

noun

  1. Stress caused by one’s hair.

Tress stress is a condition that can be suffered by anyone whose hair does not meet the societal ideal, whether in texture, thickness, abundance, length or colour. The cause of this condition is two-fold: it is brought on by external factors putting pressure on you to wear your hair a certain way; and it also comes from within, from the internal pressure you put on yourself to try to meet those external demands.

For people with textured hair, tress stress can be chronic. This chronic stress is caused by constantly seeking to achieve a straight-haired or even wavy-haired norm for the sake of “beauty”, in conjunction with trying to loosen your curl patterns for the sake of “manageability”. In this series of posts, I’m going to discuss different forms of tress stress and how they can be alleviated.

 

 Have You Ever Tried to Straighten a Slinky?

This past Sunday was Easter, which is the one day of the year when churchgoers wear their “Sunday’s Best”, if at no other time. When my sister and I were younger, Easter Sunday’s Best meant that we would be getting our hair pressed (essentially, ironed with a hot comb) the night before.  This was an occasion that was always met with great anticipation because for the rest of the year, it was only braids and Afro puffs for us (how boring! we thought). Having our hair pressed meant that it would blow in the wind, it would look longer, and we would pretty much feel prettier; BUT it also meant that we couldn’t do anything– we’d have to make sure that our blankets weren’t too hot, that our shower wasn’t too steamy, and that we didn’t run around too hard at church—otherwise, that “pretty” press-and-curl would sweat right out—and our hair would turn back (curl up)!

The wonderful thing about straightened kinky (tightly curled) or curly hair is that when it’s exposed to moisture, it coils right back!  This phenomenon of turning back is the reason why many Black girls avoid jumping into the pool, even when it’s boiling hot outside—it’s not because they don’t like to swim—it’s because they know that once that water hits their hair, it will ruin their hairdos which probably took them a long time to get done (and will probably take even longer to re-do). Another reason for the hesitancy is usually because detangling extremely curly hair can be very time-consuming, especially if you don’t have the proper tools on hand or know the right techniques.

The uniqueness of “African” hair

Due to the unique texture and properties of “African” hair, Black hair care methods are generally different from that of most other ethnic groups.  Though there is no such thing as “African” hair (since the continent of Africa is populated by many diverse ethnic groups from different climates, each having its own hair texture), what we tend to call “African” hair is the type that is found in Sub-Saharan Africa, which is kinky and frizzy. Ethnic groups have various traits, like skin colour and hair texture, partly because of the climates of the environments where their ancestors lived. People with Sub-Saharan African ancestry tend to have coily hair, which provides insulation from the sun to keep one’s head cool,  but it is also prone to getting tangled, and tends to be drier and duller than other types of hair.

A source of frustration

Though my sister and I only experienced our specially pressed hair but once a year, for many other Black girls, straightened hair was the norm (and for many, it still is). Our friends’ mothers would relax (chemically-straighten), press or flat-iron their hair on a regular basis, in order to make it straight, sleeker, and more manageable.  These processes were supposed to make life easier.

But as my brother observed, “Black women straightening their hair is like trying to straighten a slinky.” Have you ever tried to straighten a slinky? No matter how hard you tried, you wouldn’t be able to get all the kinks out, and it would either revert to its original state or just end up completely destroyed. The same idea applies to trying to smooth down frizzy hair. It’s like playing a game of Whac-a-Mole– those curls will just keep popping up! So what does all of this mean for the kinky- and curly-haired people of the world? It means frustration!

 

frus·tra·tion

frəˈstrāSH(ə)n/

noun

the feeling of being upset or annoyed, especially because of inability to change or achieve something.

  • an event or circumstance that causes one to have a feeling of frustration.
  • the prevention of the progress, success, or fulfillment of something.

I think a lot of the frustration we experience comes from us trying to make our hair do what it’s not supposed to do. In the name of “beauty”, we spend so much of our time trying to make our hair do things that are contrary to its very nature: we try to make our hair look sleek, straight, or wavy, when it all it wants to be is curly, puffy, and fuzzy. In the name of “manageability”, we alter our curls, whether through heat or by chemical means to make it “easier” to comb and style. But all of these efforts only serve to frustrate us.  In the same vein, it’s no coincidence that the origin of the word “frustration” is the Latin word frustrare which means “to disappoint”. As long as we continue to try to achieve straight styles and to manipulate our hair using the same methods intended for straight hair, we will only be disappointed.

So what’s the cure for this kind of tress stress?

cure

kyo͝or/

noun

1. 
a substance or treatment that cures a disease or condition.

  • restoration to health.
  • a solution to a problem.

To relieve this condition, rather than frustrating ourselves with trying to make our hair do what it doesn’t want to do, I think we should try to “lean in” to our curls, by:

  • Accepting and making the most of our texture or length, no matter how kinky or short our hair may be.
  • Changing our definition of what looking “good” means for our tresses.  We need to stop trying to compare apples to oranges—it will never work.
  • Gaining an understanding of the properties of our hair and adopting new methods and techniques for maintaining it. For instance, on a basic level, curly hair cannot (and in some cases should not) be combed in the same way as straight hair—the curlier your hair, the wider your comb teeth should be. And sometimes it’s even better to use your fingers instead!
  • Figuring out what your hair does well, and doing that!  Find out what styles work for your hair, and then wear them like nobody else! For some people, that might mean keeping their hair short. For others, it might mean having their hair braided. Whatever you choose, do you!
  • Keeping in mind that Black hair itself is unique by nature, so it cannot do the same things that straight hair can do; but what that also means is that it can do things that straight hair cannot do! For example, it can stand on end! It can also be formed into designs that keep their shape. We need to start harnessing and celebrating these qualities of textured hair!
  • Remembering that your hair is unique to you, and it will never look like exactly like anyone else’s.  So, instead of trying to get what someone else has, learn to appreciate your own.

The more we begin to embrace our hair for what it is, and start letting go of our unrealistic expectations, I believe the less stress we’ll feel.

 

Do you suffer from tress stress? How do you try to alleviate it?