The pride and culture of Black hair

Sophomore+Anijah+Wilson%2C+sophomore+Print%C3%A9z+Harris%2C+freshman+Somer+King%2C+senior+Ja%E2%80%99Khai+Aiken-Guerrier%2C+senior+Daniellie+McLaurin+and+junior+Brian+Campbell+model+their+hair.+Collage+uses+photographs+by+Kelsea+Wilson%2C+Addie+Gleason%2C+Abbi+Vanvalkenburgh+and+Brinda+Ambal.

Elizabeth Franklin

Sophomore Anijah Wilson, sophomore Printéz Harris, freshman Somer King, senior Ja’Khai Aiken-Guerrier, senior Daniellie McLaurin and junior Brian Campbell model their hair. Collage uses photographs by Kelsea Wilson, Addie Gleason, Abbi Vanvalkenburgh and Brinda Ambal.

By Elizabeth Franklin, Parkway West High School

Since the days of American slavery, Black hair has been a widely debated and criticized topic. In the early 1700s, white people degraded slaves with natural hair by calling it “wool,” comparing Black people and their features to animals and even shaving enslaved people’s hair to remove their culture; thus establishing the narrative that straight or almost-straight hair was better than natural Black hair. 

Many Black people, especially Black women, changed their hair to fit European beauty standards by straightening or perming their hair with relaxers or hot combs. That’s not to say that straightened or relaxed hair is automatically a negative thing as there are many who prefer their hair to be straight for personal reasons. Despite the origins of relaxing and straightening Black hair, many business owners — such as Annie Malone and Madam C.J. Walker — were able to profit off of the trends and circulate wealth into the Black community. 

In the 1960s, with the peak of the decade’s Civil Rights Movement, however, a movement called “Black is Beautiful” began, which aimed to disrupt the narrative that Black features, including hair and skin, were inferior to paler skin and straight or almost straight hair. Political figures and activists such as Angela Davis, Huey P. Newton and Jesse Jackson wore their hair in large afros to promote this idea. Models and actors in television commercials and shows were suddenly embracing both natural and carefully manipulated hairstyles. The hair pick with a Black Power fist became popular especially in the media, as it symbolized rebellion and empowerment among people in the Black community.

Black hair has not only been a fashionable statement but it’s also been considered an integral part of the community, as seen in Black barbershops and Black beauty salons. Black hair salons and barbershops in particular have played an important role in Black history, as they were a center of communication for activists. Because Black beauty shops were free from the prying eyes of white supremacists and white employers, they were often places where civil rights activists could discuss plans and organize marches and protests.

After the Black Is Beautiful movement launched – especially in the late 1990s – box braids, various types of cornrows, locs and other braided, twisted and natural hairstyles were finally considered fashionable in the United States. Experimentation with hairstyles became widespread, thus beginning offshoots like the various types of box braids.                                                              

The perspective on Black hair has shifted from a historically negative connotation to the current climate in the Black community which aims to fully embrace and protect Black hair. It’s imperative to recognize and celebrate the significant development of the various developments that Black hair has gone through in the United States of America. Six Black Longhorns have input on this transition, and how they feel about their own hair.

‘Hair is like a culture’

As for hair, sophomore Anijah Wilson is “natural,” meaning that she does not use extreme heat or chemicals on her hair. She often wears her hair in its natural state or gets it braided.

“[Hair] is kind of like a culture in our family. I remember some Sundays, we used to get together and we’d do wash days,” Wilson said. “I’d do my little cousin’s hair or my bigger cousin did my hair. It’s a way for us to vibe. It’s a way for us to stay together—it’s a tradition to take care of your hair a certain way.”

There are various types of Black hair that can be styled in different ways. Black hair can range from loosely curled to tightly coiled. Defined curls can be formed by applying a curl smoothie and twisting the hair and then untwisting it after a few days. Some people will not untwist their hair which tangles the hair together and forms locs. Over the past year, sophomore Printéz Harris has grown out his freeform locs, which means that they’re barely manipulated as opposed to locs that are carefully manipulated and maintained throughout the process.

Sophomore Printéz Harris poses with his freeform locs.

“This is my dream hairstyle. My hair has grown a lot since [I first started],” Harris said. “[I like] that I don’t have to do anything to it. I just wake up, shake it, move it around and it’s done. I don’t got to do much to it.”

Different from  Wilson and Harris’ approaches towards their hair, senior Daniellie McLaurin uses both wigs and weaves for her own hair. This is also a popular method for those who find the process of taking care of natural hair to be too tedious or time-consuming. 

“With my actual hair, it’s hard to deal with because it’s so thick,” McLaurin said. “This is actually my first time using a wig, and I don’t see anything wrong with it. I like it a lot. It helps me by allowing me not to do my hair every day. If I go outside, I don’t think people would even realize I had on a wig—they’d probably think it’s a weave.”

Protective styles are hairstyles that keep the ends from being exposed and therefore damaged. They are also low-maintenance – meaning that the hair is not manipulated – which is great for hair growth and maintaining healthy hair. Prominent protective hairstyles such as box braids, sew-ins and wigs can all keep natural hair from being harmed, provided that the hair is continuously moisturized and proper care is taken.

“My hair has been through a lot,” McLaurin said. “I used to have impetigo, and it left a scar on the middle of my scalp. I also used to have a lot of perms and relaxers growing up so I’ve [only] just started taking care of my own hair.”

Other people, like junior Brian Campbell, prefer to wear their hair out in small afros. This can be achieved by using a pick to comb out hair and create the ‘fluffy’ texture of a typical Afro. 

“Right now, I have a fro. The way I do it, I call them ‘twisties,’ where someone twists my hair [and then I pick it out]. I get it done every other two weeks so my hair can grow and I’ve been in this pattern for a few months now,” Campbell said. “I had dreads a while ago, and I’m trying to get my hair long again because I like having a lot of hair.”

Many people do their hair at home, have a family member or friend style their hair or go to the various barbershops and beauty salons throughout America. The businesses of Black beauty salons and barbershops provide a unique social aspect for a number of people.

It’s disappointing, but I guess when you see this stuff so much – when it’s a recurring problem in the country – it’s expected at this point. You want to be mad, and you want to be upset, but why would you expect more?”

— Anijah Wilson

“In Black beauty shops, people [would] gossip, people would bring food in and share with us,” Wilson said. “People would sell CDs there, sell basically everything you could think of there. It really has been a big part of my life. My grandmother owned a beauty salon—she actually owned a couple—so that’s why it became such a big part for me specifically.”

Black hair and its culture have been examined in many movies and films. The social dynamics and the effect on the Black community, in particular, are simulated in the comedy movie franchise Barbershop, as well as the Pixar animated film Soul. Campbell believes that this community interchange is specific and unique to the Black community.

“Sometimes a barber gets mad if you go somewhere else. They can tell – they can immediately tell if you went to somebody else,” Campbell said. “They’d be like, ‘You cheated on me, bruh?’ It be funny. You sit and you chatter about random stuff, you know. I think it’s very particular to the Black community especially, this type of interaction at the barbershop.”

Although styles with afro-textured hair became popular among many in the Black community, many predominantly white institutions continue to discriminate against such hairstyles. Hair discrimination comes in many shapes and forms, and some of the best examples come from schools.

An infamous example of such discrimination lies within the case of Buena Regional High School junior Andrew Johnson in 2018, who was 16 years old at the time of the incident. He was pressured to cut off his locs in order to continue participating in his wrestling match.

“To make that boy cut off his dreads, in my opinion, is awful,” Harris said. “[Nobody’s] going to tell me to cut off my hair. That’s wrong. He grew out his hair just for someone to tell him that he has to cut it. It really resonated with me, especially because I have a hairstyle similar to his.”

This incident with Johnson is unfortunately only one of the many instances when Black students were the receiving party of racial hair discrimination, such as the ‘inappropriate’ hairstyles banned at an elementary school that disproportionately were Black or the case of a student who was suspended due to her braids with extensions. 

“It’s dumb. If [students] want to wear [their hair] in any way that they want to wear their hair—if they want their hair all the way to the ground, I would say let them. You can’t tell someone else to change their look, especially if it’s something cultural like hair,” Harris said. “It’s aggravating.”

Sophomore Elizabeth Franklin gets her hair braided at a salon.
(Tiffany Mapp Franklin)

A lot of time and effort goes into producing these hairstyles, and a headful of medium braids can average at about six hours or more. McLaurin believes that although there are some hairstyles that can make a person look untidy, many of the locs and braids that people have do not fit the category for “messy.”

“There’s a difference between messy and acceptable hairstyles. I think a lot of other people may be seeing [hairstyles we see as acceptable] as unacceptable,” McLaurin said. “It makes me feel upset; a lot of us can’t be like any other people who just brush their hair and walk out of the house. We have to style it [in] a different way. It does feel upsetting that people expect us to wear [our hair] a certain way.”

Hair discrimination is strongly linked to racism. Saying that Black hair is “unprofessional” or “messy” even when it appears neat perpetuates the damaging, racist notion that it is not as good as straight hair. 

The Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair (CROWN) Act is an act that intends to end race-based hair discrimination, which would virtually end any restrictions on what ethnic-specific hairstyles people can and cannot wear in professional settings, schools and in the military. The act has passed in 14 states. Although Missouri considered the act in 2020, it ultimately did not become a law.

“It’s disappointing,” Wilson said. “But I guess when you see this stuff so much – when it’s a recurring problem in the country – it’s expected at this point. You want to be mad, and you want to be upset, but why would you expect more?”

For Black students in schools, there’s a disproportionate amount of suspensions and expulsions, and as adults, stereotypical attributes such as hair or dialect can harm the chances of getting jobs for Black adults. Because of this, Campbell was pressured to cut off his dreads by his mother. 

“My mom didn’t want me to be the basic stereotype of a Black man with dreads,” Campbell said. “[The way it was explained to me was] if I were to get a job and I had dreads, a lot of the time they’d automatically profile me as a criminal-type or someone who won’t be ‘fit for the job.’”

Criminal profiling, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, is “the reliance on a group of characteristics they believe to be associated with crime.” Although dreadlocks aren’t necessarily considered a characteristic that is associated with crime, the stereotypical characteristic of especially Black boys and men with dreadlocks as lazy, poor and uneducated, can and has prevented many qualified people from getting the jobs they deserve.

“Appearances are a big thing. If you appear to look like you’re applying for a job, you’re going to get hired [over someone who socially isn’t],” Campbell said. “And dreads fall out of the socially acceptable hairstyles for a lot of jobs, apparently. I don’t understand why it’s not socially acceptable, but that’s just how it is.”

If [my hair] isn’t a certain way, then I don’t like the way I look. My grandma and my mom always used to tell me that my hair was a link to my ancestors, and if I’m linked to my ancestors, I’ll feel good. I used to cry a lot about my hair, but it’s always been a measure of confidence, a sense of being me.”

— Anijah Wilson

That’s not the only problem. A 2021 research study suggests that many young children, especially in predominantly white schools, still harbor an anti-Black bias. This occurrence especially happens among Black children with all-white peers.

“People who are told that their hair isn’t good enough can end up hating their hair. It really depends on how they feel about it. If it’s a sensitive person, then they’ll think their hair isn’t good enough or they can feel ugly,” Harris said.

Black people are heavily influenced by Black peers around them and ingrained internalized racism as well, King says. 

“[I remember] some girl was getting talked about and taunted because she was wearing her natural hair, and her natural hair isn’t all that long like the other [Black kids],” King said. “[It made me upset] because she can’t control how long her hair is or what kind of state it’s in [all the time] because that’s just her natural hair. She can’t do anything about it.”

In addition to this racial bias, senior Khai Aiken-Guerrier and King agree that there is another stress for people with natural hair: not having their hair completely done or looking exactly right. There’s a particular obligation to have hair slicked back when there’s no heat or extensions or it’s not maintained so that it always looks perfect.

“It’s definitely a common worry when people don’t have their hair done. I talk to a lot of people, and I’m like ‘Why do you have a hat on today?’ and they’re like, ‘Oh, I didn’t do my hair,’” Aiken-Guerrier said. 

Like Aiken-Guerrier, Wilson shares the opinion that self-esteem is linked to the state of hair, something that she noticed when she was younger.

Aiken-Guerrier notices this occurrence and wants to change it so that Black people don’t feel pressured to always look perfect.  

“I feel my hair expresses my freedom because I can do whatever I want with it. It’s not like middle school, where we weren’t allowed to wear hats or allowed to wear visors. This is important because most people—especially Black people—feel that if they don’t wear their hair a certain type of way, then they feel nervous or embarrassed that it’s not done,” Aiken-Guerrier said. “One day, I came to school, and my hair wasn’t all the way braided. And I just wore it out. I didn’t have a hood on or anything. Not everyone can have a good hair day, and I think that people should realize that it’s not always about the finished product because most people simply don’t have enough time.”

King’s realization that the obsession over perfection is barring many Black students from being able to be completely comfortable with themselves has changed King’s perspective of her hair and its beauty over the years.

Sophomore Anijah Wilson poses with her hair in an afro puff. (Courtesy of Anijah Wilson)

“I used to love my natural hair when I was younger, but as I got older, I felt that I needed [straight] weave because I saw other people getting bullied for their natural hair being ‘nappy’ or short, and my hair was shorter than others. But as I’ve grown, I’ve realized that my natural hair isn’t that bad, and I’m on the journey to loving it again,” King said.

A research study from 2016 suggests that increased representation in media for younger children can be vital in reducing the negative effects of a fossilized beauty standard. 

“I don’t see a lot of Black, natural, kinky hair on networks for teens and kids, especially back when I was growing up. There’s also not a lot [of representation] on kids’ networks, like Cocomelon. It’s definitely getting better, but there needs to be more,” Wilson said. 

Harris encourages younger Black children to explore their hair options and to express pride in their hair.

“I’d give [kids] as many compliments as I can, and let them know whatever [hair style they] choose, [they’re] going to look good in it. And don’t let anyone tell you different,” Harris said.

Despite the discriminatory policies, and despite the various ways that they will style their hair, all of the students agree that their hair always will play a significant role in their lives. Black hair not only is something that’s on their head, but it represents style, different journeys and the freedom to express themselves in ways that wouldn’t necessarily have been possible or viable 70 years ago.

“No matter how you view it or how you value it, your hair is a big part of you, and it’s always going to be a big part of you. Hair is always going to be a big part of being Black. Take it throughout life with you. Your hair is a big blessing,” Wilson said.

This story was originally published on Pathfinder on November 4, 2021.