Black hairstyles take a stand against white beauty standards

Gerard Ortiz


Najah Aziz, owner of Like the River Salon on Howell Mill Road, specializes in natural hair, especially shorter styles. In 2015, Elle magazine listed Like the River among the top 100 hair salons in the country.

Roughly three years ago, Aziz had a client named Kelly who wanted to keep her hair long on top, but she wanted her sides cut low like a Mohawk. That’s when Aziz created the Kelly Cut, an edgy style that features bangs or curls in the front, lush finger waves on the side, and a flowing tail in the back.

“I styled it, posted it, and it went viral,” Aziz, 55, said. “Everybody kept saying, ‘What kind of cut is that?’ And I was like, ‘It’s just a cut that I did.’ Everybody wanted me to make it in a wig, but we do don’t wigs and extensions. So I did this Kelly Cut Challenge that went viral, and now people are coming to us from all over to get this Kelly cut.”

Among celebrities who have sported Aziz’s Kelly Cut are R&B singers Syleena Johnson and Jazmine Sullivan.

“Atlanta is definitely known for rocking some short hair,” said Aziz, who teaches her haircut approach to thousands of stylists.“There’s a level of confidence with short hair. There’s a freeing element with a woman who can wear her hair short and still be confident and beautiful and sexy.”

TV shows like “The Real Housewives of Atlanta” have also helped make hairstyles created in Atlanta popular nationwide, said Derek Jae, an Atlanta-based celebrity hairstylist who’s appeared frequently on the Bravo reality show.

“Atlanta has really pushed the lace front culture, the long weave, the long hair aesthetic, the very sex, sultry stripper-esque movement of hair,” said Jae, who also worked in the hair department for shows like “BMF,” “The Wonder Years” and “Our Kind of People.”

“I feel like that’s more of what’s happening now, but I think that’s starting to die away and move to a space where women are really now caring about the health of their hair. Women want to wear a wig, but they want to take it off, too,” he said.

An Ohio native who opened his Atlanta salon, the J Spot, in 2007, Jae said Atlanta is starting to become more known for natural hairstyles.

“The thing about Atlanta and its hair space is, anything kind of goes. It’s more about what you’re comfortable with and what you want to wear because there are so many Black people here. There are so many pockets that you can fit yourself into that you can find your niche of what you want your hair to be like.”

Jae said the variety of hairstyles seen now is a testament to Black people using their hair as a source of empowerment and resilience.

“For so long, they were trying to wear ‘acceptable’ hairstyles to appease businesses and corporations, but what the businesses and corporations are realizing now is that the hair doesn’t define who the person is as well as their education or what they can do and how they do their job. Now these women are like, forget that. And Atlanta has been a leader in that.”

‘The NAACP for Black beauty’

Atlanta’s legacy as an epicenter for Black beauty, particularly Black hair, traces back to the 1940s when Nathaniel Bronner, the only male in his graduating class from Apex Beauty College, started Bronner Bros. with his brother and sister to educate local cosmetologists.

Now the company hosts a legendary trade show, Bronner Bros. International Beauty Show, and manufactures its own retail products. The largest of its kind in the country, the show has expanded to cities like Miami, Long Beach and New Orleans and features celebrity appearances, hair battles, fantasy hair competitions and 300 exhibitors. The Atlanta show is held at the Georgia World Congress Center and attracts more than 30,000 attendees.

Erika Respress, director of trade shows for Bronner Bros., said the shows are the reason Atlanta is a hotspot for hairstylists all over the world. The company’s presence in Atlanta makes others want to travel to the city to learn about the newest trends in Black hair.

“Bronner Bros. is the NAACP for Black beauty, so we are responsible for setting those trends in our community. Atlanta plays a big part of it because Bronner Bros. is based in Atlanta. We’ve been in this business 77 years. There’s no other Black brand that has been relevant and innovative and on the cutting edge as Bronner for the past 77 years.”

“What (Nathanial) did, and the reason he was so successful, was (he) validated the talent of the Black stylists,” said Respress.

But before there was the Bronner Bros., there were the Black beauty pioneers Madam C.J. Walker, Annie Malone and Sara Spencer Washington. In the early 1900s, all three women created successful Black hair care and beauty product companies, as well as beauty schools and salons. And all three had franchises in Atlanta. Nathaniel Bronner graduated from Washington’s school in 1939.

“You have this influx (of creativity) because of the Black excellence that was here…..They were always interested in bringing up the race,” said hairstylist and preservationist Ricci de Forest about the three businesswomen. “They created these dynasties in order to help Black women go back to their communities and bring up the community. It was not self-motivation. It wasn’t a flex. They were concerned about the culture.”

De Forest is the curator of the Madam C.J. Walker Museum, located in Sweet Auburn in the former home of a Walker beauty salon that closed in 1981. Visitors can tour the building and admire vintage flat irons, blow dryers and other memorabilia that honors the legacy of Black beauty pioneers.

ExploreMadam C.J. Walker Museum honors legacy of local entrepreneurs

The museum is also filled with vinyl records that highlight the rich history of WERD, the first Black-owned radio station, which was on-air from 1949-1968 and also housed in the building.

“What’s happening is a ripple effect,” de Forest said. “We had all this Black talent in makeup and hair. Then you had Tyler Perry creating his studio in Atlanta, so all of a sudden Atlanta becomes this magnet of artistic excellence and for people bringing their unique approach and cultural influence here. It’s like this reverse artistic excellence, because people left here during Jim Crow, but now that talent is coming back.”


In another popular song-turned-mantra, Solange’s 2016 R&B hit “Don’t Touch My Hair” further dives into the relationships Black people have with their hair by re-enforcing a universal rule for onlookers.

“Don’t touch my hair / When it’s the feelings I wear / Don’t touch my soul / When it’s the rhythm I know / Don’t touch my crown / They say the vision I’ve found,” she warns on the track.

Atlanta seems to understand the importance of not only wearing that soul, that rhythm, that crown, but also the significance of wearing it unapologetically as an act of resistance to the point that it is revered and promoted.

Atlanta’s legacy for celebrating Black culture and achievement makes it a place where Black hair in all its many manifestations is acceptable, said Najah Aziz. Her clients regularly sport their Mohawks or pixie cuts at their respective workplaces — something Black women have not always had the freedom to do, especially in corporate workplaces.

“I think we’ve become more comfortable in who we are in our identity,” Aziz said. “We know that we don’t need to look like ‘Becky with the good hair.’ We can wear a high pony tail and add some hair in it. We can wear faux locs … If we’re more comfortable in who we are when we look in the mirror,… I think we’re able to wear our natural hair and not be apologetic to what white culture is.”

Miami native Kaityre Pinder, 32, didn’t start wearing her natural hair until she came to Atlanta in 2012.

“I think it has a lot do with the rich Black culture in Atlanta,” she said. “I also think that a lot of popular celebrities come from here as well, so that helps. I eased into (wearing my natural hair) because it’s more accepting, but the weather is also nice here and suitable for wearing natural hairstyles.”

Credit: Natrice Miller / [email protected]

Credit: Natrice Miller / [email protected]

Future of Black hair

Pinder is an outreach manager for the Black Hair Experience, a selfie museum in Druid Hills that features several installations uplifting the culture of Black hair. The museum opened its flagship location in Atlanta in 2020, and expanded to a second location in Washington, D.C., with plans to open one in Houston soon.

Inside are fun, Instagrammable settings that are a nod to nostalgic trends in Black culture, including an installation of a pink bedroom featuring posters of Y2K-era artists like Destiny’s Child, Brandy and Ashanti, and a stage filled with covers of Black hair magazines. Affirmations like “Black hair been poppin’” or “It’s the hair for me” are plastered on walls.

Credit: Natrice Miller / [email protected]

Credit: Natrice Miller / [email protected]

Instilling those attitudes in Black Gen Z and Millennials is one of the reasons cofounder Alisha Brooks wanted to start the Black Hair Experience. She wants anyone who enters it to know that Black hair is not a trend or a costume. It’s art and a lifestyle that Black people have historically fought and advocated for when it wasn’t accepted.

“I feel like our hair is a reflection of our mood, how we’re feeling, our confidence, what we’re ready to try and step forward with,” Brooks said. “Our hair is such a huge part in shaping who we are. I can start off the week in my wash-and-go, but by the end of it, I may have some box braids, depending on how I’m feeling. I think we can continue to push that even for younger groups growing up.”

The Black Hair Experience hosts special events and programs, including an upcoming initiative to celebrate the CROWN Act.

The name stands for Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair, and it was was introduced in California in 2019 to prevent discrimination against race-based hairstyles. A 2019 study for the act revealed that Black women are 83{05995459f63506108ab777298873a64e11d6b9d8e449f5580a59254103ec4a63} more likely to report being judged harshly for their looks than other demographics.

Last March, the House passed the act, but the Senate blocked it. Meanwhile, 20 states have legalized the act and although Georgia is not one of them, it is law in Clayton County, East Point, Gwinnett County, South Fulton and Stockbridge.

The Black Experience organizers hope their program will encourage the state to pass it.

“Growing up, I started off in corporate America. I changed my hair for the interviews,” said Brooks. “Once I got the job, then I felt a little bit more comfortable wearing my hair how I wanted it,” she said. “Today, because of social media, because of people’s access to seeing people step out and do what they want to do (with their hair), I think that influences people to feel more comfortable taking those chances and not meeting white beauty standards.”

Back in 2005, India Arie’s song told Black women that they are more than their hair. It’s a true statement, but the reverse is also true. Black women are their hair — it’s such a big part of their identity. And Black beauty entrepreneurs and hairstylists in Atlanta have made the city a pioneer in establishing an environment for Black women to celebrate their hair and wear it anyway they want, regardless of racist standards.

This year, the AJC’s Black History Month series will focus on the role of resistance to forms of oppression in the Black community. In addition to the traditional stories that we do on African American pioneers, these pieces will run in our Living and A sections every day this month. You can also go to for more subscriber exclusives on the African American people, places and organizations that have changed the world.

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