Why Hair is Important to Black Culture: An Essay

Gerard Ortiz

Illustration by Candice Malveaux

On a synchronized Monday around 2020, with hurt and exasperation as our catalyst, we decided to be ourselves. Cornrows, Braids, Bantu knots, double-stranded twists, teeny-weeny Afros, Caesar cuts, bald heads, sisterlocks and locs reported to work all across the country. Authentically natural Black hairstyles also reported to the first day of kindergarten, middle school and high school. These wearers of our dreams arrived, unapologetic and expectant. James Baldwin’s fire burned again.

It was not just our hairstyles that had evolved. We had evolved. We, as in Black women, as in me. Here, I write a modern-day Black hair story that is not about Will, Chris, or Jada. But it is about Black women remembering our roots, when braids told tribal truths, and bald heads on little girls was deliberate. Yes, you’ve read that right. The East African Maasai Tribe of Kenya hails back to the 1850s where it was tribal ritual to celebrate initiations, marriages and new beginnings. Maasai mothers and wives were charged with the simple task of shaving their little girls and boys, bald. Baldness was never an indication of lack or shame.

It’s hard to imagine Maasai life if you’ve grown up in the United States of America, where Little Black Girls were in battle for and about their hair. Instinctively, we must have understood the force our hair would become in our lives. As we sat with the torture we were forced to endure, we were preparing our souls to fight for the truth of who we are. In these earlier years, these would be our first battles that we would fight and lose.

There we were, regularly, propped up on an old kitchen stool, at the mercy of our beloved matriarchs, who caused the pain of our birthright. This struggle seemed to be reserved only for little Black girls. On those stools, we understood that the reason for the fight was forged in the hard tug of a wide-toothed comb. We were told that the pain came from struggling to get “through our mess.” As the heat of a smoking curling iron neared our heads, we cringed. As the sting of Lye burned our eyes, engulfing our skulls in flames, we sat still.

Back then, my biggest fear was being named “tender-headed,” which I now understand was a euphemism for weak and thin-skinned. The adults laughed at us as the matriarchs straightened, burned, pressed and smoothed us out. These wise but naïve women thought they were saving us, but in reality they were erasing us in the same manner they had been erased. When the torture became too much, we, little girls, misbehaved because our very souls were feeling the ache of shame, which was the only thing our matriarchs had to give. I forgive them. They were just trying to prepare us for the lifetime of battles ahead. These kitchen revolts were young scalps trying to protect tender souls.

Let me confess that as a nappy-headed little Black girl, I, too, had my secret places where I pranced in front of the mirror, with a shirt covering my hair and it hanging down my back. With eyes closed, I twirled as my luxuriously fake mane whipped from side to side. It was only a temporary fix, but a fix nonetheless that served my need to feel free. Free like…well, like white girls.

By the age of 10, I had already been browbeaten by the only path that had been presented. It was the torturous path of the kitchen stool every four weeks and daily greasing of scalps with smelly hair pomades, embarrassing hair losses, suspicious eyes on my cornrows and awkward foam-curler indentations on my forehead. There was also the brittle breakage of relaxed hair and the emergency bangs cut to hide the bald spots. And, of course, no Black girls’ story is complete without the numerous assaults by thoughtless white strangers who are always compelled to ask: “Can I touch it?”

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Illustration by Candice Malveaux

As a grown woman, the real battle began when I started dating. One of my most painful memories was going out on a date with a handsome man that I really liked. We had developed a friendly rapport, and I believed this night was going to be my night to shine. Much to my chagrin, about an hour into the date, it started to rain as we walked the New York City streets. I hate to admit it, but right then and there, I fell apart. I could feel a scowl forming on my face. My sense of humor drained right out of my body. I was no longer verbose and witty. I became a stranger, even to myself. Self-doubt wrapped itself around me like a tarp. Within an instant, as I felt the raindrops touch my scalp, l began to implode. Every good thing about my former self, evaporated in the rain. I was sure that my damp hair had formed some sort of uncontrollable halo shrouding my scowling face. I had embodied my worst fears: I was ugly and would be forced to reveal that my smooth relaxed hairstyle, was actually fraudulent. I was no longer the relaxed girl that he asked out. Spiritually, I left the date, but my frazzled-hair twin remained to endure the humiliation a little longer. I had been lost to droplets of rain that would forever ruin my chances with him. Needless to say, the date ended early, due to my unexpectedly alien-like behavior. To this day, that story makes me laugh but still humiliates me. If I had only known who I would grow into, if I had only known that it is my heart that matters, not my hair, I could have held myself together. If I only knew then that I would evolve into a proud and resistant loc’d woman for over 20 years. I forgive that crazy girl that I was. I have learned that it takes a lifetime to learn what you are made of. Needless to say, “the one that got away” married a white woman.

Fast forward to 2008 and we have a Black president. We were walking with our heads higher than ever imaginable. We so wanted to believe that we were true citizens of this country. Maybe we were, but in 2016, all of a sudden, it felt like we were being punished for the past eight melanin-drenched years. A tornado of indiscriminate discrimination, and red-faced hatred woke us up, causing us to see more clearly than ever before.

Amidst the chaos, we learned this much: We, our mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers and beyond, were lied to. We wanted to believe America’s promise of seamless assimilation in exchange for our blind compliance. But this goes deeper than their sins of stolen land, imposed free labor, lynchings and the rapes and selling of our women and children. We have finally landed on the true sin; their malicious brainwashing that caused us to hate our very beings; our bodies; our skin; the texture of our hair… our existence. We are the daughters of women who fell for it and taught us that our hair was to be the obstacle to our success. That was then.

It is discouraging to think that this is now and it’s actually still true. Our natural hair has once again come to national attention with a plethora of recent cases all over the United States. “Lack of cultural competence” has been pegged as the rationalization for these distressing events that have created a whole new category of bigotry. DeAndre Arnold of Texas, was told that he could not walk for his high school graduation unless he cut his dreadlocks. He and his cousin Kaden Bradford faced the same discrimination, both of them from Trinidadian families, both wearing dreadlocks inspired by their uncles. Asia Simo, a cheerleader in Louisiana, was cut from the cheerleading squad because her hair was “too thick” to be worn in the required hairstyle of “half up and half down.” Andrew Johnson, a high school wrestler, was not only asked to cut his locs, he had to suffer the humiliation of having his locs cut publicly right before his match. Jeffrey Thornton, from San Diego, was also told he could not be employed unless he cut his locs. He was willing to forego the employment but still filed a discrimination suit. The company cited a “misunderstanding” for the insulting episode, retracting their employment withdrawal. Johnson still awaits a formal apology.

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Illustration by Candice Malveaux

Enter the C.R.O.W.N Act (Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair) passed into law on July 3, 2019. Finally, legislation that sees us. This formidable law rights the wrongs of a maddening crowd who believes that our hairstyles defiles Eurocentric “normal” standards. Championed by Black women and even corporate partners such as Dove, their powerful advocacy and real-time examples showed the absurdity of it all. As a people, we had had it after too many trips to Human Resources, principals and school boards; we took our fury to our higher power and the higher courts.

An excerpt from the actual CROWN Act legislation reads: “….In a society in which hair has historically been one of many determining factors of a person’s race, and whether they were a second-class citizen, hair today remains a proxy for race. Therefore, hair discrimination targeting hairstyles associated with race is racial discrimination.”

All the way back to the 1700s, the Tignon Laws named after the popular wide head scarf, forced Black women in Louisiana to wear head wraps because their beautiful, elaborate hairstyles were “too appealing.” Yes, even then, we were irresistible, too distracting, a little too magical, making them fear their own appetite for our darkness and depth. So, doing what “they” do, they made a “law” that would keep our hair covered, and them from temptation. Hair discrimination is not new, just differently packaged and more widespread since so many of us are reclaiming our hair’s freedom.

Every step is progress. In 2022, we witnessed the first Black Woman ever appointed to the Supreme Court, the Highest Court of the land. Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson. Marvelously and miraculously she sat amongst the very “they” to which I refer. She watched them do what “they” always do in our presence. Flail. Scheme. Manipulate. Twist and turn and ask questions so dumb that they couldn’t even answer them. But what was most fortifying is that although they tried to discredit Justice Jackson’s Blackness, her African name, her knowledge of the law and her intellect, she had the wisdom to grin and bear it. She listened and complied, but only partly.

She complied by receiving a stellar Harvard education. Check. She did the legal work that was required. Check. She proved herself invincible, credible, knowledgeable and in good standing. Check. She knows the law and interprets it with the utmost fairness. Check. She has served with excellence and passion. Check. She brings the gift of a balanced perspective with her unique and impressive background. Check. She endured an angry mob with class and grace. Check.

Justice Jackson did all of that with a beautiful deep dark skin tone and a natural crown sitting royally atop her head, not hyperbolic Indian hair bundles. As she accepted her nomination, she inspired and affirmed Black women, like me, who have grown to understand that our naps, knots, coils and curls, which we thought were our weakness, are actually our strength. Justice Jackson is living proof that the burning, smoothing and frying didn’t get us nearly as far as leaning in to the magic of our uniquely textured selves.

This story was originally published June 13, 2022 9:00 AM.

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