“Is that your real hair?” asked Dorothy. It was 2009. Dorothy was a non-black Latina I grew up with. At first I wanted to cut her some slack for not being black and therefore excuse her lack of knowledge and decency. However, I changed my mind and decided that since she grew up in Prince George’s County—a predominantly black and Latino area, despite current gentrification—Dorothy should have known better.
My ninth-grade classmates stared at me, expecting an answer as I stood frozen, completely unsure of what to say. That was supposed to be my day. After months of being natural, my hair was in need of a protective style: curly braids was that month’s choice. My big sister was a magician with her hands and knew just how to disguise the braids so that my hair looked like it was full of curls, curls that could have been mine—and technically were. I had the receipts!
I said nothing to Dorothy, walking right past her and into homeroom. For years I looked back on that event and felt bad about the way I treated the girl who let me comb her silky, black hair in the sixth grade because I was convinced by this society that what she had was better. Years later, I have come to my senses and I am proud of the 2009 Nsikan. What I am not proud of is that the 2017 Nsikan still faces the same questions, embarrassment, and circumstances of finding strange hands in her hair.
Hair “is a complex issue that deserves more attention,” says Dr. Joy Stephens, Psychologist and Assistant Director in Mental Health Counseling as well as the facilitator of the Women of Color Group at Howard Community College (HCC) in Columbia, Maryland. Stephens started the group in order for women of color to connect outside of the classroom in a safe and inviting environment. “Unfortunately,” Stephens continues, “hair is often the root of many microagressions, which prompted the desire to discuss Solange's song, ‘Don't Touch My Hair,’ in the context of racial identity development, intersectionality, as well as self-care.” When Stephens mentions Solange, she is referring to the Seat at the Table event held at HCC, discussing the work of the singer and creative, Solange Knowles, and connecting her songs to the real-life experiences that black women daily.
The coordinator of the event, Crystal Whitaker, who is an instructor in the Arts & Humanities Department of the college, seems to be on the same page with Stephens, stating that “in terms of being comfortable with asking or even touching our hair, I think this stems from not seeing black women as women in those moments. The plight of the black woman has always been fighting the struggle of being property and being independent.” This independence has been deemed a threat in history.
The Tignon Law of 1876, was passed in order to keep black women of colonial society from wearing immaculate hairstyles—with their real hair. Funny enough, black women started wrapping their hair in lavish headdresses that made them stand out even more. “There are such polarized assumptions about our very existence that it seems natural for someone to question who we are and what we possess,” says Whitaker. The Tignon Law being a prime example; the nerve Governor Esteban Rodriguez Miró had to order black women to cover up what God—not man—gave them. “I have been told to get a relaxer because my hair was too thick,” says Tey Harper, a New York-based actress. “I eventually got [a relaxer] to see what the hype was about—absolutely nothing.” Not only are people governing the hairstyles black women choose to wear, they are suggesting what they deem as solutions to a problem, which ultimately leads black women to damage their natural hair texture.
Tori Eley, a student at HCC, has experienced having foreign hands in her hair, all while being asked whether the hair belonged to her. "There was a time I was in line in the cafe' and a woman walked by and asked if my hair was real while running her fingers through it,” Eley claims. “I was immediately offended because I knew she asked only because I am African-American and my hair is long. When I told her yes, she said, ‘Oh my, I know you have to be mixed with something.’” Eley’s encounter is just one example of how black women are constantly being challenged, whether our tresses are long, short, or thick. Though Taylor Jackson, also a student at HCC, faces the these kinds of microagressions, she has a unique approach to the situation. “Exotic beauty means strikingly unusual or to stand out and be beautiful, different or even mysterious,” Jackson mentions. “As a black female it makes me feel liberated, confident, and makes me love myself even more when I have my identity questioned because no one but my sisters would understand.” Sister, we understand.
In the black community, hair is a big deal. Even Harriet Jacobs’s slave narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, can attest to this: “I had a fine head of hair…He cut every hair close to my head,” (Jacobs, 240). It goes far back to the ancestors in Africa, who used their manes to represent status, tribe, and celebration. When it came to slavery, African-American hair took the back seat, as there were more important things to worry about, such as surviving the whip. However, what the ancestors believe never goes away completely. The fact that Jacobs found it necessary to recall the event, shows readers that her crown meant something, and meant even more when she lost it.
Bringing things back to the present, as black women rock our crowns today, it is great to have a safe space, such as the Women of Color Group, to share the burdens and delights our skin brings. “The fact that we have been given the opportunity to have these open discussions on campus is great,” says Whitaker. “As women of color it's easy for us to be overlooked and I think that discussing how we feel first hand creates strength. For young ladies who are progressing through the process of racial identity, talking it out helps solidify their feelings and validates their experiences.” Nothing can be said after words so true.
Love, Peace & Coconut Oil
Works Cited: Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, 3rd ed. Vol. 1, W.W. Norton & Company, 2014.