The Tangled Complexity of the Black Hair Journey

A five-year-old girl sits at the table bawling her eyes out. A comb snapped in half is now stuck in her tangled hair. Then, at some point in her life, the wild, voluminous, unruly hair will disappear. That is often where the black hair journey begins. However, for all the cuts, color, gloss and styles other hair types may experience, it is never labeled as the demanding, tedious, hair journey that black hair alone must embark upon.

Quick history lesson: according to the Journal of Southern History article entitled Slave and African American Culture in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century, “Whites frequently referred to blacks’ hair as ‘wool’ (the association with animals hardly accidental), in order to differentiate it from the supposedly superior white variety,” and so the hair discrimination begins.

This mentality has translated into recent history through black hair and its associated hairstyles, such as braids and dreadlocks, being categorized as unprofessional or intolerable compared to others. The solution was not to call out discrimination but rather ask for assimilation into the white standard of beauty, ultimately leading to the rise in popularity of chemical perms, hot combs, weaves and wigs that attempted to mirror caucasian hair.

Young African American girls are often introduced to one, if not more than one of these practices at some point during childhood. However, according to BBC, knowledge of black natural hair care declined in the West after slavery. Often times a parent’s lack of understanding about their own hair leads to the continuing chain of hair alteration as they are uneducated about the hair of their children. These lessons also instill the expectation that to be taken seriously in the world, the ringlets and kinks must cease to exist.

Thankfully, little girls can evolve into revolutionary women. In the 1960s, the afro emerged as a statement piece of the Civil Rights movement, converting black hair into a symbol of self-expression and heightening its emotional and cultural significance. Returning to natural hair is a sentimental journey. For some, a big chop after a rough patch in life could symbolize new beginnings or a way to reconnect with your roots. For others, it could be the freedom that comes with rejecting societal expectations; but one thing is for certain: for black women, hair has a higher calling.

With the modern-day natural hair movement, more black women are embracing their texture every single day. Connections through Youtube videos and natural hair blogs alongside product representation in chain stores has given the masses access to black hair care. “Going natural” is easier than ever and Black women now have the opportunity to learn everything they didn’t know in order to embrace the beauty they were born with.

However, what is seldom focused on is the reality of the black hair journey. While it may be liberating in theory to cut off or transition to an entirely new head of hair, the process is often romanticized. Let’s be honest, natural hair requires at least twice as much care as wearing one’s hair straight and that’s the exact reason mine is always tucked in a bun. A “proper” wash day from pre-poo, deep conditioner, cleanse, conditioner, detangle, product, style, gel, etc. can have you occupied for hours (hours I most certainly do not have). On Man Repeller, Modupe Oloruntoba discusses the guilt she experienced as a result of not enjoying her natural hair journey. “Every selfie I saw on Instagram was a fresh wash ‘n’ go, complete with an India Arie quote and the hashtag #crown. Everywhere I looked, women just like me were falling in love with their hair and with caring for it. Meanwhile, I was delaying, avoiding and half-heartedly doing the bare minimum on hair that wasn’t overwhelming in volume or length, all the while feeling guilty that I didn’t enjoy it.”

To complicate matters, the experience of revealing your natural hair can be nerve-racking, especially in a place lacking diversity. In an Essence interview, Sara only felt comfortable wearing her natural hair in a bun to work to mask it because no one in power looked like her, while she openly wore her straight blow-dried hair and felt validated when complimented by her co-workers. Dominique explained that “not having representation in the workplace led me to want to alter my natural appearance to conform and fit in. I once wore my hair curly to the office and it was a topic of discussion for the whole day. I felt like I had to constantly explain my hair and its texture.” While society may be curious, they should never make someone feel uncomfortable about the way they wear their hair. Instead, the conversation should be a point of positivity and education.

Time and time again, the black hair journey is referred to and concentrated on the natural hair journey. Although this is normally perceived in a positive light, the new overwhelming emphasis on natural hair can also be quite isolating, creating the guilt Oloruntoba experienced when even entertaining the thought of perming her hair again. For the black women who choose to style their hair differently, their journeys count too.

Some simply just prefer their hair straight or in weaves or wigs, similar to those who prefer a different hair color other than their own. The importance lies in the reasoning behind the hairstyle, rather than jumping to conclusions over a woman’s choice. The aforementioned BBC article poses the question, “Do we still feel like we’re compelled to appropriate white culture or is it now a choice, whatever’s convenient, whatever’s in fashion?”

I have witnessed black women judge one another for the decision to not go natural when in reality the person believes straight hair greater compliments their look or fits into their hectic lifestyle. It’s not about everyone wearing their hair natural, the black hair journey at its core is a journey because it celebrates the diversity of styles black hair can achieve at various stages in life. It’s about giving black women the option to style our hair any way we see fit, without discrimination, and knowing that we all are beautiful.  

By the way, that five-year-old girl bawling her eyes out was me. My hair must’ve broken a comb every two weeks, first breaking off the teeth until the comb itself snapped in half. Though the curls and kinks did disappear for a while, I’m happy to say after a long journey that they’re back. However, that doesn’t mean they won’t disappear again in favor of something else. It’s a journey after all.

Written by Hannah Harris

Photography by Iryanna Rogers

Model: Cassidy Clark

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