When my sister was five years old, my aunt decided to forcibly use a chemical relaxer on her hair so that it would be “straight and beautiful.” This event was followed by sounds of torment that rang through the night. Screams filled the house as chemical hair relaxer burned through her scalp, and water was rendered useless against the unrelenting heat. At the time, my aunt was enamored by the models and celebrities advertising the newest hair straightening product that made natural hair easy to manage. She sought to simplify my sister’s daily hairdressing routine from bothersome to effortless. To her, natural hair was something that needed to be conquered and managed.
Internalized hatred for natural, kinky, Afro-textured hair is a deeply rooted mentality that dates back to the colonization of African tribes and countries. During colonization, power, wealth, and innovation were possessed by Europeans, whose silky straight hair was deemed beautiful. In contrast, natural Afro-textured hair was perceived as messy, unkempt, and savage—a rhetoric created during the slave trade and upheld today in the workforce discourse over professionalism and presentability. This association between prestige and hair has forced Black people to manipulate their hair in order to be perceived as beautiful, tame, and employable. Black women have had to make themselves digestible, embodying Eurocentric features in order to avoid drawing attention to their otherness. The reinforced image of acceptable beauty curated by colonialism, entertainment, media, and society has instilled shame in many Black women.
My mother, a professional hair-braider, is a different story. She has never felt forced to conform to beauty standards by relaxing natural, kinky hair—so you can imagine her horror and rage when she found out what happened to my sister. For as long as I can remember, my mother was always braiding hair in her shop—combing, parting, and stitching hair into magnificent one-of-a-kind art pieces. From cornrows to Senegalese twists, micro braids to soft locks, Nubian twists to butterfly braids, there is no reconfiguration of natural hair that my superhuman mother could not do. My mother braided with ease and joy, always encouraging her customers to love their hair unconditionally. I grew up in the shop, watching and learning intently as she transformed not only a woman’s hair, but her confidence and countenance too. It was as if there was an enhancement of the beauty they already possessed, a catapulting of their sense of self. For 15 years, I was surrounded by women who loved themselves and especially their hair, taking pride in their natural curls.
Growing up around African hair braiding, I learned how to braid hair and began working as a professional hair braider at the age of 14. Even before age 14, however, I frequently braided my sisters’, aunts’, and mother’s hair as a way to perfect my skill. I always enjoyed exploring the versatility of natural hair, and as I became a professional craftsman who transformed customers’ natural crowns, I began to feel a sense of ownership over my unique craft.
The origin of braiding natural hair dates all the way back to 5000 BC, when African women braided their hair as a form of art and self-identification. Women would often braid their hair based on which tribe they belonged to, and as a way to showcase their status in society. Braids were praised and sacred to African women. During the unjustly forced servitude of African slaves, cornrows were used as a map, with directions to freedom. Braids are a pivotal part of Black identity—but at 15, despite my role as a hair braider, I struggled to recognize this fact.
It is funny how history always seems to repeat itself, because at age 15, ten years after my sister’s misfortune with “hair beautification,” I purposefully burned my scalp, hands, and hair every week, blowing my hair out and eagerly straightening away every single natural curl on my head. The deconstruction of my beautiful crown became a sort of stripping ritual; the extent of this desecration would not reveal itself until months after the fact. In the tenth grade, I found myself questioning my sense of self and my outward desirability to the world. Peers all around me were in relationships, going on dates, and broadcasting it all over social media. In a predominantly white high school, I linked my lack of physical appeal to my dissimilar characteristics to other white females. My peers had straight hair, small figures, and thin lips; I did not have any of those qualities. My teenage insecurities perpetuated my internalized narrative that my African features were to blame for my relationship status. I decided to change parts of myself that were alterable; my thick lips or curvy body I could not change, but surely I could rectify my curly hair. Thus, my hair straightening began, and after a whole year of blowing out my hair on the highest heat, I ended up with damaged hair that refused to curl or bounce back. My dead, straight hair only brought me shame. How could the daughter of a hair braider damage her own hair? How could a hair braider resist their own craft? And for what?
Looking back now, I wonder if my rejection of braiding my hair was a manifestation of my subconscious conformity to white beauty standards. All I do know is that I was unaware of the subconscious self-betrayal until I truly looked at the state of my “beautiful hair.” My motivations for straightening my hair were based in vanity, but at the time, it seemed like the only way to control how the world perceived me. At the core of it all, I wanted to be seen.
Among the first Black millionaires were Garrett A. Morgan and Madame C. J. Walker, the inventors of the chemical hair relaxer and the hot comb respectively. Both of their inventions took the African American community by storm, creating an era of relaxing and straightening hair that would not be dismantled until the early 2000s. Morgan’s 1910 invention, an alkaline hair relaxer that he discovered while working in his machine repair shop, would be marketed as a way for Black women to “manage” their hair and “beautify” it, setting the standard practice for Black girls and women for nearly a century to come. Meanwhile, Walker popularized the hot comb, an iron comb placed on a heated iron stone that could accomplish the same straightening results as a comb and blow dryer combined. As Morgan and Walker amassed their wealth, they were pushing products that enforced a narrative of Black hair as something savage and in need of taming. Just as the Black women in the 1900s felt pressured to change their hair to fit the status quo, so too did I as a tenth grader in the 2010s.
In response to this history, Black people have pushed to change this culture and embrace their natural hair, as seen in the emergence of the Natural Hair Movement in the 2000s and 2010s. The Natural Hair Movement, like many facets of life, came in waves, evolving from one version to the next. Its underpinnings stem from the Black Liberation Movement, which was a subset of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, that initially sparked the reclamation of Blackness through wearing Afros as a form of protest. Black activists such as Angela Davis, Maya Angelou, and Elaine Brown were a few of the women who wore their hair in big, large, Afros. Hair became a political statement to empower, as opposed to oppress and assimilate. This liberation movement laid the groundwork for the Natural Hair Movement, which was propelled in the 2000s and 2010s by the increased access to social media and the solidarity it spurred within the Black community. Black women identified the harms of chemical relaxers, and decided that it was time to come as we were. Our kinky, Afro hair was seen as a symbol of our culture and heritage and of our connection in light of the African diaspora. Like my mother always taught me, our natural hair was beautiful and powerful.
Overwhelmed by the pressures of my high school environment, I forgot that lesson. But as I considered my limp, damaged hair and continued to witness firsthand the self-acceptance that others experienced after braiding their natural hair at my mother’s shop, I began to reassess what it means to be desired. My desirability was not defined by others around me; it was based on my own self-perception and confidence. I rebuilt this confidence as I continued braiding hair and began to take a closer look at the history and importance of braids. I realized the privilege I had to wear my hair in any way that I desired; I refused to abide by the limitations that barricaded Black women before me. It was time for me to break free of insecurity over my African features. Instead of rejecting who I was, I began to cultivate a new ritual for myself: a hair ritual that involved nurturing and caring for my natural hair, healing the dead and broken pieces, revitalizing life into my natural curls. Revitalization is what the women before me and my mother have done to the narrative surrounding Afro-textured hair, and it was time for me to join them.
Like any personal growth journey, there are ups and downs in my road to self-acceptance. During the summer months when most of the Black community is in braids, I feel pride and joy in following the trend. But during the winter when straight weaves and wigs are the trends, it is hard to maintain my love for braids. Even among the Black community, I am pulled this way or that, and often need to remind myself that hair is an individual journey. Every new hairstyle is my reclamation of the narrative of what I “ought” to look like; every new hairstyle is my own definition of “acceptable.” Presently, my relationship with my hair is stronger than it has ever been. It enhances and empowers me, regardless of if I wear it in twists, braids, locs, Afro, or any other concoction my mother reinvents. I no longer see my hair as a separated, undesirable, burdensome piece of myself, but as an extension of my entire being. My hair is me, I am my hair, and together we are an exquisite beauty.