I was probably in sixth grade when I became cognizant of the cultural and political history behind my curls — perhaps when my mother explained “tender-headedness” to me or when I watched Chris Rock’s iconic documentary, “Good Hair” in 2009.
The exact moment is difficult to pinpoint. But suddenly, my braids, which I once saw as a daily hairstyle, became indicative of my Blackness. In a predominately white middle school, I was unsure if this was something I wanted.
In my middle school class, I was one of 10 Black girls. I couldn’t understand why my hair didn’t swing from side to side in a silk ponytail when I ran during gym class, why I couldn’t jump into a pool without my hair drying in strange directions or why the Black girls with looser curls were told they were “beautiful,” while my hair was looked down upon by my peers.
Being Black was one thing. But to be a Black teenage girl, entering womanhood in an environment that praised assimilation more than the styles of the Black women who came before me.
But I’ve learned that hair is a complex aspect of my physical identity as a Black woman. Hair defines Black women’s individuality, our look and our secrets that we share, shielded from the white world.
We can change it on a whim, too, going from wavy Yaki weaves to Janet Jackson’s “Poetic Justice” braids overnight if that’s what we want. Our hair is a symbol of expression and the freedom that we don’t get from world.
Our autonomy over our hairstyles serves as a revolution against European standards of beauty and oppression faced by Black women throughout history.
When Beyoncé rocked cornrows and sang about her daughter’s baby hairs and Afros in a music video set in New Orleans, a historic hub for Black-Creole culture, we are reminded of our ancestors’ struggles. We find pride in their strength.
Conversely, when Kim Kardashian West appropriated cornrows for her Instagram story, we were instilled with feelings of hostility. We remember that white people once plundered and continue to strip our culture of its most basic ingredients. Our hair, a source of autonomy, is hijacked.
Throughout middle school and high school, I had braids, weaves, wigs and perms, and I am still learning to care for my natural curls. Now, however, I choose hairstyles based on how I want to perceive myself, not how I think others will perceive me. What began as an attempt to assimilate with my peers became a journey of appreciation for each root and curl resting on my head. My hair was, and is, a safe place for me to discover myself and the woman I want to be while remembering the women who came before me.