Each day of my childhood, at seven in the morning, my White mother would wake me up and bring me into our living room. On the coffee table sat a series of combs next to her steaming cup of coffee with the morning news playing softly in the background. What followed was a ritualistic tugging and pulling of my hair, an attempt to drag a comb through my long tangles, the familiar twisting of my curls into two little pony-tails on top of my head. Sometimes she would add colorful butterfly clips if she had the time. I would usually cry—a combination of my overactive tear ducts and me being, from then until now, incredibly tender-headed. Seven in the morning became my least favorite time; sometimes, I still wake up in the early morning hours with my hands clutching my head. Muscle memory is powerful.
One day in 6th grade when I was sitting in my favorite place in my middle school—the library—some of my friends asked me to take my hair out of my signature two buns. I hesitated, remembering all the hard work my mother put in that early morning to, as she said, “tame my hair.” But at the vulnerable age of 11, one of my biggest worries was getting my peers to like me. In 6th grade, I was a chubby, shy nerd who would rather sit in a warm corner reading the next Harry Potter book than go to the beach or the mall like most of my friends. Because I was the only kid of color in my whole school, I was familiar with being different. But that day, for some reason, I just wanted to fit in. I reluctantly grabbed the two rainbow hair elastics from my hair, took them out, fluffed up my hair, and looked up. What followed was laughter, pointing, and a flurry of kids telling me I looked like one of the Dreamworks troll dolls.
When I got home from school that day I told my mom I wanted to relax my hair. She let out a sigh of relief, as if she had been waiting for the day I would ask. Without wavering, she drove me an hour and a half to the only Black hair salon in Maine, and for the first time, the older Black woman who had been braiding my hair for years applied the chemicals to my curls that would transform my hair into the silken tresses that I longed for. I remember the burning sensation, the acidic smell. I remember how I wanted to scream and wash the chemicals out the instant they hit my head. I remember sitting there silently, waiting until it was time to rinse, blow dry, and then use a straightening iron until I had pin straight, shiny hair. From that day forward, I relaxed my hair every two months until I graduated from high school. For seven years, six times a year, I made the long drive to Portland to repeat the act of undoing what I thought was a mistake—my thick head of 4b, kinky curls.
My experience is not unique—actually, it’s quite the opposite. From an incredibly young age, many Black children, especially Black girls, are taught that our bodies are wrong. That our skin is too dark, that our noses are too big, that our laughs are too loud, and especially that our hair is too unruly. These messages are passed down to us through family, peers, books, television shows, and music, through our nightmares and the soft whisperings in our ears whose origins we could never find (was it the gods? our subconscious? is this the way things would always be?).
In May of 2017, reports came out that Mystic Valley Regional Charter School in Malden, Massachusetts—only four miles away from Medford—had begun punishing Black girls for wearing natural hairstyles. Two Black students were dismissed from their sports teams and were forbidden from going to their proms because they wore their hair in braids. A Newsweek article wrote that “The Mystic Valley Regional Charter School in Malden enforces a strict dress code preventing students from wearing their hair in any unnatural way, which includes braids.” This sentence jarred me from reality, my brain throbbing an unnatural way, an unnatural way, an unnatural way.
In addition to being removed from extra-curriculars and rejected from school events, many Black students, whether or not they had braids, were suspended and singled out for hair inspections by school administrators. The students were marched down the hallway and interrogated, being asked, “Are those extensions, are your braids real or not?”
These reports exist within a larger system of state surveillance of Black bodies. Black children are disallowed childhoods; Aiyana Stanley-Jones was seven years old when she was shot in the head in her sleep during a night attack on her house by Detroit police. Tamir Rice was 12 when he was gunned down less than three seconds after Cleveland Police arrived at the scene where he was playing with a toy gun. Trayvon Martin was 17 when he was profiled as not belonging and then gunned down by George Zimmerman. Charleena Lyles and her unborn child were killed by Seattle Police after calling to report an attempted burglary at her home. The list unfurls with no end in sight, imprinted in our minds from when we wake to when we sleep. There are names many of us do not know; names of Black people who are conceived as dangerous, as unnatural, as undesirable, and then removed from this plane of Earth. Like the school administrators, we can imagine the police, the enforcers of state-sanctioned violence with their fingers on the triggers of their guns, asking Black people “Are you people real or not?”
When talking to Black Tufts students, I found each of our stories to be intertwined and eerily similar. Simone Sanders, a Black senior, reflects on how her curly hair was seen as not only undesirable, but as distracting from her academic progress. “My personal finance teacher in 10th grade wrote in a progress report to my parents that I was doing well, but I would probably do better if I didn’t play with my hair so much. I had braids down to my hips at the time, and there was nothing he could do to get me to stop enjoying my hair.” Sanders found confidence in wearing her hair in braids, highlighting that because of her multiple curl patterns, she believed she “couldn’t and shouldn’t wear [her] hair curly.” Because of these violent messages she internalized, she wouldn’t wear her hair naturally, opting to “[straighten] it every other week or every week until the summer of 2016.”
Similarly, Wilna Paulemon, a Black senior, says that often the negative messages about her hair being sent weren’t necessarily direct, but were more maliciously insinuated. Messages that her “hair was difficult, ugly, undesirable, unprofessional, and simply unmanageable. A lot of these messages were implicit through media or the way adults reacted or spoke about my hair, and people with my hair texture.”
This pattern of feeling intense pressure to chemically alter Black hair runs deep throughout Black communities, and is often passed down not only through media dominated by White people, but also through the internalized racism of elders in the Black community. Phyllis Njoroge, a Black junior says that “In middle school my mom and I got in an argument because I wanted to wear my natural hair and that made me upset that she didn’t support the hair I was born with.” Sanders’ words parallel this, saying that “[her] mom prefers her hair straight” while Anna Rodriguez, an Afro-Latina senior, says that while her parents never directly gave her messages about her curly hair, the understanding that there is “good hair” and “bad hair” was still felt.
“My mom’s actions [affected me], even if she didn’t know it,” Rodriguez says. “Because she has fine, almost straight hair, she didn’t really know how to protect/or style my hair as I entered my pre-teen years, so she began to perm it. I grew up constantly going to salons on Saturday mornings to endure long, painful, hot-ass hours under a dryer, to just hear older Dominican women gossip about good hair and bad hair. The salon was such a toxic environment for me because I always left feeling like I wasn’t going to be attractive unless I spent all those hours straightening my hair for the sake of it being ‘easy to deal with.’” Paulemon also reflects on how adults in her life contributed to her negative feelings about her hair, saying “I’ve also had family members or friends tell me that my hair texture just isn’t good enough or suggest that I need to do something [different] with my hair for an event.”
This language is pervasive. This language feeds into the idea that straight hair is the epitome of desirability. It feeds into the belief that hair that appears closest to set Eurocentric beauty standards should be the standard for Black hair. Consequently, tight coiled curls are seen as not only aesthetically inferior, but are also cited as being unprofessional and improper, and therefore a problem to be solved.
It is not a coincidence that these beliefs can be detected across ages, ingrained in our parents, our grandparents, our great-grandparents. This trauma is transgenerational—Black folks were and still are told that our bodies are wrong, and that in order to merely survive in this world, we must attempt to assimilate into Whiteness.
However, while being Black and living in this world comes with certain traumas, it also comes with resistance. Sanders, Rodriguez, Paulemon, and Njoroge all echo sentiments of moving towards something like healing the wounds that they have often felt about their hair.
Sanders highlights how social media has been a central part of her journey towards healing and self-love, “Over the past few years, I’ve been so impressed by the amount of people advocating for Black natural hair. Because of the number of people talking about natural hair care, and the impact on (social) media, I’ve felt comfortable.”
Paulemon cites positive media also being central to her journey towards self-love. “Until very recently I never saw Black women with natural hair on television” she said. “So you can imagine how I felt as an eighth grader watching Black women talking about ways to take care of natural hair! That to me was revolutionary. That started something for me. So while the representation of hair like mine was nowhere in popular media growing up, I am super grateful for media like YouTube for giving Black women the platform to share their knowledge about hair with other Black/mixed women across the globe.”
Rodriguez speaks in a poetic love letter about her hair: “I love my hair. Even though I mistreated it for so long, it still came back strong for me. Even though I tried to kill its nature, it still came back to me. Even after all those chemicals put on my head, it came back to me. It has been one of the few things that has remained loyal to me.”
However, as Njoroge says, there are still double standards within Black natural hair movements. “I’ve learned to like Black hair” she says, “but that doesn’t mean I like my Black hair. I still feel as if there is a bias to certain natural looks and my curl pattern and texture don’t fit those, so even though I feel more comfortable with Black hair, I still don’t feel like I love my hair.”
In the end, a heartbeat that connects each of these narratives is how vital hair has been and continues to be to the Black community, and to each of us in our journey towards healing. Paulemon perhaps summarizes it best, remarking: “My hair is a huge part of my Black identity. As I learned to love myself, learning to love my hair was a huge part of that. They went hand-in-hand so I can’t really separate my identity from my hair. My hair reminds me of my ancestors, of my history, of my Blackness. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Once, a few years ago, my mom asked me if I would ever cut all my hair off, otherwise know as “The Big Chop.” I automatically responded, “never.” I remember being filled with fear, and horror, imagining myself not having any hair to hide behind. Last week, I walked into a barber shop and said “shave it all off, please.” Fifteen minutes later, I touched my hands to my head, and felt the soft remains where before there had been inches of growth. For a moment, I didn’t recognize myself, and I felt flooded with terror. Then I took a deep breath, smiled with my gap teeth which I have come to love, and walked into the sunshine, feeling light.
In therapy, I’ve learned a technique of healing that involves imagining that the little child I once was is a part of me still; imagining that the little kid who was called a monkey, a troll doll, an ugly Black girl continues making a home in my heart. Last week I stood for a moment in the soft sunlight on the sidewalk in Davis Square, closed my eyes, and held the little girl’s hand in my head, whispered we got this. you are a miracle. Me and the little girl inside me, we walked hand in hand towards something like healing, something like prayer, something like holiness, something like love for us both.