By Margaret Auguste
A few years ago, it seemed that African American women everywhere began rebelling against societal beauty standards and expectations by embracing their natural hair. My 15-year-daughter and I were captivated by the idea. Together, we took on the momentous task of growing out our perms. We eagerly embarked upon this arduous process and prayed that our hair didn’t fall out, as we simultaneously cared for two different textures of hair.
On the surface, it may look ridiculous to be concerned with something as superficial as hairstyle. A woman’s hair or “crowning glory,” however, is more than just a physical characteristic. It’s long been a symbol of her femininity, her beauty, and right or wrong, it has become an integral part of her self-esteem, as well as her identity. For African American women, defining oneself by this particular trait can be especially problematic. The epitome of beautiful hair has always been determined by European standards: straight, long, preferably blond or as close to it as possible. This is an ideal that most African American women find almost impossible to emulate without chemicals, hot combs, flat irons, weaves or wigs.
In their book, Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America, Lori Tharps and Ayana Byrd describe how, for black women, wearing our hair in its natural state was—and still is, to some extent—viewed as radical, defiant, and even disruptive. Historically, black women have given in to this idea that straight hair is inherently better than curly or kinky hair. We’ve done whatever it takes to make hair that by its very nature stands up and out lie flat. We’ve used any means necessary to achieve this, which has in turn created anxiety and dissatisfaction, because deep down, we know that we are not being true to ourselves.
I have worn my hair straight for as long as I can remember. My hair was “ironed” every Saturday morning in my grandmother’s kitchen. I braved the occasionally burned ears, or scalp, all in the pursuit of what my family and community believed was a look that promoted education and promised financial success—not to mention beauty. I then graduated from the hot comb to chemical perms that left scabs on my scalp but gave me the gift of hair that was sleek and straight as silk. When I became a mother myself, I continued the tradition for my daughter, skipping the hot comb, which disappeared along with the formidable women of my grandmother’s generation, and moved her right onto the perm.
When my daughter and I decided to go natural with our hair, I felt liberated at first, provocative even. But then what? As a teacher, I started questioning how I was going to present myself to my students, my friends, most of whom had straight hair and kept asking me, with eyes rolled, when I was going to get mine done again. I started worrying about my daughter too; how her school, prospective colleges and employers would define her based on assumptions that stemmed from her hairstyle. I found myself confused, and doubting my decision.
But my daughter had none of my concerns or misgivings. In fact, she had the nerve to try to educate me, coming back with a quote from her style bible, Teen Vogue, where an African American blogger stated unequivocally that, “Our hair is not an accessory. It is literally, who we are.”
Realizing that something I had begun was now spinning out my control, I tried a new tactic. I shared with her some startling and unsettling information I had gathered for an article I was writing for an educational magazine about dress codes and African American students.
“Hair must look natural, clean, well groomed…Afro-puffs and small twisted braids, with or without rubber bands are banned.” This policy was implemented in 2014, by the Lorain Horizon Science Academy, a charter school in Ohio. In 2013 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a seven-year-old girl with dreadlocks was forced to change schools after her school stated that she did not “look presentable” and that, “hairstyles such as dreadlocks, afros, and other faddish styles are unacceptable.”
“Mom, really,” she said, shaking her head and laughing, “You think I don’t know this?” She explained that some teachers at her own school made it clear that they aren’t comfortable with Black natural hair, even though it was not banned. She told me how African American girls who wore their hair in puffy afros and African girls who wore Geles or African headwraps, were sometimes either admonished by their teachers or asked to sit in the back of the classroom because their hair was “distracting.”
I was speechless. We lived in New Jersey, in a diverse community that my husband and I had chosen for its progressive views, and yet my daughter was aware of—and dealing with—issues that I didn’t know existed. “This isn’t right,” I said to my daughter, as I went into full protective mother mode, sharing my plans to contact the principal immediately. But once again she surprised me. “I got this, Mom.” She told me that she and other students of all ethnicities and genders were going to ban together to start a group to educate the administration and the teachers—on the history of black hair and discrimination in America, and also on the implicit biases that they wanted their school to address.
I marvel now at my daughter’s mastery of corkscrew curls, elaborate braids, and at the way she expertly twists her hair into long black coils. More importantly, I marvel at how she has turned into such an independent person, so comfortable and confident in her own skin. She knows full well, when she offers to twist my hair, that I am going to refuse. But she keeps asking me just the same.
Margaret Auguste, is a writer, family therapist, and librarian who remains constantly inspired and amazed by her four children. She has written extensively about the essential role that motherhood plays within education and culture.