Someone once said that men invented makeup and fashion so that women would spend all their time thinking about what was on top of their heads and not what was inside them. While I think that trivializes the hard work and artistic creativity involved in these two design fields, I get the point.
When Tiana Parker, a straight-A student, put her hair in her usual tiny, cute short twists topped with a pink bow, officials at Deborah Browne Community School said that she could not wear her hair that way, and 7-year-old Tiana was forced to enroll elsewhere. The school claimed that dreads were a “fad hairstyle” not tolerated on campus.
You could argue Tiana’s right to wear her hair many ways—from freedom of speech to freedom of religion. But all I want to focus on is the hurt and sadness a little girl feels after being shot down for celebrating her culture and beauty. (And dreads are not a “fad.” They have been a part of black culture in America and in Africa for centuries.)
When I put my hair in dreads, it was because I loved the style and the connection to my blackness and black heroes who had worn them. I also thought they were practical. I was a junior in college and wanted to focus on school—studying, working on film shoots and holding down two jobs—instead of my hair and appearance. I had been wearing my hair in braids for years before this and was tired of them. I was, as any woman can understand, ready for a new hairdo and a new attitude on life to go with it. And, as an African American woman who has tightly curled African hair, to wear my hair pressed or relaxed would require a half-hour commitment each morning, avoidance of water and a weekly trip to the hair salon to shell out $50 to $150 and spend five hours—money and time I didn’t have. All to get massive amounts of heat and chemicals poured onto my head, as Chris Rock documented so wonderfully in his film Good Hair.
I did not want radioactive toxins used to build atomic weaponry to seep through my scalp to my brain. This was why I had always resisted a relaxer in the past. It was enough that I already had severe nerve damage from having my hair straightened every day from the time I was a baby until high school, when my aunt got too busy to do four girls every morning and my mother and father said, Fine, put them in braids once every three months, and that was that.
Unlike Sheryl Underwood, who last week said “nappy hair is nasty,” I liked my hair. I liked how it curled, I liked its texture. I liked how soft it was. I liked that it was the hair all the women in my family had. I did not want to make it straight. But everyone was telling me I had to—that this was what I would have to do to be socially acceptable and accepted by corporate America.
But back then, junior year in college, I thought I would let corporate American wait until graduation. For the moment, I’d have dreads because, to be honest, I was needing some strength. As the only black girl in my major at my elite Ivy League college and as one of the handful of black students at my college, period, I was needing something to remind me at all times that black is beautiful.
You see, I was a nerd; school was my favorite thing, and my first English teacher in college had told me that no one would want to read my stories because I was not white like my favorite writer, William Shakespeare, but brown like poop. He said, in front of the class, that because I was black I could not understand and connect to Shakespeare the way someone of Shakespeare’s culture would, and my blackness would make me a terrible writer. He said I should give up—and other teachers and peers echoed this idea, either overtly in their statements and actions or more subtly through the absence of anyone who looked like me in their chosen texts, in art projects or on the crews used to create them. And this—coming after having been beaten up, teased, called ugly or ostracized because of being the only black kid at my school from kindergarten to high school—had begun to take its toll.
I had begun to doubt myself and my voice. I turned to Lauryn Hill and even a little bit of Bob Marley. I went back to my friends in print who had inspired me to get to where I was—Toni Morrison, Nikki Giovanni, Alice Walker. Maya Angelou, Gwendolyn Brooks. I read their books and lined the walls of my tiny dorm room with their pictures, as if these fierce warriors could guard me from the hostility of people who did not want me to be there, with their constant jokes and stereotypes about black people, their bullying and assaults. I wanted the strength of my warriors on my walls. I wanted their unshakeable belief in self to get me through this. I wanted, when I noticed the hairstyle most shared in common, their dreads.
Perhaps this is what Tiana Parker felt as one of the few black students at her school, when she was told that she could not wear her very short, very cute, pink-bow-tied tiny twists to school—a hairstyle so many little African American girls are familiar with and love. As I watched the tape of the little girl crying about having to leave her school because they “didn’t like her dreads,” my heart hurt for her. And I remembered how my father, too, had called my dreads “ugly” and had made me take them out after I graduated from college or he would disown me and I would no longer be his daughter. So l cut them off, crying the whole time … and felt that I was cutting out, too, the strength of all those brave warriors who had carried me my whole life. After cutting off my dreads to please my father, I carried only shame and weakness: I felt bad, rather than good about my hair. I worried only about how to make it “better” and “straighter,” how to make it “not black.” And how I carried that for so long—that feeling of shame, of hurt and by extension my blackness, whether or not I would admit that to myself. How, for so long afterwards, I lived the life of expensive weaves, presses and relaxers just to please my father and other people, just because these hairstyles were deemed the only “professional” standard.
Not all black women feel the way I do. For some, these pressed and relaxed styles are an expression of their beauty and pride, and I applaud them. But for me, I was a different bird singing a song not my own. As Kenyan model Ajuna Nasenyana says in The Daily Nation, ““It seems that the world is conspiring in preaching that there is something wrong with Kenyan ladies’ kinky hair and dark skin,” adding that European companies hawk “skin lightening” products which do “good business in Kenya. But it’s not OK for a Caucasian to tell us to lighten our skin.”
Like so many other black women who overspend trying to fit into a white Western standard of beauty, I wasted too much money, time and effort processing my hair. I also seriously injured my health due to toxic damage by the chemicals in the relaxer products. But most dangerously, like so many little black girls who just want to learn and go to school, I gave into the pressure of other people trying to define who I was. I gave into the shame of feeling bad about my black hair rather than taking pride in my black heritage.
But unlike me, Tiana, supported by her father, never stopped fighting. With her father’s advocacy, she successfully switched schools and is now happily learning, her beautiful dreads and spirit intact. She is still getting straight As. And it is so wonderful that we have her as an inspiration for other black girls when they are told that their hair—their blackness—is not good enough. Because it is. And we are.
Hope Wabuke runs a communications company called The WriteSmiths and is director of media & communications for the Kimbilio Center for African American Fiction. She is currently at work on a poetry collection about her family’s escape from Idi Amin’s Ugandan genocide. She blogs at hope after yoga and you can follow her on Twitter@HopeWabuke.