- Kiara Ruth
I AM MY HAIR | A Deeper Dive into the History of Hair
Updated: Jun 18, 2020
"I, as a white person, have become more aware that black hair is an amazing story of courage, determination, radical community love, and revolutionary self-acceptance." Brian Crisp shares a small glimpse into the history of hair and his tight red curls in the post below. Brian’s expertise in art, religion, culture, and literature prompted me to ask him to be a guest writer to open my interview with celebrity stylist Nafisah Carter.
By the time I was three-years-old I was aware of my hair. My parents, for some unspoken reason, refused to cut my hair which was more like a mane of thick red curls. In public spaces, women would ask to touch my hair and inquire if they could cut off a curl to keep. Men in these same spaces after asking, “What’s your little girl’s name” would retreat in suspicion when my parents answered, “Brian.” Peers throughout my life have never refrained from commenting about my hair. On the playground, I heard, “I’d rather be dead than red!” In school, girls would comment, “I don’t know if I can be friends with a boy who has prettier hair than I do.” At the very least, other boys would say, “That is some crazy clown hair.” When I began dating, men would point to my head and ask me to “do something with that” before we went to a restaurant or a movie. If not appalled, other men would immediately fetishize the red curls with unabashed freedom that allowed them to proposition me. In between all these experiences were the silent stares that were deafening in their judgment. These memories emphasized the societal constructs about red curly hair: It can be wild. It can be exotic. It can be dangerous. It can be comical. It can be absurd. It cannot be normal.
These messages have been amplified for Brown, Black, Indigenous, and People of Color, and female-identified persons from these communities throughout individuals' lives and collective history. Being divergent from the Western standards of beauty, BBIPOC hair has been the center of laws established by the United States Government. In reaction to intricate hairstyles, Louisiana passed the Tignon Laws in 1786 that required gens de couleur to dress appropriately in colonial society. With the law, black female hair was required to be covered and European beauty standards were upheld. Governor Esteban Rodriguez Miró hoped the law would control black women who “competed too freely with white women for status and thus threatened the social order.” White women could walk around freely while free women who were BBIPOC had to have their heads covered.
Outside of laws, societal ideals of beauty embedded in movies, television, and magazines have asserted control over black female hair for centuries. European standards have told the world that straight, flowing light-colored hair is the norm, and anyone unable to adhere to this measure is inadequate. Our society's norms steeped in white supremacy not only control beauty standards, but they also govern the spaces where BBIPOC hair is unacceptable. BBIPOC women have been told their hair is an affront in academic and professional arenas.
In the 1970s Beverly Jenkins was told that her natural hair could never represent her employer, Blue Cross and Blue Shield. Although her landmark racial discrimination lawsuit, Jenkins v. Blue Cross Mutual Hospital Insurance, protected her Afro under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, discrimination of black hair continued as the protection did not specify braids, extensions, or locs. In 2013 Chastity Jones filed a lawsuit after a job offer was rescinded when her employers saw her twisted locs. Her case eventually made it to the Supreme Court who denied without explanation to hear the case. In 2018, a young woman was sent home from her elementary school for having braided extensions. There is no federal law that protects hair beyond the Afro, but California, New York, New Jersey, and Virginia prohibit all hair discrimination.
Popular culture has been the public square in which black hair is continually contested, and instances, where European beauty ideals have been challenged in print, art, and film, should be noted. Beverly Johnson’s 1974 cover of the September issue of Vogue was paramount because not only was she the first African-American cover girl, she achieved this feat in that face of an industry that refused to touch her hair on fashion shoots. Chris Rock was so moved by his own daughter’s internal strife about her hair that he produced Good Hair in 2009. As a teenager, I remember distinctly the dreamlike musical sequence “Good and Bad Hair” from Spike Lee’s 1998 film, School Daze. Immediately I digested Lee’s preferential treatment of the iconic celluloid moments found in the rival dancing sequences of West Side Story and the phantasmagorical beauty salon of Grease. The hair salon in Lee’s film is a heterotopia as defined by Michel Foucault. It is an inner world that simultaneously mirrors the dominant world’s cultural norms and transgresses this same world’s values. Lee’s fictional college campus is a male-dominated and mediated world while the dreamlike salon is where females have pronounced agency to dissect the ideals of hair appearance.
These moments are critical because they serve to disrupt how white supremacy has conditioned society to think and interpret black hair. The counter-narrative pronounces that beauty comes from places and people often neglected by European ideals and that expressing this beauty is a revolutionary act of self and community love. Agnès Varda, the French filmmaker, highlights Kathleen Cleaver’s monumental discourse on black hair in her 1968 documentary about the Black Panthers. Building on the momentum of the 1960s Black is Beautiful movement that encouraged BBIPOC people to stop adapting Eurocentric ideals of straight hair and favor their natural hair as beautiful, Cleaver noted:
Myself and all of us were born with our hair like this, and we just wear it like this because it’s natural. The reason for it, you might say, is like a new awareness among Black people that their own natural physical appearance is beautiful and is pleasing to them. For so many years, we were told that only white people were beautiful–that only straight hair, light eyes, light skin were beautiful so Black women would try everything they could — straighten their hair, lighten their skin— to look as much like white women. This has changed because black people are aware of it. White people are aware of it too because white people now want natural wigs like this. Dig it. Isn’t it beautiful? Alright.
Cleaver summarizes the consciousness and fortitude it takes to reshape a narrative that has left BBIPOC women on the outside of beauty. It takes an incredible sense of pride and courage to walk into predominantly white spaces and display non-straightened hair that defies the norms constructed by that society.
As a person who identifies as Queer, I understand what it is like to disrupt a societal norm. Walking down the street while gay has been a contested act that has inflicted unsolicited violence twice in my life. My own hair has caused others consternation because it will never be straight and it will always be red. I also know that as a white male, despite the fact of my Queer identity, I will never have to know the systemic oppression and pressure experienced by BBIPOC women. As a white person, I also understand that laws protecting the expression of black hair are only one form of dismantling anti-black attitudes. White supremacy goes to great lengths to protect its ideas and powers. Breaking white solidarity’s internalized messages from the dominant culture take intentional and concentrated work. From Kathleen Cleaver’s 1968’s analysis, I continue to be inspired to rewrite those messages. I, as a white person, have become more aware that black hair is an amazing story of courage, determination, radical community love, and revolutionary self-acceptance. Last night, my partner and I rewatched Cleaver’s monologue, and when towards the end of the film she asked, “Isn’t it beautiful?” I could only respond, “Yes!”
From our homes, I interviewed Nafisah Carter, an International Celebrity Hairstylist, and Mother who owns Nafisah's Beauty Boutique and Pyara Hair, a popular salon and hair extensions brand based in Raleigh, NC. Carter shared some of her favorite hair care products, debunked some hair myths, and shared how she would like to rewrite the narrative of black hair.
WHO HAS BEEN YOUR FAVORITE CELEBRITY TO WORK WITH?
I ENJOYED ALL THE CELEBRITIES IVE WORKED WITH. IF I HAD TO CHOOSE MY FAVORITE IS MICHELLE WILLIAMS BECAUSE I LOVE DESTINY’S CHILD. I MET HER A COUPLE OF YEARS AGO AT BLACK GIRLS ROCK. SHE WAS GETTING HER HAIR DONE BY ANOTHER STYLIST NEXT TO ME AND I REALLY WANTED TO DO HER HAIR AND A FEW YEARS LATER I WAS ABLE TO STYLE HER.
WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR CRAZIEST HAIR REQUEST?
I HAVENT HAD MANY CRAZY HAIR REQUEST BUT I USE TO BE AN ESTHETICIAN AND A GUY CALLED IN AND HE WANTED TO GET A FULL BODY WAX AND I THOUGHT THAT IT WAS SO WEIRD BECAUSE I HAVE NEVER DONE SOMETHING LIKE THAT. BUT HONESTLY, I HAVE A SET CLIENTELE SO I KNOW WHAT TO EXPECT FROM EACH OF THEM. I DID HAVE A CLIENT THAT CUT ALL OF HER HAIR OFF AND AFTERWARDS SHE CRIED BUT IT WAS TEARS OF JOY!
WHAT ARE TOP TIPS ON SUMMER HAIR CARE?
MOISTURIZING BECAUSE YOUR HAIR GETS SO DRY. WE NEED TO KEEP OUR HAIR MOISTURIZE NOT ONLY IN THE SUMMER BUT THROUGHOUT THE YEAR AND ALSO STAY AWAY FROM HEAT.
WHO IS YOUR ULTIMATE HAIR ICON AND WHY?
I LOVE J-LO, I LOOK TO FOR EVERYTHING. I DON’T CARE WHAT I AM LOOKING AT I ALWAYS LOOK AT HER HAIR, SHES LIKE MY FAVORITE. HER HAIR LOOKS REALLY NATURAL EVEN WHEN SHE HAS EXTENSION. I REMEMBER WHEN I FIRST SAW HER, SHE LOOKED FLAWLESS JUST LIKE SHE DOES ON TV, SHES SERIOUSLY SO PRETTY! SHE IS AN AMAZING PERFORMER AS WELL!
WHO IS SOMEONE THAT YOU WANT TO WORK WITHIN THE FUTURE?
BEYONCE! I WOULD LOVE TO WORK WITH HER.
CAN YOU DEBUNK ONE OF THE BIGGEST HAIR MYTHS?
I WAS JUST SPEAKING TO SOMEONE ABOUT THIS, THE BIGGEST MYTH I HEAR IS “DIRTY HAIR MAKES YOUR HAIR GROW” YOUR SCALP SHOULD BE CLEAN, THIS MAKES YOUR HAIR GROW!
WHAT DO YOU THINK WILL BE HUGE IN THE WORLD OF HAIR NEXT YEAR?
PROTECTIVE STYLES, BUT I THINK WITH COVID 19 BEING HERE WIGS ARE GOING TO BE POPULAR. PEOPLE ARE PURCHASING WIGS BECAUSE OF ALL THE UNCERTAINTY AROUND THE CLIMATE OF COVID. THERE WAS A GIRL ON INSTAGRAM WHO STATED THAT SHE IS ORDERING A WIG FOR EVERYDAY BECAUSE SHE CAN’T GO TO THE SALON TO GET IT MAINTENANCE. WIGS ARE MORE NATURAL NOW; THE FUNNY THINGS IS CELEBRITIES HAVE ALWAYS WORN THEM.
WHATS YOUR ONE HAIR CARE PRODUCT YOU CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT?
ALTERNA- RAPID REPAIR HAIR SPRAY, IT’S A HEAT PROTECTANT, I WEAR A LOT OF HAIR EXTENSION AND I PUT HEAT ON MY HAIR, NOT A LOT OF HEAT BUT I WANT TO PROTECT MY HAIR SO I USE A HEAT PROTECTANT. IT ALSO SMELLS REALLY GOOD AND IT DOESN’T WEIGH YOUR HAIR DONE.
HOW DO YOU STAY UP TO DATE ON CURRENT HAIR TRENDS?
I USE EVERYTHING: SOCIAL MEDIA, GOOGLE, AND I ALSO LOOK AHEAD. FOR EXAMPLE, I WILL SEARCH 2021 HAIR TRENDS. I ALSO TAKE CLASSES AND LISTEN TO DIFFERENT STYLIST FROM ALL OVER. EVEN WHILE BEING AT HOME DURING COVID I HAVE BEEN TAKING CLASSES.
HOW DO YOU THINK SALONS WILL SURVIVE WITH COVID -19 BEING HERE?
PEOPLE NEED TO START BY TAKING THINGS SLOW AND NOT RUSHING INTO THINGS AND ONLY TAKE A FEW CLIENTS AT A TIME THIS WILL ALLOW THEM TO TAKE THE EXTRA PRECAUTIONS; WEARING YOUR MASK, USING GLOVES, HAVING CLEANING SUPPLIES AND I EVEN LIKE THE IDEA OF HAVING THE SHIELD. IT SHOULD BE A COMBINATION OF EVERYTHING
WHAT IS SOME WAYS STYLIST CAN GENERATE INCOME FROM HOME?
I OFFER VIRTUAL SERVICES, THAT’S A REALLY GOOD WAY. I HAVE BEEN ABLE TO WALK MY CLIENTS THROUGH SHAMPOOS, PONYTAILS AND DIFFERENT CURLING METHODS. IT HAS BEEN A GREAT TIME FOR US TO CATCH UP TOO.
HOW WOULD YOU LIKE TO REWRITE THE NARRATIVE OF BLACK HAIR?
I DEFINITELY WANT PEOPLE TO KNOW THAT ALL HAIR IS BEAUTIFUL. IN THE SALON YOU HEAR DIFFERENT THINGS AND I WILL OFTEN HEAR CLIENTS SAY, “I HATE MY HAIR” AND I HAVE TO REMIND THEM THEIR HAIR IS BEAUTIFUL. IT IS IMPORTANT THAT WE EMBRACE OUR NATURAL HAIR AND OUR NATURAL BEAUTY. SINCE WE HAVE BEEN HOME, WE HAVE HEARD PEOPLE COMPLAIN ABOUT THEIR HAIR BUT HONESTLY, HOW WE LOOK NOW IS WHO WE ARE NATURALLY. IT IS IMPORTANT THAT WE EMBRACE OURSELVES FULLY.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
1. Virginia Meacham Gould, “A Chaos of Inequity and Discord: Slave and Free Women of Color in the Spanish Ports of New Orleans, Mobile, and Pensacola.” in The Devil’s Lane: Sex and Race in the Early South eds. Catherin Clinton and Michelle Gillespie (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 237. 2. Agnès Varda, Black Panthers, directed by Agnes Varda( 1968:The Criterion Collection, 2015), digital media.