From the Roots: Stories from a Rose Garden

Five years ago, Novella Coleman wore her hair in sister locs and embarked on a work trip to San Francisco. Coleman is a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California. From the roots on her scalp to the melanin that guarded it, Coleman found herself in the middle of a debate about civil liberties. It is a debate black women are born into.

Coleman was travelling for a case that she was working on. She had just arrived at Baskerville and was making her way through the security screening process. After stepping through the full body scanner, a TSA agent began searching through Coleman’s hair. Unbeknownst to Coleman, the TSA did hair checks. “She just started grabbing my hair, and she like squeezed it from top to bottom,” she recalled.

The agent found nothing in the hair and let Coleman proceed. Yet, Coleman, who felt “shocked” at what she felt was racial profiling, stood and watched how others after her were treated during their search. “There were two white women and one Latino woman, and I remember the Latino woman who was with me had her hair in a bun on the top her head, and so I was like, I wonder if she, the TSA agent, will check her hair too, and she didn’t,” said Coleman.

Three months would go by before Coleman would have a similar encounter with the TSA. In May of 2012, she was leaving Ontario International Airport in San Bernardino County, California. Her hair was still in locs as she made her way through the airport, more alert than before. At the security checkpoint, she stepped into the full body scanner yet again. The scanner illuminated Coleman’s neck area in yellow dots. “Which was odd because I didn’t have on jewelry or anything, it was just, I guess, triggering that area because of my hair,” she said. As before, the TSA agent told Coleman she would need to pat down her hair. Coleman asked TSA’s policy regarding hair searches. ‘We search someone’s hair if they have extensions,” she was told. Coleman had no hair extensions in at the time and made that clear to the agent, but the agent responded, “‘TSA checks for extensions or abnormalities.’” Coleman began to jot notes about the encounter and requested to speak with a supervisor, who told her “It’s to check an individual’s hair when the body scanner is triggered, but only if the agent can’t see the person’s scalp.’”

Coleman noticed that the statements from the supervisor and the agent were different, and so with the help of her colleagues at the ACLU, she did some further research into other instances involving the TSA and hair searches. They found other people, mostly black women, who had been in the same situation. Eventually Coleman filed an administrative complaint with the TSA, seeking “more transparency on what was going on and also to get TSA to change their search practices which seem to have a different impact on black women.” Coleman reached out multiple times to the TSA, but didn’t get a response – until she took on a new client. She represented Dr. Malaika Singleton in a case against the TSA after Singleton had her own hair patted down by the TSA. In response to the lawsuit, an agreement was reached on advanced training for security agents.

Many black women have had similar experiences with the TSA, like actress Gabrielle Union and CNN political commentator Angela Rye. Rye endured an invasive pat down by the TSA in 2016, which brought her to tears. Similarly, Union described how the Transportation Security Administration “pet her like a My Little Pony” on the late-night television show Chelsea Lately, in 2012.

When asked about the TSA’s policy about hair checks, Emily Bonilla-Pieton, the public liaison to the TSA, said, “Pat-down screenings are used to resolve alarms; provide an alternate to metal detectors and imaging technology; and as an unpredictable security measure.” She added that the TSA pats down anyone’s hair “when needed, no matter their race of gender.” In citing the “informal” agreement reached with the ACLU to enhance officer training, Bonilla-Pieton ensured the TSA does not tolerate racial profiling. “Not only is racial profiling prohibited under DHS and agency policy, but it is also an ineffective security tactic,” she said.

Black hair is political. The experiences of black people remain tied to the choices they make about how they wear their hair. The choice to wear black hair in its natural state can affect one’s self-worth, one’s ability for employment, and the way one is seen by the outside world.

The natural hair movement developed during the civil rights movement in the 1970s. A collective of black people, mostly based in America, chose to not chemically straighten their hair through the use of such products as hair- relaxers. Those with natural hair began to be associated with the Black Panther Party, activists, and those alike. Activist, author, and educator Angela Davis wrote in her book, “Afro Images: Politics, Fashion, and Nostalgia,” of the racist ways police officers and the FBI would seek out and harass black women who wore hair similar to hers. “From the constant stream of stories I have heard over the last twenty-four years (and continue to hear), I infer that hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of Afro-wearing Black women were accosted, harassed, and arrested by police, FBI, and immigration agents during the two months I spent underground,” she wrote. “The photographs identified vast numbers of my Black female contemporaries who wore naturals (whether light- or dark- skinned) as targets of repression.” In the years that followed, this association between natural black hair and political power spread to facets of daily life like the media, work life, and education.

Learning how to style black hair is hard to come by, said Tiffany Sylvester and Casey LaSure, hairstylists at the Harlem-based hair salon Natural Hair Sisters. Black barber shops and hair salons are prized for their touch ups, fades, and general hair maintenance. Yet, Sylvester and LaSure recall the obstacles they faced in learning about the hair and customers they care for.

Sylvester, 35, had limited access to black hair while in beauty school: there was one doll with black hair that students could practice on. In addition to the lack of resources, Sylvester spoke of the struggle with not having that many teachers who knew about how to work with black hair. “For someone who’s not black you might have a bit of difficulty doing black hair because they don’t really teach you too much of it,” she said. “They teach you theory, they teach you basics but things we do they don’t teach you. Unless you get a teacher that knows how to do weaves, you learn basic relaxing, but texturing and things like that you don’t really learn. You don’t really learn a lot of black hair care.”

Sylvester recalled her time working at a corporate job, when she had decided to wear her natural hair out. “One day I went to work and I [had taken] my weave out and I remember my manager, she was a white lady. She came up to me and was like ‘oh Tiffany, this is nice but I like the straight long hair,’” Sylvester remembered. “I was like, well that was trying on my hair, I wanted to give my hair a break because it’s the summer. I just wanted to wear my natural hair. She was like ‘oh well do you know when you’re gonna put it back in?’ So, because she came at me like that, I rocked that bad boy for two weeks. I was like ‘chick, bye.” Sylvester laughed, running her hands through her natural curls.

LaSure, 39, remembered his own experiences at a different beauty school that he attended. While he originally studied to be a pharmacist, LaSure found his calling as a stylist while working at a salon to pay for school. LaSure remembered the limitation and access to equal training while attending Shore Beauty School in South Jersey in 1998. The dismissal of black hair was so ingrained that LaSure thought it would affect the learning process of hairstylists during their training, and possibly throughout their careers. During his time at the Shore Beauty School, the school only had one black doll mannequin head, and it was defaced. “Someone wrote ‘comedones’ on it. You know what comedones is? It’s a blackhead.” LaSure paused. “It was hurtful because the school was in a predominantly black area. It was a mixture of everyone that came to my school but it was in a black area.” La Sure was unsure if the defacement was done by a black individual or not, but, “nonetheless it was done,” he said. He remembers the feeling in the room of the class upon first seeing it. “When we walked in we didn’t know what the word was because we hadn’t learned that word yet, but as soon we learned what the word was that’s when the conversations started. I feel worse about it now than I did back then.”

The natural hair movement that began during the civil rights movement was very inclusive, but now that the movement has entered the mainstream, LaSure thinks the media and general public still prefers people with lighter skin tones and looser hair curls. “It’s not fair,” he said. “I understand how the brown girls are feeling because a lot of them are feeling like the biracial and the light skin black people have hijacked the natural hair movement because their complaints are not the same as the complaints as someone with that tight force hair.” LaSure said he still wonders why the stigma around curls exist. “What’s crazy to me is curls are curls. They have curls just like we have curls. Ours are just tighter. So yeah. I don’t get that.”

LaSure remembered his experience at pharmacy school where his classmates would be physical with his hair. “They touch it and rub their pants because our hair is greased out or whatever. It’s just ignorance.” He shrugged off the memory, now having been a hairstylist for twenty years. “What got me into hair was building people’s confidence. I feel like a woman’s confidence starts with her hair. If her hair doesn’t look, good, she doesn’t feel good.”

The natural hair movement was introduced to aid in the reclamation of love for one’s hair, which is a movement LaSure supports adamantly. “I’m into natural hair now because I’m trying to help with that stigma of us having to have milked out hair all the time,” he said. “It’s not healthy for us.” Currently the movement pushes natural hair to be embraced within the work environment. “I’m trying to break that barrier with corporate America to help [them] understand us a little better,” said LaSure. “Our hair has nothing to do with our productivity. We can’t help how our hair grows.”

If black hair isn’t worn naturally, it is often relaxed and straightened with chemicals for a lengthened period of time – typically a month. But chemical relaxers have their downsides.

Maria Fernanda Reis Gavazzoni Dias, a professor of Dermatology at the Universidade Federal Fluminense in Rio De Janeiro, published an overview on hair cosmetics such as hair relaxers in 2015 in the International Journal of Trichology. Dias explained how the cuticle is the outer part of the hair where most of the keratin is within the cortex. Keratin is the main source of protein in hair. It is a spiral protein that cannot stretch or contract due to the chemical bonds of the sulphur element. To stretch the unwavering form of the keratin, the bonds must be broken. “These bonds are very difficult to break,” Dias explains. This is where the use of relaxers come in, to break those bonds and straighten the keratin in the hair. “When you break this bond between the two, you make the keratin molecule more fragile and so you lose some protein in your hair.” The cuticle is the strongest part of the hair, and so it takes a high level of pH, at about 10 or 11, to open it. “It’s not a soft process but a hard process.”

In addition, African hair does not have much of 18-methyl eicosanoic acid – what Dias calls the natural lubrication of African hair. “Asian and Caucasian hair have much more of the natural lubrication,” she explained. To use hair relaxers causes what little amount of lubrication is on the head, to disintegrate. This process leads to the loss of scales in the hair, which is like peeling off your own skin. Sodium hydroxide, a chemical found in relaxers, can also be found in such household chemicals as liquid drain cleaners and paint thinners, reports LiveStrong: “At pH 12, they share the same alkalinity of household products such as ammonia.”

“Relaxers over time break down the skin,” said LaSure. “Would you put a relaxer on your face?” He stressed the damage these chemicals cause to a scalp. “Whatever you’re putting in your body reflects on your hair, skin, and nails. It starts from your diet then the relaxers. It’s tearing it up.”

Valerie Price, 58, witnessed the changes in hair relaxer trends over the years. Price is the owner of the Valerie Signature Hair Salon in Harlem. “A friend of mine told me in the 80s, ‘Why do you put that crap in your hair? Your hair is like straw,’” she said. For Price, that is the best description for black hair when relaxed. She remembers waking up to “large chunks” of her hair missing. The friend of Price’s eventually cut off her hair. “It looked so beautiful. I looked so beautiful,” she remembered. Still, Price began to be influenced by friends to have her hair relaxed again. It would not be until 2003 when she would finally go natural permanently.

“In 2003 when I cut all my hair off and decided no relaxers, people would look at me like, ‘Why’d you cut your hair off, omg your hair was so beautiful?’” Price remembered. At the time, there were not many natural women in Harlem like Price. She mostly would see women who relaxed their hair. Price was focused on the future of her hair and its health, and she enrolled in The Nail Academy in Queens to study hair and its care. At the time there were only two or three hair schools that taught natural hair care, remembers Price. Currently, that number has thankfully grown. For Price, the natural hair movement is here to stay. “I don’t see it going anywhere,” she said proudly.

The changing attitudes toward hair relaxers in the black community are reflected in the changing market for hair relaxers. In 2015, The Atlanta Black Star reported that a “market research firm, Mintel, estimated that the Black hair business is worth $774 million and relaxer sales are aimed to decrease 45 percent before 2019.”

Brittany Packnett, the Vice President of Teach for America, an organization aimed at advancing accessibility to education, supports this change of attitudes towards relaxers. Her father was a professor of African-American theology and the history of the black church, so she is especially conscious of the historical struggles faced by the black community – struggles that are expressed economically, systematically, and socially. Packnett had a similar experience with the TSA to Coleman’s.

“The way the black body has been picked at, politicized, hyper sexualized, etcetera; it is never that nothing on our body is just what it is,” said Packnett. “Our hair is just as much politics as is. It is just as much a statement as it is your crown.” Packnett said she has experimented with many hairstyles over the years. “I started going natural 2004, before I graduated from college,” she said. “I kept my hair braided because my thinking was I wanted healthy hair, which meant putting chemicals in my hair was a ‘no.’”

Packnett’s hair, like that of other black women, was easily susceptible to breakage when using relaxers, and so her choice for going natural was mostly driven by sustainability. Due to its tight curly texture, black hair often requires hours of work to maintain on a day-to-day basis. In addition, during harsh weather and conditions, like the winter season, black hair requires extra protection and moisture to shield from breaking and shedding. Some examples of “protective” styles are weaves, braids, buns, crochet braids, twists, wigs, and more.

For Packnett, her natural hair protective style of choice became braids. “I want my hair to be healthy but I also need to be able to take it anywhere and so that meant wearing my hair really naturally wasn’t really an option given the circle I was in professionally,” she said. “I wanted it completely natural with an afro but I couldn’t but I did wear black styles.” Packnett thought back to a little over four years ago when she was the executive director at her job. “I was wearing micro braids and I ended wearing those braids for so long that I ended up losing hair because I could not figure out what to do with my hair where I could keep it natural but wear it straight every day. I ended up keeping these braids in for a super long time stressing out, trying to figure out how to wear my hair.”

Eventually, she decided upon a pixie cut using a keratin treatment. “It’s something that essentially helps your hair stay straight for longer but you can revert to your natural curls,” she explained. But her hairstyle choice had an unintended consequence. Packnett recalls walking into the office the following work day after having her hair cut and straightened with the keratin treatment and running into a partner, who was white. “She looked at me and she decided she was gonna touch my hair – which was a lot – and she goes ‘I love your hair like this, never change it back.’” Packnett’s voice strained, showing the still existent shock upon hearing the comment from her co-worker. “She goes ‘your hair looks so professional this way’ and I was like ‘oh okay,’” she remembered. “Professional means the way mainstream society has defined professionalism.” This is a phrase all black women are familiar with, she said. “It’s not new. We’ve heard that locs and braids and all these are not professional for a long time even though that’s how we’ve been wearing our hair for centuries.”

Even with black hair deemed unprofessional, colorism affects whose hair is more stigmatized within black culture. In 2011, Pamela R. Bennett, assistant professor in the Department of Sociology in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, did a study to test the theory of colorism. As reported by Johns Hopkins University, “Bennett used residential segregation as an indicator of a group’s social position and attempted to determine what the segregation of multiracial groups from both whites and racial minorities says about the social position of multiracial groups.” The study’s results showed that “mixed-race people are socially placed below whites, but ahead of blacks.” Among the natural hair movement, colorism is a topic of interest as colorism affects who gets to wear their hair in its natural state due to curl patterns. LaSure explained curl patterns through the new texture chart. “I believe it goes from 1A to 4C. 4C is being the tightest, 1A the loosest. Some people have combination hair, some people, especially black people, are amazed at darker complexioned people actually have curly hair and they think light skin black folks are the only ones that should have curly hair. But we’re all so mixed.” He paused to laugh. “So many different nationalities you don’t know where the genes are gonna fall.”

In her 1983 book “In Search of our Mothers’ Gardens,” American novelist and activist Alice Walker defines colorism as “prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their color.” Those of lighter-skin tones were, and continue to be, given more preferential treatment for their key European features such as hair, skin tone, and facial shape.

Online star Branden Miller’s character, Joanne The Scammer, dons a blonde wig, a resemblance of the European feature aforementioned. When the wig is removed and the character is stripped away, Miller resumes his black identity with his kinky curls atop his head. His black identity was called into question at age seventeen when his adopted parents told him he was black and not white, as he was raised to believe.

“I found out through a friend of my family,” Miller remembered. “I was comparing my photos in the family and he was there, we were alone, and he just said ‘well you’re adopted’ and I said probably, joking. Then in about 30 minutes of talking, I found out the truth.” Miller describes the moment as a life- changing event. “You learn so much so fast. It really threw me off mentally, my relationship with people, everything.” Miller, who had been attending a majority black school called Carter G. Woodson, in Hopewell, Virginia, had already began to formulate his black identity prior to being told of his history. “My [adopted] father was a white man but he had Indian in him and he looked more so darker and so I decided I was like white and Indian whatever so, like color, I was never like all white. I was just tan. I was like whatever I’m just different.” The tug and pull at his black identity came from all areas in his life, not just family. “Blacks think I’m white because I’m light skinned, and whites think I’m black because I’m not as white as them,” he said. The awareness of his black identity is one that has brought him some negative experiences as well. “It’s like I grew up white and then you get told you’re black and you get treated black.” Despite donning a blonde wig, Miller’s kinky curls underneath are a reminder that he is black, with all the experiences and reactions that go along with it.

Miller is not alone in struggling with his black identity. Huffington Post staff member Melissa Mushaka struggled to love her natural hair and brown skin when growing up in Texas. “Having dark skin in Texas wasn’t a popular thing. I went through my own layer of having dark skin and loving it and embracing it,” said Mushaka. Though born in Zimbabwe, the transition to Texas altered her understanding of her identity. “Where we went in Texas we went to a predominantly white church, my parents put me in private Christian school, I was the only black girl in the school and I got used to being the only black girl.” This was until high school where Mushaka watched as racial groups would isolate themselves. She felt she did not fit in anywhere. “I wasn’t black enough to be with the black kids and I didn’t just wanna be with the white kids.” In college this debate of her identity as a dark-skinned black woman continued. “I was in a Hispanic sorority. I was like, ‘where do I fit in and what is my identity?’” This led her to branch out and meet more black people.

Mushaka was able to find pride in her skin. Still, when she gained employment in journalism, working in a corporate setting, Mushaka had to deal with the complications of wearing natural hair. After wearing weaves for an extended period of time, she decided to go natural and cut off all of her hair. This is what is referred to in the natural hair movement as The Big Chop. “People were extremely supportive and welcoming but I just remember feeling like it was a thing – feeling like, ‘am I gonna be treated differently?’” This is a feeling all black people deal with in making decisions about how to wear their hair.

The choice about how to care for, treat, and style one’s hair is always political for those who are black. Yet, choices about black hairstyles have political meaning even for people who are not black themselves. In 2016, VH1 posted a Digital Originals video on their YouTube page titled, “Are Kim Kardashian & Katy Perry Appropriating Culture By Wearing Cornrows?” It is an almost eight- minute long video in which three women – one black, one white, and one filipina – all have their hair braided in cornrows with extensions. The video was made in response to the renaming of a traditionally black hairstyle from “cornrows,” to “boxer braids,” by the Kardashian sisters. In the video, a black woman talked about their first experience wearing braids. A white woman spoke towards the end of how she was victimized for wearing the braids, being laughed at on one occasion while out in public. The next morning she had removed the braids, running her hands freely through her hair.

Google Trends shows the steady growth in the popularity of the topic “Cultural Appropriation,” reaching 100% popularity in April of 2016 in America. This term has often been associated with the antics of the Kardashian sisters and on the fashion runway. During his 2017 Spring New York Fashion Week show, designer Marc Jacobs used a majority of white women wearing colorful pastel locs to showcase his new designs. Many writers on the Internet were quick to react, calling the event one of cultural appropriation. One Instagram user commented, “If that was the look you were going for, use models of color.”

After the backlash Jacobs received for his NYFW S17 show, he took to Instagram to write, “All who cry ‘cultural appropriation’ or whatever nonsense about any race or skin color wearing their hair in any particular style or manner funny how you don’t criticize women of color for straightening their hair.”

The issue presented here reads as though hair is just hair, as though race is just race, and both are not needed to be examined nor understood further. It ties to the similar argument posited about diversity versus inclusion, equality versus equity. At a panel during the American Association for Access, Equity, and Diversity (AAAED) National Conference in Vienna, Virginia, activist DeRay Mckesson, stated, “Diversity is about bodies, and inclusion is about culture.” To ignore the need for both inclusion and diversity, results in the mistreatment of certain classes, races, and groups.

Black hair is like a rose garden. Just like roses, the roots of black hair need to be cared for and moisturized, and protected from damage. Just as there is beauty in the variety of ways in which each rose blooms, so is there beauty in the diversity of black hair and its curls. The different types of roses in a rose garden are like the different types of black hair, and the experiences of the bodies that care for it.

“Hair, and especially natural hair, plays a distinct role in Black culture because it has been used to stigmatize us and has also been at the forefront of our struggle for asserting our humanity and dignity,” said Novella Coleman, the ACLU attorney. The hair that grows on the heads of black women and men stretch upwards –to the sun — and this is a trait that is natural and unchangeable. This natural trait is then made political. The curls, braids, and other protective styles black women choose to wear should not have a bearing on their job prospects nor livelihood. A state where hair, like skin color, has no bearing on one’s economic or social position, is a place all black women should and can, be born into.


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