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The Right to Rock Your Hair

By Kortney Y. Watkins

In a recent article by The Grio of Gabby Douglas, the once berated Olympic star is showcased with healthy, long, and natural tresses in a straightened and colored style. It’s a far cry from the moment when Black America recognized her as a household name: infamous on the one hand for her “poor” hairstyling choices and a cultural gem on the other hand for her athletic prowess. Ms. Douglas addresses the source of her trauma as a consequence of being a gymnast. High and tight ponytails or buns that proved to be everything we now know are not necessarily the best protective styles for fragile hair. Thus the breakage. Thus the disaster. Thus the public reticule. This is the sort of fear that we, Black-American women, often contend with when contemplating the decision to go natural. Despite all of the accolades rightly attributed to Ms. Douglas, what lives on equally is the scandal that her hair caused in our culture, both in Black America and American society at large.

How is this possible?

How is this just?

Yet, despite the outrage, how many of us have found ourselves in similar positions as Ms. Douglas? How many of us have had to rationalize and justify our right to go natural, to choose less ethnic associated hairstyles, to battle both family, community, corporate America, or even academia? You too? Well, allow me to raise my hand in solidarity with her—and with you.

Read more about Gabby’s Story Here

I remember when I first went natural. I knew that I had curly hair since childhood, relaxers never lasted more than two weeks without my hair needing to be pressed. Many older women in my community thought that I was trying to put on airs when I told them that my hair was not like other black people’s. Only after I went natural in my late 20’s did some of them get to see that I wasn’t joking, that my hair texture which was presumably “bad” was it’s own thing—as ALL of our hair is unique to each and every one of us. What made my hair questionable was the fact that though it was long and thick, the relaxer never lasted. My 3B/(mostly 3C) hair just wasn’t having it.

I also remember the trepidation of what it would mean to go natural. At the time, I worked at an urban University in Atlanta. My best friend and I got into a heated debate about whether I could wear natural styles that were more of an ethnic reflection. I said nay and she insisted yes, citing that higher education tended to be more lax. My argument to her was that it was certainly not all institutions and even of those who were more liberal-minded, had standards of professionalism that differ from tenured faculty versus staff. At the time of my transition, I was merely considered staff. In the end, I chose to take a risk, but not without a few panic attacks here and there. Add to that the awkward two-year transitioning phase because I also was too daunted by the idea of “the big chop” and what that would mean for me, as I had always prided myself on my long hair.

Without a doubt, the way some people viewed me both professionally and personally shifted, whether they were Black-American or not. Some of it was positive, some negative, and some lay in a gray area. There were quite a few people who seemed not to know what to do with me, how to view/categorize me. That in and of itself speaks volumes—that how some people in the world interpreted my hair was (and is arguably still) a direct correlation with how I am interpreted as a person. I recall during that time period and years afterward referring to my curly hair constantly, almost incessantly. It wasn’t ALL necessarily for others to embrace my hair, but I think for me to also normalize my natural, beautiful curls. In retrospect, I think it took a lot of courage to do what I did. Yet also in reflection, the mere fact that I had to go through such a process in the first place stuns me to literal tears. Since when should I or any other Black woman in America (or on this planet for that matter) assume the burden of not embracing, without shame or blame, all of who we are? In no religious text that I’ve ever read is such a thing addressed, an important point as Western ideals are firmly rooted in religious understandings. I would argue, then, that the current crisis for Black women concerning their hair is trivial because hair is a natural extension of who one is—no matter how a person chooses to treat it or style it.

Since when should I or any other Black woman in America (or on this planet for that matter) assume the burden of not embracing, without shame or blame, all of who we are?

In the past couple of years, I’ve made the decision to release that burden to the wind. I’m just too old to care about acceptance anymore (the beautiful thing about being 40ish). But if I could go back to the beginning of my transition, I’d write myself a little note: “Be you. Do you—because nobody else can and it’s all ok. You’ll see.”

Kortney Y Watkins is an assistant professor at Georgia Military College where she teaches English courses on all levels. She is also part owner of TLM Language Services.

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