I wasn't raised to see childhood as a collection of innocent memories. At a young age, I was trained to treat the world like an opponent. Each day I left the house, my parents were sending me to battle with the hopes that I would not become the next Emmett Till or Breonna Taylor. In the morning my mom would help me get ready for school — wake me up, pack my lunch, and do my hair.
"I want hair like the white girls!" I would say, as my mother's comb made its way through a large Afro puff. I continued to complain about how I wanted straight hair like the other girls at school. Finally she conceded, and we visited a hair salon a few months after my seventh birthday. The stylist spun me around in a plush chair to face the mirror. Normally my reaction to getting my hair done would have been "I wish I looked different." But something changed that day. I looked in the mirror at my straight hair and saw an entirely different girl — a girl who thought she loved herself. As we headed home, I couldn't sit still. I wondered how my friends from school would react to my freshly pressed hair. How long would my hairstyle last? Could I be this beautiful forever? When we got home, I headed down the street to play at a neighbor's house. My neighbor and I spent the entire afternoon in front of the mirror pretending to be white girls. In my mind, we were powerful big girls who could run the world — as long as we learned how to dress, speak, and look like white people.
When I got back home, my hair was no longer straight. I cried and begged my mom to take me back to the hair salon. For the next 10 years, I would go to the salon every Friday to get my hair straightened.
On the outside, I was a confident and educated Black woman who had the world at her feet. My mom and her friends also got their hair straightened, and I was encouraged to visit the salon as much as possible. I have been struggling to manage my hair during quarantine, seeing as salons have closed and I have relied on getting my hair done for most of my life. But the closing of salons makes me think about how much I depend on my hairstyle to feel any sense of value and worth as a Black woman.
I know what hair represents for Black women. It represents freedom. The freedom to choose, a freedom that most Black women were introduced to in the mid-20th century. But straightening hair is an expectation for the Black woman who balances two worlds; one that embraces the Black woman fully and another that expects her to shift and mold in order to progress in the workplace.
Today, my mom and I both sport natural hairstyles, but our short haircuts aren't a political statement. They are an expression of love — a declaration to the world that says "I love myself without living through the white gaze." Natural hair comes in all different forms: it curls, it sways, it bounces, and sometimes, it breaks. And even though we live in a country that refuses to love us back, we refuse to break.
Choosing to wear my hair the way it is alongside my mother is the most powerful and healing form of Black self-love.
Self-love is an act of resistance that means more than ever. Open Instagram and see a constant stream of footage of police beating protesters and driving through crowds. Click on the Facebook app and find out that another unarmed Black person has been killed. What we don't hear about between the protests and police shootings are ways for Black people to heal during these difficult circumstances. Between the sound of smashed glass and cries of "hands up, don't shoot," there is a deep foundation holding Black people together. Black women, with all of our strength and perseverance, uphold an entire race and have done so since Black people first arrived in North America. The news does not show the hundreds of Black women who peacefully protest while sporting braids, locs, and short natural cuts. We love ourselves, and in the middle of all of the chaos, our stories go untold.
Choosing to love ourselves without apology is one of the greatest acts of resistance. But, most of all, choosing to wear my hair the way it is alongside my mother is the most powerful and healing form of Black self-love. That day when my mom took me to get my hair straightened changed the course of my life forever. I was able to learn how deeply white people impact my perception of self.
After the officers who shot Breonna Taylor were not charged, it's no surprise that I felt pressured to assimilate to the white gaze at such a young age. Still, I continue to have hope that one day, Black children won't have to worry about being killed by the police for carrying a toy gun. I may not be alive to see that day, but that doesn't mean I shouldn't recognize the mountains and hilltops my ancestors had to climb to get me where I am today. When I put my hands through my natural curls, I see the dense cotton fields of Georgia. I see the faces of hundreds of slaves who worked fields from sunrise to sundown. But mostly, I see someone who deserves to be loved, even if the country where she lives does not love her back.