When I first connected with St.Clair Detrick-Jules I knew I wanted to do something special to honor her first book release, but also honor the special women in my life that I feel could contribute to the ever-evolving conversation surrounding Black hair.
When it comes to Black hair, one would think our society had made great strides in embracing, respecting, and honoring natural beauty. In recent years, a variety of children’s books have been released with the sole purpose of celebrating what is natural and lovable about Black hair (Hair Love, Crown An Ode to the Fresh Cut, My Hair is a Garden, My Hair is Poofy & That’s Okay, I Love my Hair!, Happy Hair, and Bedtime Bonnet…just to name a few). There’s even the fact that the short film Hair Love, written and directed by Matthew Cherry, won the Oscar for Best Animated Short Film.
While there have been quite a few things to celebrate, we also have to acknowledge that there is still much room for improvement. While the publishing and entertainment industries seem to be ahead of the curve, our educational institutions still continue to uphold policies and practices that are not only discriminatory, but harmful. As the K-12 Diversity Chair of a large central Ohio school district, and mother to three biracial children, I can only hope that the stories we share, whether through literature or experience, continue to spark action and change of these policies…telling our children…yes, we want you to love yourself for who you are, but maybe even more importantly, we love you for who you really are, too!
St.Clair’s book, titled Dear Khloe: Love Letters to My Little Sister, began out of love for her little sister; who became self-conscious of her afro when she was just four years old. What started as a letter, turned into a large-scale visual collection and stories of Black women with natural hair from all over the United States.
St. Clair’s mission through this book, and inspired by her sister is clear:
I want you to love the melanin in your skin and the curls in your hair, and I don’t want it to take so long.
I want to lead by example. I want to teach you how to love yourself by loving myself, by introducing you to other Black women who love themselves. As Black women, we have to stop waiting for the world to love us, and we have to start loving ourselves, unconditionally.
What is the first word that comes to mind when you think of your own hair?
GWD: Strong. Beautiful.
RD: Can I say a phrase? Because whenever I think of my hair, this is how I think of it…and everything this phrase represents: “Side Part, Curl Under”.
RD: Because I feel like that is a safe, a safe space. That is a very safe space for black women and their hair.
AG: It’s the go-to.
RD: Yeah it’s the go-to but for me it has always helped me assimilate…and exploring within myself whether or not that is something that I want to do or something that I feel I need to do. But it’s always been my safe space with my hair…side part, curl under.
AG: It’s a novelty, especially here where I am (Boston), it really identifies me as a novelty.
How did your school experience influence your hair journey (K-12)?
RD: For me middle school was really challenging because that’s when we started having struggles with my hair and because I was one of the very few black students at my school it was hard, especially because I just didn’t want to stand out and feel different. So one of the ways that I would deal with it was by wearing a bandana, but because I was one of the only black students wearing a bandana, I would get in trouble for wearing a bandana...because obviously if you’re a Black student and wear a bandana, you are affiliated with a gang. I remember getting in trouble so many times and not understanding why it wasn’t ok for me to wear a bandana when other girls got to wear headbands.
And then I started cheerleading. That added extra pressure because everyone had to have their hair up in a ponytail with a bow…and that was a different struggle. That was when I went back and forth between weave, then transitioned to a wig…Then there was collegiate cheerleading, where my appearance was weighted the same as my hardest stunt or most difficult tumbling technique in try-outs.
So I think that’s why I just rested with “side part, curl under” because their was just this constant pressure and need to assimilate, and I was just trying to make my hair look as much like everybody else…so then I wouldn’t feel different, so I wouldn’t feel bad about myself.
GWD: For me my mom went out on a limb. In 5th grade I wanted an afro, and that was very controversial, and very black power…and she got a lot of flack for that. And there were people who back then told her and me that it was “very ugly” and “why would you let your daughter do that?”.My pediatrician (an older white man) even said to her “this is not an OK style, this is not how she should be wearing her hair”.
GWD: Now, another memory I have of that time, when I first decided to wear my hair in an afro we had a new girl come to school who had the most beautiful afro ever, she looked like Angela Davis…tall, light-skinned, with this huge afro, great. And I was like great, when I decided to wear my afro, they sent a little mini Angela Davis here to my school….I was supposed to be the one getting all of the attention. But I credit my mom for being the pioneer and letting me try that. But overall it has definitely been a journey.
Similar to what we are seeing in K-12 institutions these days, have you ever had that experience in your workplace, whether you felt like you didn’t get a job because of your hair, or were asked to change your hair?
GWD: Before I loc’d my hair, I would always wear my hair straightened to an interview. Then once I got the job I would get comfortable with doing natural things with my hair.
I did have one job though, at a K-8 charter school (2013), where they changed the rules for students and teachers, that no one could wear their hair in locs or braids…and this is a charter school that served mostly Black, some Brown kids, about 50% of the teachers were Black, and I was told I’d be OK because I’d be “grandfathered in”. But they actually put into the contract that that was one of things they would consider when deciding whether to hire someone.
AG: Early on in my career I was on relaxer mode, and later on, it was more of straightening my hair at the onset of a new job until I got comfortable. I think it’s a shame that I felt the need to do that.
GWD: Well it’s the culture.
AG: Right, and I feel like we have gotten past the whole culture of beauty being only a size zero with flowing straight hair…and we know it not to be true.
RD: I feel like we know that it’s not true but it is something that I know that I constantly struggle to embrace. Like every time I wash my hair, I have to blow dry and straighten it. And the other day, Del (her fiance) was like “you don’t have to blow dry and straighten it”, and i responded with “ughh yeah I do, do you not see my hair?” and he was like “but I like your little curls”. And I just wonder,
how long will it take to undo that initial reaction in my brain, and get comfortable with who I am.
If there was one thing that you wanted your white counterparts (women, men, friends, colleagues, etc.) to know about Black hair, what would it be?
GWD: There is nothing that needs to be done to it…to make it beautiful, make it acceptable..that the way my hair grows out of my scalp, is just fine.
No other culture is criticized or looked down upon because they let their hair grow out the way that it grows out. We don’t tell people from various different countries/cultures that you are going to have to do x, y, and z to your hair in order to be accepted. We are the only ones that are asked to do anything different in order to be accepted.
RD: Our hair is not a fad. There are people who appreciate the style, embrace it for what it is and understand the culture behind it…but then you have people, like the Kardashians, that are like “oh my boxer braids” (pause) um those are cornrows, and they’ve been around for a really long time.
GWD: Oh yes, cultural appropriation…that’s a whole other can of worms.
It’s the true representation of our society’s culture of “we only want something when it works for us”.
In the Foreword of Dear Khloe, clinical psychologist, natural hair stylist, and author of PsychoHairapy, Dr. Afiya M. Mbilishaka, offers the following insights that I want to leave you with:
The self-discovery of beauty within the lives of Black women with natural hair is critical in restoring balance, order, and justice to our communities. This very book, and the visual narratives collected in it, aim to disrupt the centuries of conditioning that teach us natural hair – and, in particular, tightly coiled hair – is ugly or unattractive. As we know, the truth is often quite simple, and right in front of us. The truth of Dear Khloe is that natural hair is not ugly or messy or hard to manage; natural hair – and the confidence that a Black woman has around her hair – empowers both herself and generations to come.