Lace front, natural curls, afro, sleek ponytail or high puff?
I often ponder this question when getting ready for different reasons. Most of the time it’s because I’m simply wondering what type of Black girl magic I want to offer the world. But in a minority of times, admittedly I’m wondering what will be perceived the most positively. How much space am I allowed to take up?
Last month the House of Representatives passed the CROWN Act to ban natural hair discrimination and sent the bill to the Senate for consideration. Ending natural hair discrimination is important and without a doubt a Reproductive Justice issue. Achieving Reproductive Justice means being able to exist in a world with true bodily autonomy and without anti-Blackness.
For me, as a Black woman in America, hair has been a sometimes complicated yet important part of my identity. As early as enslavement, Black hair has been weaponized against Black folks as yet another tool to perpetuate white supremacy, colorism and discrimination. I’ll never forget being a student in law school and reading through the case Hudgins v. Wright. The dispute in this case, which took place during slavery, was whether Jackey Wright and her offspring were entitled to freedom. In order to answer that question, the court first needed to answer: Are they Native American or Black? This was important because by the time of this lawsuit, the state of Virginia had outlawed the enslavement of Native Americans. Therefore, if Jackie and her offspring weren’t Black and were in fact Native American, they were entitled to freedom.
The Court held that the Wrights were Native American not Black and gave them their freedom. In making the decision, the Court relied on the reputation of the Wrights in their community, witness testimony and their physical appearance — including their hair. The Court even stated, “Nature has stampt upon the African and his descendants two characteristic marks … a flat nose and woolly head of hair.”
Hair was one of the primary physical characteristics used in this case to “assign Blackness” and thus assign and categorize someone as a free person or as property. Throughout history, hair, and especially Black hair, has often been a subject of conversation and weaponization by non-Black people. Regulating Black hair was about more than just fashion and beauty standards, but also about racial classification, regulating behaviors and deciding who is entitled to certain privileges and freedom.
In 1786, Governor of Louisiana Esteban Rodríguez Miró enforced Tignon Laws, stating that Black women and women of color had to cover their hair in head wraps, as they were too distracting to the white male gaze and disrupted the social order. In true "you gon’ learn today" fashion, Black and other women of color abided by the law but often tied their headdresses in creative styles and even added jewels or wore bold colors, making it a staple of fashion and resistance that has lasted over time.
Just earlier this year, Deandre Arnold was invited to attend the Oscars after being told he would be unable to walk in graduation unless he cut his locs. These incidents are just some examples in which Black people have been told that our hair is not only “different” and undesirable in comparison to our white and non-Black peers, but that it has also been weaponized as a tool of subjugation.The truth is, regardless of whether we straighten our hair, wear wigs, wear head wraps, wear braids or wear our natural hair textures, we will always be the topic of conversation because it isn’t just about our hair. It’s about our identity. It’s about criminalizing our Blackness.
As we continue this amazing natural hair movement that has empowered many of us to embrace our natural hair, especially type 4 natural hair, we need two things now more than ever: We need non-Black folks to step aside and stop co-opting the natural hair movement, and we need protection against natural hair discrimination. We need legislation like the CROWN Act and Ayanna Pressley’s PUSHOUT Act to ensure that young Black children aren’t being pushed out of school because of their hair, culture and, quite frankly, for their Blackness.
It is 2020 and it is beyond time that we stop natural hair discrimination. It is beyond time that our society stops criminalizing Blackness.