In 2015, activist Michaela Angela Davis appeared on Black Entertainment Network’s (BET) show Being Mary Jane. Davis spoke about a Psychology Today article that claimed black women are less physically attractive than other women. On the show, Davis credited black hair as one of the key factors that make black girls magical.
“All of us can say that we are sisters with this plethora of beauty,” Davis said. “Our hair can change shape and sizes with some hot comb and some water. No other group of women can say that.” At the time, I was a sophomore in college taking a documentary photography class, and for our final project, we were able to choose our own topic. I knew I wanted to do something personal that showcased the beauty of black people, particularly, showing images of black women in a way some people have never seen. Being the only black person in my class, I felt this may be some of my classmates’ only opportunity to engage with black art. So, after hearing Davis proclaim that black girls’ magic came from our hair, I knew I wanted to focus on hair.
One of my most enthralling images from that collection was a photograph of a light-skin black woman with straight blonde hair, back to back against a dark-skin black woman with black and blonde dreadlocks. This photo was so compelling because it personified what Michaela Angela Davis said about the plethora of beauty and diversity that exists within black womanhood.
Once my documentary photography class ended in May, I was proud of my collection and had planned to move on. However, over the next two years following my first collection, news stories about black hair seemed to be a daily occurrence. I constantly felt like my heritage, my culture and my very existence was either being hijacked or deemed inappropriate. All these incidents left me feeling angry and helpless.
As I walked around my college campus, I saw so many black women, with all kinds of hairstyles, either embracing their natural hair or rocking funky protective styles. Seeing them walk around so confidently made me want to capture and show the world the essence of black hair. Picking up where I left off in my documentary photography class two years prior, I entitled the recurring series, Black Hair Magic. I named the series Black Hair Magic because, like Davis said, black hair can change shape and size with a hot comb and some water. Furthermore, black hair is so diverse; it comes in many textures, colors, lengths and styles. I really wanted to capture that diversity while educating people of the war surrounding black hair.
Within the past year, employment discrimination against dreadlocks has been legalized, black girls have been kicked out of school because of their braids and pop culture has misrepresented black hairstyles.
To combat that, I featured models of different complexions with different hairstyles ranging from afros to dreadlocks, braids to bantu knots. Once I finished shooting the collection, I didn’t want to keep them to myself or just post them on social media. I wanted to put those images on display on my predominately white campus.
While my university speaks of itself as an institution for diversity and inclusive, their actions say differently. There are rarely any displays of black art on campus, so I wanted to get my art displayed in an area where people would have to engage with it. Luckily, my library displays students’ work every semester and reached out to me.
I was honored to have my work exhibited in a space that attracts all types of students, faculty and staff, but I was even more delighted with the response from my peers. Many felt a sense of pride and disbelief that reflections of them were hanging in the library.
Oftentimes, predominately white institutions can feel isolating and exclusive, as if the only way to fit in is to conform to Eurocentric standards of beauty. However, having these photographs in the library sends the message that one does not have to conform, that black hair is valued and appreciated.
I intentionally created Black Hair Magic to combat the appropriation and mischaracterization of black hair. However, after showcasing the work, I realized that it was a form of therapy. Zora Neale Hurston once said, “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” With that quote in mind, these photos and their captions are my way of expressing my grievances to the assault black bodies continue to endure for merely existing.
But these photos are also something else — these photos are love letters to my community, showing them the beauty that lies on top of their heads.
The entire collection can be viewed at alexiscmcdonald.com.