Forward/ Interview by Carolina Meurkens, Photography by Joana Meurkens
In a society that values whiteness and one’s ability to approximate it, hair can be a battleground. In Hair Stories, we wrestle with what it means to love yourself through your relationship with hair and others’ perception of it. Through interviews with our editors, contributors and community members, we journey through what beauty means in different cultures and the narratives woven into our locs. Where do our hair preferences and grievances come from? What does our hair tell us about our family history, our culture, our people? In this series, we interview and photograph people from different diasporas, to get the root of their hair story. We ask them; what does your hair symbolize to you?
In Part Two of Hair Stories, we interviewed and photographed Tiye Amenechi, filmmaker and actor based in the Bronx, New York. We share a mutual love for travel and music, fueled by a desire to discover how the African Diaspora manifests in different corners of the world. Our years of friendship have had a profound impact on the way I view my own hair and Blackness, and I have no doubt that reading her story will inspire you into deeper manifestations of self-love.
“‘Good Hair’ and ‘Bad Hair’ are terms that ruled conversations regarding beauty and self image in my youth, usually being overheard from adults and trickling down to spaces amongst children.”
I am Black. Specifically Nigerian-American. My father is from Lagos, and my mother was born and raised in Harlem. Her family comes from the South, descendants of slaves. I do consider myself very lucky to at least know where half of my heritage comes from.
Hair texture is such a complex and tender subject. Across the diaspora there is generally a consensus that the tighter the kink, the nappier your hair is, the less ‘good’ it is. The looser the texture, the better your hair is, the more beautiful you are considered. In more or less words these reductive and simplistic terms that have been so normalized are a result of so many years, centuries really, of internalized racism and embracing of Eurocentric beauty standards that have been passed down through generations of black people not only in this country, but across the diaspora. Deeply rooted in white supremacy, ‘good hair’ has been attributed to being farther away from blackness. Black hair has been painted as wild and unkempt. I think that there has been a lot of trying to correct one’s hair, striving to achieve good hair, to gain access or even just visibility. ‘Good Hair’ and ‘Bad Hair’ are terms that ruled conversations regarding beauty and self image in my youth, usually being overheard from adults and trickling down to spaces amongst children. Now there are more specific identifiers to classify your hair ranging from 2A – 4C, in an attempt to get away from this very binary idea that hair is either good or bad. All hair is unique and special in its own way. I do think there is a drastic shift in our relationship to our natural textures across the diaspora at large, moving towards identifying how to take care of our hair and embracing it in all of its forms. It seems similar to the Black is Beautiful movement of the 70s, but I do hope it’s here to stay this time.
I think I am only just now getting to a point of feeling confident about my hair as is. I grew up having locs until I was about 13, this was well before faux locs were a thing so I really stuck out. The only reference point for locs outside of certain communities were Bob Marley and Rastafari culture. So for a very long time I would get made fun of, picked on, stared at and ridiculed by my young peers and adults alike. I was the only girl in my immediate family for a while so my aunts and grandmothers would constantly pick at my hair, encouraging me to cut it, perm it and wear it like everyone else at the time.
Although in my early childhood years I felt normal with my hair amongst other kids that had locs that we hung around in Flatbush and Harlem, the less I found myself in those safe spaces, the more it got to me. The more time I spent in white dominated spaces or even Latino communities the less confident and proud of my hair I felt. So much so that I would beg my father for a perm (I am extremely grateful he said no every time). When I was 13, I made the decision to take my hair out of locs, strand by strand, and get a wash and set for my 8th grade picture day. I immediately felt confident and accepted with my straight hair, I received so many compliments and more attention than I ever had in my life. I eventually learned that this was false confidence, but at the time it felt monumental. So in an effort to mimic that visibility I would straighten my hair often.
“There are points when I want to burst out into tears and shave it all off. As dramatic as that sounds, these sentiments happen quite often. But I’ve learned to accept it – my hair just will not do certain things, it will not lay certain ways and it definitely won’t fall against my face, and that is okay.”
After I took my hair out and decided to not get a perm, I had to learn how to take care of my hair on my own. I swore I would never return to a salon again after they cut about 7 inches off and tried to pressure me to get a relaxer, complaining about the thickness of my hair every step of the way. I was the only one of my friends who was natural who had a tight and kinkier curl pattern at the time so I was really left to my own devices to figure it out. Thankfully, YouTube existed and the early days of the natural hair movement were starting to take form. To this day, I turn to certain YouTube channels to see what to try with my hair. I stopped straightening my hair a couple years ago, I also stopped combing my hair for a couple years but that is a whole other story for another time. I got a pretty devastating haircut (another scissor happy stylist) that I am still learning to accept, but I think I have finally gotten to a place where I care about the health of my hair and not much else. I have always liked keeping my hair out of my face. I think that was born out of me wanting to attract less attention to myself. I love wearing my hair in a bun, but having hair that is shorter than what I am used to has made this a bit difficult. Now I make sure to deep condition at least twice a a month (should really be once a week but… I will get there). I try to maintain a wash day routine and leave my hair in twists or bantu knots. And this past summer and fall I’ve said fuck it and have been wearing my hair in its 100% natural state as a fro, not a stretched or styled curly fro, but just a fro which has honestly been so liberating. I have also been wearing cornrows that my childhood best friend, Mariah, has done for me a couple times. I am learning to cornrow and braid myself.
There are many many days when my hair does not want to cooperate, when the widest toothed comb does not want to go through or just flat out breaks, when a huge clump of hair that has broken off stares back at me in the shower that I had been standing in for 2 hours. There are points when I want to burst out into tears and shave it all off. As dramatic as that sounds, these sentiments happen quite often. But I’ve learned to accept it – my hair just will not do certain things, it will not lay certain ways and it definitely won’t fall against my face, and that is okay. I don’t believe in laying my edges everyday. I recently threw away my Eco Styler Gel (edge control), mostly because my edges do not lay flat for more than an hour, but also because I was laying them for the wrong reasons and it was having a damaging affect on my hair. There isn’t one way that I feel confident about wearing my hair, but I am working towards feeling confident in wearing my hair in any style, even in my shrunken nappy fro. To wear my hair with pride rather than using styles to hide something I don’t like about myself is the ultimate goal.
I have definitely had instances where I have felt judged about my hair. The first time I traveled internationally with my family in 2005 we were all stopped at airport security and had our hair checked. We all had long thick locs at the time. They poked around our hair, pressed our scalps, and lifted up our locs one by one, and told us it was random. No one else was getting their hair checked. I was 10 at the time, my oldest brother 16. It was extremely humiliating. When I had locs I got a lot of comments about the cleanliness of my hair and therefore the cleanliness of my personhood. When I took my locs out but decided to not get a perm, I got a lot of comments about the neatness of my hair. For job interviews, I felt inclined to straighten my hair to have a better shot at getting the position. Starter packets usually emphasized keeping hair neat and tucked away.
“I do find a certain sense of sisterhood when I talk to other Black women, specifically women with 4c natural hair about how we take care of our hair. Sharing tips, failures, frustrations, products that work, products that don’t work, salon horror stories and small personal triumphs becomes a deeply cathartic and often sacred practice.”
Childhood is such an extraordinary time of learning. We absorb so much, for better or for worse. And as I navigate adulthood I realize so much of this stage of life is unlearning. My relationship to my hair has been a unique and often times hard journey of learning, but mostly unlearning that then trickles into every other part of my life. I do find a certain sense of sisterhood when I talk to other Black women, specifically women with 4c natural hair about how we take care of our hair. Sharing tips, failures, frustrations, products that work, products that don’t work, salon horror stories and small personal triumphs becomes a deeply cathartic and often sacred practice. I don’t think a lot of people realize how much courage it takes to really do the work to embrace yourself as your true self, or how much damage a backhanded comment can do even to the most confident person when the entire world has told you that you’re not it. We live in a very different time than we did 20 years ago, even 10 years ago. It is really refreshing and affirming to see highly visible men and women sport their natural hair and the effect it has on everyday people. When I see my aunties (the same ones that gave me flack about my hair as a child) do the big chop and try to navigate their own natural hair it is really beautiful. That is YEARS of conditioning being undone. Every person’s relationship to their hair is unique to their own experience and choosing to wear your hair straight, have a weave or wear a wig should not be condemned. However, I do hope we can all get to a point collectively where we stop fighting against ourselves. It is by no means easy but it is entirely worth it, no matter what stage of your journey you are at.
Tiye is a filmmaker born and raised in the Bronx, NY. She makes work in both narrative and documentary form.