Photography by Joana Meurkens. Forward and Interview by Kimber Monroe
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?
It has been an honor taking over Hair Stories this month for my best friend and fellow colleague Carolina Meurkens. When I thought about who to feature, I thought of close friends of mine who’ve discussed and shared their hair journeys with me, who I admire and inspire myself and others. I asked my friend, Ky Turman to share her story for Issue Seven. Ky and I met on Juneteenth during a magical late afternoon in Prospect Park and have become very close friends (and neighbors) since. Ky talks about her locs, her upbringing & her personal understanding of identity.
My racial identity is Black, or “just Black,” as I say when someone asks me, “but where are you really from.” My mother is from Maryland and my father is from a small town in the foothills of western North Carolina. They met in college at an HBCU in the city I grew up in, Greensboro, NC. My family takes immense pride in our Blackness. In their younger years, my grandparents traveled to Africa and brought back intriguing books, masks, textiles, and statuettes that depicted our people and their beauty for my younger brother and me to admire. Since I’ve been alive, my father has always been a dread head, and we’d tag along with him to reggae concerts in wide-open fields where he played the bongos in a rasta band. I remember staring from below and wondering how the old rastas were able to balance what seemed like miles of locs atop their crowns. My mom kept her hair chemically straightened, or relaxed, in a neat low bun and always looked beautiful rocking earthy jewelry and neutral tones. I was in awe of the photos of my grandparents sporting huge afros in vibrant garments at the close of the 20th century. In my earliest years, I was proud of my family for being Black in our many forms and I considered us as cool and strong because of it.
My self-image and expression have always been closely tied to my hair; and my hair, to my understanding of race. I first became aware of race, or at least that other people were explicitly not-Black, in pre-K. My very best friend at the time (a white boy), told me he could never marry me in real life once while we were pretending to parent a group of dolls. I instantly knew what this meant and why he said it. At the very same preschool, one day my mom came to pick me up and was surprised to find me sitting in the middle of the room with the neat pigtails she’d dropped me off wearing messily pulled out. All the kids and the daycare staff were laughing at me. At my hair. I never saw my mother so upset in public. This was when I realized there was something different about my hair.
In elementary school, I got my first relaxer. This didn’t mean much to me at the time except that it didn’t hurt as much to comb my hair and that my cornrows with beads on the ends didn’t get “frizzy” as quickly. I knew pretty much everyone at school had relaxers and I thought it was normal. But I quickly picked up on the correlation between the length of time the chemicals sat on my scalp and how straight my hair would be at the end of the process. I learned to answer “not really” when my hairdresser would ask “it’s burning?” with hopes my hair would be just a little straighter. This was normal to me too.
As the years rolled on and I attended predominantly white middle and high schools, I continued to get my hair relaxed every few months like clockwork. Although I don’t remember ever hating my natural hair, I honestly never really saw it, save the few centimeters of new growth before my next perm. But something was never quite right during those relaxed years. There was always more to be desired internally or externally surrounding my hair. Fraught situations and thoughts that stand out from this time include:
- A comment from a camp counselor (a Black man) while I was playing basketball with the other campers — “be careful, or you ‘gon sweat that hair out.”
- My middle school science teacher (a Black woman) telling me she “used to have hair like me when she was younger and [she] always thought it looked dusty.”
- During my not-so-brief emo and scene phases, never feeling like my flat-ironed bang did that side-swooshy thing quite the way Haley Williams’ did.
- Also during the above phase, being laughed at by the whole class of Black kids on my first day of getting switched into a different class at school. Could have left the neon green dunks at home I guess.
- The frustration that would arise when my hairdresser would trim my hair too short or “bump the ends” after I asked her not to, all because it made my shoulder-length wrap look too short.
Looking back, these were all signs that I wasn’t living my best hair life. I was settling for a norm of needing to drastically alter my curls from the way they occurred naturally. In college, I finally got tired of settling for hair that was painful, smelled burnt when I sweat in my volleyball games, or just wouldn’t cooperate without damaging heat. I decided to go natural and it was one of the best decisions I ever made! It allowed me to stop relying on other people and chemicals to get my hair into a style in which I felt confident. It empowered me to educate myself about my hair type and watch countless YouTube tutorials about how to cater to it and love on it. I taught myself to do twist outs, braid outs, Bantu knots, trims, box braids, Marley twists, crochet braids — you name it, I’ve probably tried it. At my PWI, it also created avenues of connection between myself and the few other Black girls on campus, with whom I’d trade tips and product recommendations.
After about 5 years of cultivating my fro (named Scarlet Frohansen) from a short cauliflower shape to a medium-length lion’s mane, I finally decided to loc my hair in 2018 which has truly been my favorite style yet!
I still have days where I’m not 100% happy with my hair — locs take a lot of work too — but I truly have grown to love them in all their phases. From the tiny coils, they started as to the developed twists and turns they take now, I consider caring for them a ritual and meditation. I’m truly grateful for my hair journey and all that it has taught me about what it means to be Ky and put my best foot forward in the world.