Interview by Carolina Meurkens, Photography by Vanessa dos Santos
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’s a pleasure to introduce you to songwriter, poet and artist Zawadi Carroll. We were blessed with going on a journey to Zawadi’s childhood, where she tells her story through her relationship with her hair and that of other Black femmes in her family. Zawadi talks about the politics of texturism in the Black community, finding inspiration and self-love through loving your hair and reclaiming her 4c magic.
I am Black American, which is a blend of African, Native American, and European ethnicities. I was born and raised in Washington, D.C.
In the Black community, your hair is your crown, your pride. It’s a creative outlet as well as a statement on your class and social status. Coming from a family with cosmetologists on both sides, I was deeply entrenched in hair culture and the politics of it growing up. In the words of India Arie: “good hair means curls and waves, bad hair means you look like a slave”. I was raised by a generation of women whose hair, its style and texture, were deeply connected to their survival in a white supremacist society.
My maternal grandmother was a self identified “mulatto” with “good hair”, which to me is hair that communicates a proximity to whiteness in its curl pattern and length. There was a lot of participation in mainstream Black beauty culture from that side of my family which included relaxers, texturizers, press and curls, and very specific braided styles. My Aunt Gladys owned a successful beauty salon in uptown DC and my grandmother is to this day a licensed cosmetologist. There was a huge emphasis on a woman’s hair always being “done”.
My paternal side was more accepting of Black hair in its natural state and the women on that side of my family adorned themselves with low maintenance styles that worked with tighter curl patterns. My paternal grandmother rocked a short fro and had a tote bag that said “Happy to be Nappy”. Her eldest daughters have locs that descend past their waists. There was a lot of positive reinforcement for my thick 4c hair and afrocentric expression in general. My grandmother’s youngest daughter, my Aunt Nickie, was my main hairstylist for most of my life. There was no hairstyle she could not do, she had the magic touch. Through her I was exposed to more contemporary Black hair culture like tracks and closures.
The good/ bad hair dichotomy gets re-coded every couple of decades. The early days of the new age natural hair movement that took place around 2010 centered light skinned women with 3c hair. So while I was attempting to find community and guidance online and reverse the damage Dominican blowouts and flat irons had done to my hair, texturism was really holding me back.– Zawadi
My mother was committed to caring for and styling my hair at home without chemicals or a hot comb. Between her and my Aunt Nickie, I rocked several cornrowed styles throughout my adolescence. Even then, as a beautiful young Black girl living in Chocolate City I was still haunted by the desire for “good hair” and lighter skin. My entire life I went to out of boundary schools in NW in which most of my classmates were white or mixed. I cried the first day of Pre-K and did not want to enter the classroom because I had 2 large afro puffs. I stood out like a sore thumb. My Black female teacher Ms. Gill sat me on her lap in front of the classroom with tears in my eyes and proclaimed, “Zawadi’s hair is beautiful, thick, and gorgeous!” That did a lot for me, but not enough to combat messages in mainstream media and social circles I’d encounter down the line. Outside of white spaces it was still obvious that “mixed hair” was the apex as it communicated beauty and desirability.
The good/bad hair dichotomy gets re-coded every couple of decades. The early days of the new age natural hair movement that took place around 2010 centered light skinned women with 3c hair. So while I was attempting to find community and guidance online and reverse the damage Dominican blowouts and flat irons had done to my hair, texturism was really holding me back. I was being gaslighted by influencers selling “curly hair” products and giving tips that were never supposed to work for me. Fellow DC native, author, and scholar Marita Golden talks about texturism and the color complex in her book “Don’t Play in the Sun: One Woman’s Journey Through the Color Complex”. Every Black woman should read that book.
I wish society was at a place where we were comfortable with Black women’s hair in a wet/nappy state because we lose so much by not being able to get it wet. That is one way I nurture my inner child now, allowing my hair follicles and strands to swim, sweat, and bathe with the rest of my body.-Zawadi
I have not always felt comfortable with or confident in my hair. I have fought her for a long time. I consider my thick 4c hair a blessing, but when you’re at a salon the hairstylist will likely think otherwise. Salons always upcharged my mother for the thickness of my hair and I still have up to 20 different stylists’ voices in my memory that echo the same complaints about the extra labor my hair required. I deeply internalized what other people, especially older Black women, thought of my hair.
Attending schools with a small black population was very striking for me in terms of hair culture. It was in these places where I became most aware of difference. Field trips to the pool or other bodies of water exposed the otherness of my hair and ultimately the otherness of my being because I could not swim either. Getting a press or blow out wet that my mother paid good money for was out of the question. I wish society was at a place where we were comfortable with Black women’s hair in a wet/nappy state because we lose so much by not being able to get it wet. That is one way I nurture my inner child now, allowing my hair follicles and strands to swim, sweat, and bathe with the rest of my body.
Box braids are my staple hairstyle. They’re a Black American classic and one of our greatest contributions to the diaspora. I love doing my own passion twists, they have a cool bohemian vibe. I love bantu knots that can transition into a good stretched out afro toward the end of their cycle and I love straight back cornrows. When my hair needs a break from styling I settle into a well hydrated fro.
I’ve been embracing my hair with no style as well. As stated before, we are not at the place as a society or community where I can walk outside with my hair in its nappiest and most shrunken state and be super confident or marveled at, in fact I am villainized and met with hostility more when I wear my hair in that state. I’m working on not caring though because that’s true freedom, no fear like Nina Simone said. I hate how hair like mine is depicted in the media, it’s really toxic and discouraging. I have so much admiration and love for Black folks who chose to let their hair lock in free from or remain in its afro state most of the time. As a performer and model who aims to break into the mainstream, I don’t feel like that’s feasible for me right now but after I make it there I’m definitely aiming to radicalize Black hair culture. I really love that Jay-Z and other Black men are beginning to embrace and find the beauty in the nappy. I want that for my femmes and non-binary people too.
I still am judged and discriminated against because of my hair. It’s all white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, whether I’m experiencing that energy from a white person or someone within my ethnic group. Although I use the hair grading system and consider my hair to be 4c, I know this system introduced vocabulary for hair discrimination, called texturism, that did not exist before.
I feel creatively and emotionally privileged to have tightly coiled hair because I can manipulate my hair to emulate essentially any other texture or style but no one with looser hair can mimic 4c hair. I consider it a flex!
I’m finally embracing and working with my hair, talking to her nicely, speaking love and life into her, and putting her health first. I didn’t get here until 22, it’s never too late! Naptural85 on YouTube was a groundbreaking resource for me as well as the book mentioned above by Marita Golden.
Changing the toxic nature of hair culture means a lot to me not only as a Black woman with 4c hair that has struggled with self-esteem and identity issues but as a Black feminist. Hair culture and beauty culture at large is killing Black women, most notably those with darker skin and coarser textures. As a community of concerned people I hope we can overcome the colorism and texturism present in algorithms by first educating ourselves and then actively thinking about the images we choose to uplift and share online. I’m ambitious and hopeful to live in a world where physical appearance is completely depolarized, where we can show up and show love to our organic selves. Peace and hair grease.