In the United States of America, Black hair is so often seen through a white lens.
Several highly publicized incidents over the past few years have shown the extent of the problem: There was Andrew Johnson, the high school wrestler forced to cut his locs before competing in a match; there was Sally Hazelgrove, a white woman running a nonprofit organization for at-risk youth who celebrated cutting young men’s locs for a “better life”; there have been innumerable cases of Black people — Black women, mostly — whose hairstyles were rebuked in the workplace.
In incidents like these, the bigotry is twofold. There is the bigotry of discrimination: not being allowed to work somewhere, model in a certain fashion show or anchor a specific news broadcast because of one’s hair. (It’s a problem so systemic that three states — New York, New Jersey and California — all issued bans outlawing discrimination against Black hair in workplaces, at schools and in public spaces.) But then there is also the bigotry of having to seek approval in the first place. Black hair deserves to be defined by more than its fiercest critics.
With that in mind, we created Black Hair Defined, a project intended to amplify Black discussions about Black hair.
Black hair is an artistic form of expression, sometimes conveying what Black people wish to share about ourselves — neatness, messiness, nakedness, cultural pride, personal independence and all sorts of other feelings. And the time we spend treating our hair and heads — combing, coiffing and massaging them to our liking ― is an expression of the care and sensitivity we feel we deserve.
In “Hair Love,” the animated, Oscar-nominated short film about a Black father discovering how to style his daughter’s hair, filmmaker Matthew Cherry depicts the hair care experience as tender and intimate. In the film, we see a father, Stephen, and his daughter, Zuri, bonding over Zuri’s love for her locks. It is Zuri’s exuberant self-love that ultimately convinces her father her hair is not to be feared.
“Our hair is an extension of ourselves,” Cherry said. “And the cool thing about this story is that it really represents pure love: what we’re willing to do for the people we love even when they ask us to do something we don’t know how to do.”
To that point, scholars and academic institutions are beginning to pay closer attention to Black hair as an experience — a way to show self-love or our love for others — rather than an object to be ogled.
“When we talk about Black aesthetics, we’re usually talking about the production of art, literature, theater and these sorts of things,” Duke University historian Jasmine Cobb told HuffPost.
Cobb is an expert in media depictions of Black people throughout history, and her forthcoming book focuses on the art and texture of Black hair after emancipation.
“But we shouldn’t limit the discussion of Black aesthetics to productions apart from the human body,” she said. “What Black people do with hair — not just the styling of it, but the care for it — is also a question of Black aesthetics.”
Cobb’s work and Black Hair Defined share a spirit: a desire to explore the ways and reasons Black people care for our hair as we do. Yes, sometimes we make these choices with the oppressive world in mind, but at other times our hair choices, the hair journeys we travel, are more self-driven.
“We shouldn’t think that the terribleness we know about slavery obliterated opportunities for aesthetic practice among Black people,” she said.
Cobb’s scholarship argues that enslaved Black people developed hair habits and traditions of their own, even under the thumb of oppression: “Even in slavery, a hair story is also a self-invention story in the face of oppression.”
Black Hair Defined is a multimedia experience designed to celebrate those stories of self-invention. Dozens of creators have lent their hands to these photos, videos and articles that explore the variety in Black hairstyles, the traditions that surround them, and the products we use to create them. Through this work, we invite you to feel the essence of Black hair without having to touch it.
Our first feature ― the “Digital Hair Museum” ― celebrates famous Black hairstyles and the people who rock them proudly today.
We’re looking for your stories about Black hair. What does your hair mean to you? Share your stories, photos and videos by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, we may use them in a future HuffPost story.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this introduction misattributed a quote to Frederick Douglass.