ABOVE: Install of Permanent and Natural. All photos courtesy of the Carnegie Center.
Now is the Time to Reveal Your Crown: Reactions to Permanent and Natural
I see the portrait on social media first: a link shared by several friends. It is from a series by CreativeSoul Photography – Kahran and Regis Bethencourt – featuring little Black girls. Many of them stare directly into the camera with their shoulders squared and against a plain dark backdrop. They have their wrists, fingers, ears, and hair adorned with pearls as large as Christmas ornaments and rhinestones and metal bands and gold string. Children in regalia. Their hair is intricate and demands to be defined as a crown, to be exalted. I can feel the strength the girls draw from the power in their hair. To them, in that moment, it is not a burden or a mark placed against them by society.
I rarely felt that way at that age about my hair. I remember at least once a week sitting between my mother’s knees as she jerked tangles from my head with a hair pick; the thick smell of the hair grease she smeared through my hair before smoothing it back into a ponytail with a boar bristle brush and securing it with a glass ball-ball tie. Matching plastic barrettes for regular days of the week. Satin bows with faux pearls and lace that matched my ankle socks and the ruffle panties I wore under my dress for mass on Sundays. Yes, my hair was beautiful, but it was not a centerpiece. It was not a masterpiece of its own making. Instead, it was an act of submission. It obeyed to signal to White America that I would too. It was kempt. It was tamed. And it was my mother’s struggle until it became my own.
I longed to wear my hair loose on days other than school picture day. I wanted hair products like the white girls’ that smelled like apples. I wanted hair that I could imagine a boy someday coiling around his finger in admiration. I wanted hair that wasn’t described as “coarse” on the back of shampoo bottles. I wanted effortless. And I spent years learning to achieve the desired visual effect and even more time maintaining it. Mowing the lawn in the summer for money for chemical relaxers. Up hours before school, hair clamped around a curling iron; burnt smell in the air. Rain was my nemesis.
Then, in my twenties: the natural hair movement. Growing the relaxer out. Discovering my curls. Hair products meant for girls like me smelled like orchards, smelled like luxury. Boys who saw the magic in my hair. So many boys. Stiff smiles through comments from colleagues who liked my hair “better before.” Disregarding the purists of the movement who insisted I tuck away my flat iron forever and swear off heat always. Deciding to wear my hair the way I want to when I want to. To ignore the politics. Not that it’s always possible.
The next time I see the portrait, it’s on a postcard on my sister’s fridge. The little girl appraises me, lips relaxed, eyes to the side. Her ear is studded with a diamond, ruffle-y collar, and bow-tie at her throat, baby hairs gentle like the sea on a calm night and hair in an afro as full as young dreams. The portrait is now part of an exhibit at the Carnegie Center for Art and History, Permanent and Natural. My niece runs around the kitchen, her hair in golden, crinkly waves; unbrushed. It’s two months after the Crown Act – California’s law banning natural hairstyle discrimination – goes into effect. It’s the first of its kind in the nation. That same week, Virginia becomes the fourth state to implement the ban, and I hope Kentucky will be next. State representative Attica Scott has already introduced the bill, her own daughter having come up against a school dress code that targeted her hair, her culture, her pride in who she is. For so long, I thought the shame I had for my hair growing up pointed to a flaw within me. I didn’t see how that flaw was etched on me by bias in our society. That it would take actual legislation to give Black women the right to feel at home in our own head of hair. How far we’ve come from the Tignon Laws of the 1700s that directed Black women to cover their hair in public, conceal their crowns.
On opening night at the Carnegie, I stand in front of four portraits of little Black girls. Here we are together, finally all in one place. Just looking at their hair I can feel it between my fingertips. I can feel their power. There is music going and there are so many other people around, greeting each other, examining other pieces in the exhibit — all adults. And I think about little Black girls in my own city standing where I’m standing. I want them to feel this power too. To skip the years of using their hair to ask for permission to belong in classrooms, in workplaces, in works of art. To never know how just being will be their boldest act of rebellion.
I want them to make hair decisions that are a celebration. That praise of versatility. We’ve received an abundance of glory. We are endowed with the greatness of hair impervious to the era, society or laws of the land. Even when we must bow our heads, our crowns have never slipped.
Contributor to Ruckus
Sophisticated Soul (2017), Chrystal archival print.
The Future is Now (2019), Chrystal archival print.
AfroEarth (2016), Chrystal archival print
Glory (2019), Chrystal archival print
Girl with the Pearls (2017), Chrystal archival print.