African-American Women Discuss Embracing Their Natural Hair

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Gabby Gouglas hair photo

Gabby Douglas was criticized for her natural hair

The debate over Olympic gold medal gymnast Gabby Douglas’ hair shouldn’t come as a surprise. The controversy surrounding her ’do, which some detractors thought was poorly-styled, speaks to how passionate the topic and imagery of black hair has historically been within the culture.

The debate over Douglas’ ponytail certainly got more ink because of the Olympics, but at the same time, social media sites were debating Oprah Winfrey’s decision to wear a natural hairstyle on the September cover of her magazine, O.

In Rochester and across the country, more African-American women — including powerhouses such as Xerox CEO Ursula Burns — have embraced “au naturale” hairstyles, abandoning more popular relaxed styles.

Once seen as an anti-assimilation declaration, “going natural,” or no longer chemically straightening one’s hair, is coming full circle as a less radical and increasingly popular trend among African-American women, who are embracing their naturally “kinky” or “tightly-curled” manes instead.

“Natural hair, to me, in a way, is a political stance,” says Delores Jackson Radney, co-owner of Kuumba Consultants, who has worn her hair without chemicals for more than 20 years. “It says that we can be beautiful in our natural state.”

Contrary to what many young Black girls think today, Radney believes there is nothing wrong with looking different from the European standard of beauty often emphasized in magazines and on television.

“Whether it’s my big lips or my nappy hair, I never thought any of that was negative,” she says. “Every way that we are is beautiful and attractive, and we need to accept that about ourselves.”

Traditionally, Black women have used a chemical cream called a permanent relaxer to physically change the wave patterns of their hair from curly-textured to straight. Another, less permanent, method of loosening tightly-curled hair is running a hot comb through it.

“Straightened hair became associated with freedom, civilized and professional, while kinky hair became associated with wild, uncivilized and bondage,” says Kijana Crawford, associate professor of sociology at Rochester Institute of Technology, about the historical significance of hairstyles in Black culture. “Relaxers and straighteners were often deemed necessary for Black women to get professional jobs in corporate America.”

The 1960s and ’70s ushered in a new movement for African-American hairstyles, one in which many Black women abandoned straightening procedures and wore their hair naturally in afros, cornrows, braids and, in later decades, dreadlocks.

“Many African-Americans began to use their hair to make political statements and to show their African ancestors and blackness through the diaspora,” Crawford says.

These Afrocentric styles fizzled out with the introduction of the Jheri curl in the ’80s and the popularity of hair extensions in the ’90s.

Rochester cosmetologist Joan Davis recalls a time, during the late 1960s, when she attended beauty school and natural Black hair was unfamiliar to those outside of the culture. She says, at the time, local beauty schools did not know anything about styling or treating African-American hair.

“They asked a Caucasian girl to wash my hair. When she did it, she was scared to death,” Davis says. “They were trying to understand African-American hair.”

Now, local cosmetology schools are taking the initiative to learn about Black hair care, especially Black hair in its natural state, Davis says. She also encourages Black women with relaxed hair to try transitioning to natural hair, because it is healthier than relaxers, weaves and braids, which, if used improperly, can cause chemical burns and damage to the scalp.

“There is versatility with natural hair,” she says. “You can wear it straight, you can wear an Afro and however else you want to wear it.”

In recent years, YouTube videos and Internet blogs have become a main source of information for many women considering the change, says Debora McDell-Hernandez, coordinator of community programs and outreach at the Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester. Hernandez, a Rochester native, cut off the relaxed portions of her hair last September, leaving a one-inch Afro, which has grown much longer since.

“There are some people who love it and think it looks absolutely great. There are times I get stares of disapproval,” Hernandez says. “You have to be confident in what you’re doing.”

Hernandez said she has experimented with relaxed and natural styles throughout her life and believes that, for her, her current hairstyle is a healthier choice, not necessarily a political one.

“Obviously, your hair is a part of your identity and plays a role in how people view you and how you view yourself, but I also think it’s beyond that,” she said. “I don’t think your identity is necessarily limited to how you choose to style your hair.”