The Next 400: Digging into the tangled roots of Black hair culture
Kent State University exhibit, “Textures: The History & Art of Black Hair,” showcases art and artifacts from all over the world
It’s a question many Black women have battled with, now for generations.
“Our bodies have always been regulated,” Dr. Tameka Ellington said. “After the abolishment of slavery, we were told once it was time for us to be employable; we were told that we had to straighten our hair; we were told we had to lighten our skin. Ever since the start of slavery, Black hair has been politicized and discriminated against.”
It’s a story that Ellington is all too familiar with.
For almost two decades, the Ph.D. professor has been researching Black hair, all the way back to when she was a master’s student at Michigan State University, writing scholarly essays, journals, book chapters and encyclopedia articles.
It’s her life’s work now realized in an exhibition at Kent State University Museum: “Textures: The History & Art of Black Hair.”
Ellington and Dr. Joseph Underwood co-curated the entire collection.
“It’s a story that hasn’t been told on these walls, I can tell you,” Dr. Underwood, Ph.D. professor at Kent State University, said in a sit down interview with Sia Nyorkor, 19 News anchor and multi-media journalist.
For five years, the two professors collaborated, designing and crafting what the exhibition would be, building the collection of more than 180 artifacts from about 50 artists all over the world.
“I wanted a creative way to be able to explain, you know, to people, what the Black culture was like and relevance to the hair. And I had been thinking about and dreaming about what an exhibition might be,” Ellington said.
“I am Chinese-American. I don’t have Black hair. And yet the story of it, how it has impacted society, how it impacts current politics, I’m part of that world,” Underwood said.
The history of Black hair is complicated, intricate, tangled and sometimes fragile.
It’s something that’s been talked about and debated, especially in the beauty salon.
The topic of Black hair has been covered over the years in pop culture, on the little and big screens.
But the portrayals haven’t always been to everyone’s liking, some saying the depictions lack depth and context, themes Ellington and Underwood strived to bring to the “Textures” exhibit.
“This is the largest exhibition on this topic and the first to really integrate fine art with material culture and artifacts,” Underwood said.
“We also wanted people to get a sense of the struggle that Black women have had in particular. You know, regarding their hair and the racism that they’ve dealt with, discrimination that they’ve dealt with. And we even go back to you know, topics of what was going on in antebellum slavery times,” Ellington said.
The subject of Black hair is one that’s very personal for me. Born here in America to West African immigrants, I struggled my entire life and career on how to wear my own hair: rock it straight or wear it in natural styles?
As a youngster, the decision was made for me.
I got my first hair relaxer at just 9 years old and watched over the years as my hair got shorter and thinner because of the chemicals.
My hair fell out multiple times over the years, and yet I still wanted it straightened.
Finally in 2011, I went natural: no more hair relaxers.
For more than two years, I wore my hair in sew-in weaves and extensions, hiding my own hair.
When I went to do the “Big Chop” in 2014, I found I didn’t have to. All my relaxed hair had grown out, leaving me with a thick head full of hair that swirled around my shoulders. My hair had never been that healthy, ever!
However, because of the outdated and stringent rules in television news, I kept my natural locks hidden under wigs.
In order to succeed, I felt I had to follow the guidelines for moving up in the broadcast business: sleek and straight hair.
In 2018, I decided I was tired of hiding my crown and made the decision to wear my natural hair on-air.
Risking it all, I did not ask for permission, I just did it.
To my surprise and delight, my managers and the television viewers embraced and celebrated it.
In 2019, CBS News profiled me and some of the other Black women working in television wearing our natural hair on-air.
We went viral after snapping this photo at the 2019 National Association of Black Journalists convention in Miami.
I had relaxed. I had straightened. I had covered, worn wigs, weaves, extensions and I just didn’t feel like it anymore.
With more ethnic and natural hairstyles represented in the media today, some feel things are moving in the right direction. But there’s still work to be done to prevent hair discrimination.
“Today in regards to Black hair, we’re in almost kind of like this tangled web,” Ellington said. “Black women are wearing their hair both in natural styles as well as in straightened styles. About 60% of Black women still wear their hair straight, and about 40% of Black women wear their hair in its natural state. We are still in a place where Black people are being discriminated against.”
Which is why lawmakers pushed for The CROWN Act: Create A Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair.
The legislation was drafted and sponsored by California State Senator Holly Mitchell in 2019 to ensure protection against against discrimination-based on race-based hairstyles by extending statutory protection to hair texture and protective styles such as braids, locs, twists and knots in the workplace and public schools.
The CROWN Act passed unanimously in both chambers of the California legislature and became law on July 3, 2019.
Now, about a dozen states, including California, New York, Connecticut, Virginia, Nevada, Washington and Colorado, have all passed the CROWN Act.
Several other states have considered it but have not been successful in passing, including Ohio.
House Bill 535 was introduced in March 2020 by Representatives Juanita Brent (D-Cleveland) and Paula Hicks-Hudson (D-Toledo).
“Implementing policies that normalize acceptance of our differences, that make us all unique,” Hicks-Hudson said of her support for the CROWN Act.
“I believe the CROWN Act is a continuation of our caucus showing not only that we work for you, but also protecting your rights here in Ohio from head to toe,” she added.
The bill expired, but legislators told 19 News they plan to re-introduce it in 2022 and eventually pass it into law.
Research by Dove reveals:
- 63% of Black adults have faced hair discrimination.
- 25% of Black adults have been sent home from work or faced disciplinary action as a result of wearing their hair in a natural or protected style.
- 58% of Black adults say that hair discrimination has impacted their ability to advance at work.
Numerous cases of hair discrimination against Black people have made headlines in recent years and these are just the incidents that have attracted social media attention and were reported in the news.
The most recent case is out of San Diego, Calif.
Jeffrey Thornton, an African-American man, is suing his former employer, alleging that the company denied him a job because he refused to cut off his locs.
Jeffrey Thornton’s case is the first time someone has accused an employer of violating California’s The CROWN Act since it became law in 2020.
“At its core, the CROWN Act is really about challenging what it looks like and what it means to be neat and professional and groomed in workplace environments right? With this law and this case, what you might hear argued, especially in Jeffrey’s case, what does the length of my hair, his hair, have to do with his ability to do the job, perform the job duties at hand?” said reporter, Kristopher Brooks in a CBSN discussion.
Black hair is still marginalized.
As the “Textures” exhibit continues to inspire conversations about Black hair culture, many are hopeful about changing the narrative for generations to come.
“It was important for us to do this show, because we wanted to create a better understanding of Black culture of Black hair, of the significance of what Black hair means to the culture. And the reason why we wanted to do that, was it was really important for me as a Black woman to try to contribute to the deconstruction of discrimination. And so I’m hoping that “Textures” will be able to give people a little bit of a sense of the humanity of Black beauty,” Ellington said.
“Textures: The History and Art of Black Hair” runs through Aug. 2022 at Kent State University Museum. A book co-authored by Dr. Ellington and Dr. Underwood can be purchased here.
The special includes a roundtable discussion about the CROWN Act with some of the ladies of 19 News.
Hair is deeply personal and we want to hear about your experiences.
Let’s talk about it online. Use the hashtag #19NewsTextures on social media to join the conversations.
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