As an institution established on Christian principles Faith Christian Academy has a particular responsibility to encourage their students toward faithful behavior which includes embracing diversity. In this day and age diversity goes beyond the color of someone’s skin and reaches down to the particular cultural practices of the person, which, as we have witnessed in the last few years, includes the different hairstyles that evolve from the culture. Significant to this understanding is teaching young boys and girls that most black children don’t come into this world with straight hair and their hair, in its natural state, ranges from being straight to being tightly curled. Unfortunately all some children know is the so-called normativity of straight hair without knowing that there is usually a high price that little black girls pay to get that straight hair like her white female counterparts. The decision of a young black girl to wear her hair in its natural state isn’t one that should be held against her, not by a playground bullies or school administration. But in order for this to become the new normative—sad to say this—it must be taught to children at an early age that the world around them isn’t going to be full of people with straight hair. Maybe teachers should take a page from Jane Elliot’s Blue Eye/Brown Eye exercise except instead of dividing the classes into a blue eyed, black eyed group they are separated into Straight Hair/Natural Black Hair groups to allow children to experience what it feels like when someone bases their discrimination and disdain for you on external characteristics. But beyond trying to teach bullies a lesson through social experiments, the children need to be taught that making fun of a little black girl because of her hair is to make fun of the wondrous way in which God created her. This should be Faith Christian Academy’s concern, that the children who are making fun of and bullying VanDyke are making fun of God’s design. The school’s handling of this situation positions them as bullies on a number of counts–according to their bullying policy:
“Bullying can be direct or indirect, blatant or subtle, and it involves an imbalance of power, repeated actions, and intentional behavior.
Bullying is cutting someone off from essential relationships.
Bullying includes isolating the victim by making them feel rejected by his/her community.”
There is an imbalance of power at play with FCA currently threatening VanDyke with expulsion unless she cuts and shapes her hair–they have the upper hand and she has nothing to do but be subordinate. FCA is cutting VanDyke off from the essential relationships with friends she’s had she since starting at FCA in third grade. FCA is isolating her by threatening expulsion and making her feel rejected by both the school administration and students all because of her hair. It seems clear that the school is not practicing what it preaches to its student about the “Golden Rule,” “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Because surely if the school was practicing what it preaches and really being concerned about “avoiding practices which cause the loss of sensitivity to the spiritual needs of the world and which have an adverse effect on the physical, mental, and spiritual well being of Christian students” VanDyke could not and should not be moved. FCA has made Vanessa VanDyke’s hair a distraction and now they are trying to force her to change it—read conform her hair to their standards. But maybe VanDyke has a particular responsibility in this situation.
Do we protest too much when a situation such as this could be remedied with a ponytail, a bun, a French braid, etc? VanDyke’s hair is beautiful and she should be free to wear it as she pleases, but in exercising freedom to wear her hair as she pleases, is she still accountable to others? Yes, the other kids making fun of her need to be sat down and taught a lesson. And she shouldn’t be penalized by the administration for the way she way she wears her hair. But is there some particular course of action she must take beyond fighting to wear her hair as she pleases? The one thing that I can’t shake is the possible vanity of this situation. What does it mean to fight for the right to wear your hair is big as you please at the expense of other things? Maybe there are other ways that her hair could be worn. I know that many would argue that this is conceding to the politics of respectability, but we should question what it is we do with the freedom of expression we have. In this case, it is one little girl’s freedom to wear her hair as she pleases but should that trump everything else? FCA bears the brunt of this situation and the school administration must understand what it means to categorize a child’s hair as a distraction over say bullying, but I don’t want to miss an opportunity to discuss what a fight for individual freedom of expression costs and whether that cost is always worth it.
Not many people outside of the diaspora understand how connected black people are to their hair, even when we’d rather not be connected to it. We struggle with our hair but for many—present company included—the moment we go natural we discover what a great gift God has given us in this hair. One head of natural hair presents many possibilities for a little black girl or an adult black woman. It can be worn in a big blown-out ‘fro, a teeny-weeny ‘fro, a twist out, a braid out, in braids or in twists, wavy, or pressed straight. That isn’t even a comprehensive list of the possibilities that reveal themselves for natural girls and women. Suffice to say that to go natural is to be faithful stewards of what God has given us as God has given it to us. But I’m also fearful of what it means when that hair begins to eclipse other parts of our lives. When we become obsessed about our hair to the detriment of other parts of our lives and we are willing to sacrifice things for it. VanDyke’s hair is glorious but at what point does the fight for it become vainglorious? To be clear (again), FCA is losing this battle because all eyes are on them as the umpteenth school to use a child’s hair as grounds from suspension or expulsion. But as we continue to see more and more cases of children being sent home for wearing their natural hair in a particular way, what can we do about it? What is the executive decision that parents must make about their children’s hair? How do we negotiate full self-expression in the midst of the dominant culture that remains disinterested in it, without sacrificing things that are significant—in VanDyke’s case it is access to quality education at a private institution? As you can see, there is no simple answer to this. VanDyke will be damned if she does change her hair because many will think she sold out and she will be damned if she doesn’t change it because she might be expelled. To conclude this and say we must learn to pick our battles may show a sign of defeat, but maybe, just maybe, we have to sacrifice some things for a short time just to get where we need to be. For FCA this means stepping off of their “hair as a distraction” soapbox in order to allow a little girl to continue to grow and thrive and for VanDyke it may be that every now and then, she pulls that beautiful hair back into a still beautiful bun or ponytail or alternatively beautiful style.
But what do you think? Doth the school protest too much about her hair or doth she protest too much about her hair? This is what her and her family will be deliberating on this Thanksgiving. We give thanks for hair, but do we give up things for it too? Weigh in with your thoughts.
WE’RE TALKING ABOUT HAIR?: Olympian Gabby Douglas was the first African American to win a gold medal in the all-around gymnastics category, but some people were more interested in her hairstyle. (Photo: Bob Daemmrich/Newscom)
What do Oprah Winfrey and Gabby Douglas have in common besides being hardworking African American females, and history-making ones to boot? Well, as you’ve probably heard by now, both came under fire last week because of issues with — wait for it — their hair.
It is no secret that within black culture hair is a pretty big deal — especially for women. Whether it’s one’s hairstyle or method of hair care, there is no shortage of opinions regarding the subject. Black women of all shades undoubtedly can say that at one point in their lives the status of their tresses has been a hot topic of conversation — and frustration.
Last week, when Oprah released a tease for the September issue of her O Magazine, where she graced the cover donning an all-new natural ’do, the chatter began immediately. In the article, O contributor Ruven Afanador said, “For the first time ever, Oprah’s appearing on the cover of O without blow-drying or straightening her hair.” Afanador writes that Winfrey enjoys wearing her hair naturally, because it makes her feel unencumbered.
But not everyone agreed that Oprah’s hair was legitimately “natural.” A controversy emerged in social media about what actually constitutes “natural,” because for some the remnant of any past chemical treatment means it’s not truly natural. Oprah needs to stop lying to herself, the detractors declared.
Soon after that, reports started circulating about criticisms of U.S. Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas’s hair, that some black women didn’t like the ponytail or how she uses a gel to grease it back.
But why all the hubbub? What is it about black women’s hair that is deemed so worthy of scrutiny by other black women? It’s been said that a woman’s hair is her glory (1 Cor. 11:15), and if that is the case then why is the personal choice of her having a natural hairdo versus a relaxer so controversial?
Evan Miles, a writer for Journey Magazine, sought to unearth the societal implications associated with black hair and the roots to African American history and culture in his provocatively titled article,“Is a Black Woman’s Hair Her Glory or Gloom?”
Miles believes that for centuries, African Americans have been stripped of their heritage and forced to comply with a European cultural worldview that encouraged a new standard of beauty. According to him, “This meant taking the very essence of their being and denouncing it.” This is why Miles believes, perhaps more than ever, why black women are so adamant about regaining ownership of their hair and their own personal identities. According to him, black women’s various hairstyles “exude confidence” and self-beauty. He believes that it’s not only what is on the outside that matters, but also what lies deep within.
GOLDEN GIRL: Douglas waves to fans at the London Games following her gold-medal victory. “What’s wrong with my hair?” she said after hearing the criticism. “It can be bald or short, it doesn’t matter.” (Photo: Brian Peterson/Newscom)
So if beauty is only skin deep, and what is inside your head is of more importance than what is on top, why is someone like Gabby Douglas included in this debate? After the social media storm debating Douglas’ choice in hairstyle surfaced last week, the 16-year-old gymnast remarked that she was confused by the commotion. “I don’t know where this is coming from. What’s wrong with my hair?” she said. “I’m like, ‘I just made history and people are focused on my hair?’ ”
And Gabby, of course, is right. Why is it so easy for us to lose focus when it comes to black hair?
Reading the many stories in the press this past week got me to thinking again about this complicated subject that is a black woman’s hair. In my quest for understanding, I began reflecting on my own personal journey with hair — the ups and downs, the highs and lows, and the path to self-discovery and self-esteem.
In my 26 years of life, my identity with relation to my hair has seen many twists and curls. Like many black women, I once sustained my silky strands by way of a relaxer. Four years ago, however, I decided to forgo that method to go “natural.” My hairstyles over the course of my lifetime have been a diverse extension of who I am and a direct correlation of my personality. Being natural for me has been less about a healthy head of hair or making a statement, and more about learning to redefine my own personal standard of beauty.
Granted it takes longer for me to achieve my desired look each morning, because of all the deep conditioning and blow-drying that I do, but I wouldn’t trade that diversity for the world. I love my hair and appreciate the fact that I can be different while being a reflection of God’s diverse creation. I’ve got an eccentric personality, and like my shoe or handbag collection my hairstyle is an extension of who I am as a person.
I feel like India.Arie said it best in her song “I Am Not My Hair,” when she sang:
“I am not my hair/ I am not this skin/ I am not your expectations/ I am not my hair I am not this skin/ I am a soul that lives within.” Our hair, India reminds us, does not define us. It does not make us a better person or friend, and it does not determine who we are at the end of the day.
God created us in his very image, and he does not make mistakes. Instead of questioning his handiwork, we ought to embrace our unique style and diversity. So if rocking a weave or slappin’ a perm in your hair or wearing your hair natural is what makes you happy at the end of the day, then by all means love yourself and do you!
I lay the flat iron down next to the sink, and when I lean in close, I see the gray is creeping up again. I wonder if I should do something about it, thinking of all the ways I’ve worn my hair through the years, how my hair tells the story of my life.
My earliest memories include collard greens and thick cut bacon and sitting on the floor between my mother’s legs — or my cousin’s or aunt’s legs — as she sat on the couch or on the glider on my grandmother’s porch and worked the comb through my hair.
Whoever got the honor of trying to get me to sit still that day would spread a glob of hair grease on the back of her hand. She’d part my hair and with her index finger, run a line of hair grease down that part, pulling my hair tight into cornrows, or just three braids. Or four. It was years before I knew the white girls didn’t use hair grease and that it was best to keep that information to myself.
Eventually, I started getting my hair pressed. I don’t know how that started or why, but I’d sit in a kitchen chair while my mom heated up the comb on the red-hot eye of the stove. At least an hour passed getting my hair to go from natural to straight while hair grease sizzled and smoke rose up to meet the ceiling before slipping out the window into the air outside. The first time I told a White girl I don’t wash my hair every day — or even every week, for that matter — I thought she’d fall right over. So I stopped telling people that, too.
One year on summer break from elementary school, I let my hair go. Wore it just the way God made it. And when my mother took me with her to visit at a nursing home, the woman in the corner asked my mother about her son. My mother doesn’t have a son. And my hair was soon forced back into compliance.
In middle school, my mother took me to Mrs. Spicer’s house, where a hair salon was set up in the basement. I guess Mom decided it would be easier on everyone to pay someone else to press my hair instead of fighting with the hot comb in the kitchen on a Saturday afternoon. So, twice a month after school, I’d get dropped off for the washing and the drying and the combing out and the pressing, and I was lucky if I got out of there without having my scalp burned at least once.
Eventually, we caved in to the chemicals that mark the point of almost-no-return, and relaxers became the order of the day. I would keep my hands away from my scalp on the day I knew I’d be getting a touch-up, a necessary precaution to keep the lye from burning my scalp. For years, I treated my hair this way because it was easier to wear my hair straight than to deal with the people who wanted to know things like, “Can I touch it?” or “Do you use a pick for that?” or “Does your hair even get wet when it’s like that?” or “Can you hide things in there?”
In my thirties, I let my hair go again. And it was good. It was very good, and I wore it like that for years. When I finally changed it, it was because I wanted to and not because of the questions or the fears. I just wanted Halle Berry’s haircut for a change.
I keep staring at my reflection and the gray that’s creeping back, and I think it might be time to let it go again and wear it just the way God made it.
This essay originally appeared at The High Calling, an online magazine about work, life, and God. It is reprinted here by permission.
As if chemical relaxer burns, alopecia, and unnecessary poverty from the staggering cost of sew-ins and lace fronts wasn’t enough, our hair has found another way to potentially kill us.
U.S. Surgeon General Regina M. Benjamin, who is black and no stranger to black women’s hair concerns, issued a warning last month against the common excuse of skipping exercise to preserve a hairstyle. According to the New York Times, Dr. Benjamin’s remarks to Bronner Bros. International Hair Show attendees aligned with a 2008 study where a third of the women cited their hair as a reason they exercised less often.
“For shame,” I’d like to say, but I’m just as guilty — maybe even more so because my hair is chemically relaxed. I’m in no danger of the regression from straight to curly to kinky that happens when moisture strikes pressed natural hair. I can identify, however, with the sinking feeling brought on by rain when I’ve just dropped $50, $75 or $100 (or more) to get my hair done. And, in case you didn’t know, weaves and wigs aren’t exactly waterproof nor are they cheap. Given the investment, I absolutely think twice before willfully dismantling a style through sweat from a vigorous workout.
Biblically, our hair is our glory, our individual object of pride. When Mary anoints the feet of Jesus and then washes them with her hair, the symbolism of the act of sacrifice is as much about the cost of the oil as the fact that she willingly sullied her hair to honor the Lord. Then and now, regardless of whether we grow ’em or buy ’em, we hold our tresses in high regard. We capitalize on our locks’ ability to influence the jobs we’re offered, determine how we’re treated and even how we’re admired. Ignoring the historical and social context of black women’s hair makes it easy to ridicule the expense of it all and downplay its significance.
But our hair is not as significant as we make it, particularly if we allow it to compromise our bodies so dramatically. Our hair was meant as a covering, not a cross to bear.
Exercise isn’t just for overweight people, and those who don’t engage risk more than obesity but also hypertension, higher levels of bad cholesterol, poor sleep, and increased fatigue. Beyond that, if it’s our desire to positively participate in a movement of God with a broad impact on the world around us, physical health must trump physical beauty, even as the two coexist.
Whether well coiffed or not, we still exist for a greater purpose that we can’t be ready to fulfill if we’re falling apart. We can’t be spiritually strong if we’re physically worn down.
As good stewards of the bodies God gave us — that still belong to Him — we have a responsibility to maintain ourselves as much as possible to fulfill our individual callings. And if that means exercise at the price of a few bad hair days, then so be it. Just keep the flat iron ready for after the workout.
Renowned visual artist Mickalene Thomas has taken over the fifth-floor gallery space of the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) with her show “Femmes Noires.” Working with curator Julie Crooks, it is the first time the Brooklyn-based artist has staged an exhibition in Canada — and it is only the second time the AGO has exhibited the work of a Black woman artist.
Thomas’s exhibit is a powerful and extraordinary contemplation on the intersections of being both Black and a woman. Thomas takes inspiration from multiple art forms, movements, and histories, like Impressionism, and focuses on issues such as race, representation, sexuality, and Black celebrity culture.
As a Black woman, it is the first time I have ever walked the floors of the AGO and have seen myself reflected back at me. However, something for Canadians like myself to note is that Thomas’s visioning of Black womanhood is from an American point of view.
(The last solo exhibition by a Black woman at the AGO took place in 2010 — “This You Call Civilization?” featuring the work of Kenyan-born, New York-based Wangechi Mutu.)
For example, one of the reasons why Black beauty culture has not received much attention in Canada until now is because the task of locating Black voices in the Canadian historical record has been and remains a difficult challenge. Across the border, there are archival collections dedicated to African Americans, such as the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City, but we don’t have anything like this in Canada.
Media circulates African American experiences
When I started researching Black beauty in Canada, most people were shocked there was enough material for me to write about in a book. The assumption was that the topic would have to focus squarely on African-American women.
For decades, Canadian cultural institutions have consumed African-American desires and fantasies as stand-ins for Black Canada. As a result, Black Canadian representations in popular culture have been rendered invisible.
Throughout the 20th century, cultural and economic practices were co-produced through the circulation of “African-Americanness” through media. From African-American TV shows in the 1970s, films in the 1980s and beyond, Canadians probably know more about the African-American experience than they do about Black Canadians because of media culture.
Canada’s media culture has participated in the creation of identities that privileged African-American images, products, and ideologies. These identities originally crossed the U.S./Canada border as desires and fantasies represented in advertising and, later, television and film, and today, art.
Black Canadian women are here
When Trey Anthony’s ’da Kink in My Hair TV series appeared from 2007-09 (based on the play of the same name), it was the first comedy series created by and starring Black women on Canadian national television. The broadcast of ’da Kink in My Hair happened nearly 40 years after Julia (1968–71) in which Diahann Carroll became the first African American woman to star on a U.S. sitcom in a non-stereotypical role. The representation gap between African American women and Black women in Canada spans decades.
To make up for some of this historical invisibility, this month and throughout the winter, the AGO’s “In the Living Room” series will feature Black Canadian women engaging with Thomas’s art and discussing their experiences.
Each talk will be set in the Femme Noires’ living room space, which is modeled after Thomas’s childhood home growing up in New Jersey. The patchwork chairs and books from African-American women authors become the art installation. Visitors are called to engage intimately with the paintings, installations, and videos on the walls but also the productive space, the living room, that birthed Thomas’s art in the first place.
While I can say much about the differences between Black Canadian experiences and African-American ones, there are universal Black beauty experiences that unite all women of African descent. For example, one of these experiences is the caring for and discussions around Black hair. Some of these public conversations are hurtful to many Black women.
On the one hand, our hair is connected to many painful childhood memories of being teased by other children (and sometimes adults) about our various braided hairstyles. On the other hand, natural hairstyles like Afros, dreadlocks or cornrows (tightly braided rows of hair) might denote a Black woman’s politics, but they can also be just a hairstyle or her preference, with no political meaning whatsoever.
Black hair is constantly debated, politicized and misrepresented in media, art, and popular culture. A simple decision about wearing it natural or straightened could result in punitive action — not in America, but right here in Canada. This was the case for a waitress-in-training who lost her job at Jack Astor’s because she wore her hair in a bun, and not “down” as required by female wait staff while working at the restaurant.
Black hair stories resonate with Black Canadian women, too. But resonance is not the same as representation.
Why have Black Canadian women artists not been given the same opportunity to exhibit their work as solo artists in Canada? This question about Black Canadian artists and how Black art has been represented and circulated has become prominent in Canadian media lately.
Curator Ashley McKenzie-Barnes wrote an article for the Toronto Star, and argued that Canadian art fairs, public art installations, festivals, major institutions, and galleries need to make space for Black Canadian artists. She is right. We’re doing the work — now we need the space to get recognized for it.