Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead book cover

Dear Zora,

This is how you learn to love your hair in a world that requires such lessons. First, you remember who gave you that glorious head of curls–your parents, your ancestors, your Creator. Then, you care for it like a treasured inheritance.

Loving your hair, like loving your family, your days, your life, requires two things: reverence and effort. To truly love your hair, you must hold it in high regard and you must behave like you do. As you behold it in a mirror or touch its willful strands, you must pause to consider what it does for you and to define what it means to you. Then you must treat it accordingly.

You’re not yet three years old, so this whole discussion may be a bit premature, but not by much. Your hair is cornrowed into a side ponytail today. You wear it that way because I’m calling the styles and long ago adopted a no heat, no chemicals, no fake hair policy for us both.

There’s no peer pressure for you to wear it any other way yet. Most of your friends rock afro puffs, box braids and two-strand twists. But you can look to their mothers’ relaxed and pressed styles for a preview of what’s to come. There comes a day when many moms of daughters with hair like yours reach for hot combs, flat irons and chemicals to “tame” kinky tresses. And when they do, I expect you’ll notice the difference and have some questions for me. Mommy, why doesn’t my hair blow in the wind? Why can’t I run my fingers through it? Why does it get curlier when wet and frizzier in the sun?

The decision to straighten or not is a personal one, albeit one loaded with social, cultural and economic significance for black people. From the moment slaveholders shaved off the elaborate hairstyles of their African captives, hairstyles have mirrored our rocky rise from anonymous chattel to distinctive humanity. To this day, hair is impossibly tangled up in issues of black identity and social acceptability. Just look at the debate raging over the U.S. military’s new grooming guidelines’ bias against black hair, which tends to grow out, not down.

I want to raise you to love your hair in its natural state so that dying it, relaxing it or not will truly be a choice for you. Some women say that they straighten their hair for fashion or convenience, but many are deluding themselves. They are crushing the natural texture of their hair because they were taught to hate kinky hair or never learned how to love or take care of it. They are relaxing, weaving and wigging their hair because in the twisted skin-shade, hair-texture hierarchies of American history, straight hair sometimes affords economic and social advantage. (See my review of Hair Story for more on that.)

I am committed to teaching you this to fortify you against the crazy you will undoubtedly encounter. Soon you’ll observe women who don’t swim or work out because they want to keep their hairstyles intact. You’ll see some who will chemically process their hair to the point of baldness rather than embrace their God-given hair texture. You’ll notice others who would rather sport expensive wigs and weaves than take the time and do the research to nurture their own locks.

As you get older, others will look upon your natural hair and start jumping to conclusions about your class, your potential, your politics. I know because these same people see my afro puff and label me “militant” and worse. (Note: The labels say more about them than about me. Like Whitman, I contain multitudes.)

Avoid their prejudice and make sure your natural hair love is never reduced to straightened-hair hate. Not every naturalista is empowered and not every relaxer is rooted in shame.

When you are old enough to choose your own hair styles, may they reflect great self-awareness, self-confidence and vision. Always remember who gave you that head of hair–your parents, your ancestors, your Creator. Then care for it like the inheritance it is.



This post was originally published on HilaryGrantDixon.com as the first in a series of guest contributions from black women reflecting on their hair experiences. Hilary is a gifted photographer and the author of “Maggie Sinclair, Will You Please Fix Your Hair?!” a debut picture book that every baby naturalista should have on her bookshelf.