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Arts & Culture

Youth Radio: A Reflection On Black Women's Hair

2016 Summer Reporting Intern Natasha Graham, 18, talks about the history and appropriation of black hairstyles in mainstream media.
2016 Summer Reporting Intern Natasha Graham, 18, talks about the history and appropriation of black hairstyles in mainstream media.

This story is part of WUNC's 2016 Youth Reporting Institute, an annual summer program that teaches young people how to tell stories about their community in their own voice.

Meet: Natasha Graham
Age: 18

For generations, black women in America have permed, straightened and altered their hair in order to be presentable in the world we live and live up to white beauty standard.

"Growing up seeing on TV all these girls have this flawless hair," said stylist Brandie Dunn. "I was like 'I want that. I wanna be where you are. I want what you have. It was straight, it was flowing, and here you go my hair, BOOM poofy afro'."

As a teenager, Dunn worked against her hair’s natural texture in order to look like those girls on TV. She used chemicals and heat.

"I didn't like my hair bone, bone straight like I don't like hair flat to my head even then," Dunn said.

Not only is it a lot of effort, but making your hair look white causes a lot of damage. When she was 18, she decided to make a change.

"I took a shower, wet my hair, took some of those big orange paper cutting scissors, those craft scissors, and… my hair was, like, super super short," Dunn said.

What Dunn did is known as the "big chop." It’s where you cut off the damaged hair and start fresh.

This marked the first step that some black women take on the journey of going natural.

A movement to keep black hair natural

Itohan Obasuyi, the owner of Nubian Natural hair gallery in Durham, believes strongly in keeping hair natural. So at her shop, she refuses to chemically alter black women’s hair.

"No I do not offer perm services at my salon," Obasuyi said. "This is a natural hair salon. At Nubian Natural Hair, we believe in providing services that support the black family in being their authentic self."

On a recent visit, Obasuyi crocheted a client's hair. This involves weaving hair in braids.

Traditional African hairstyles like these are making a comeback, as forms of expression and ways to keep natural hair healthy. These include twist outs, cornrows and bantu knots.

"If you pay attention to Egyptian  would notice we wore braids," Obasuyi said. "We've always used that as a form of self expression."

Obasuyi added: "We are unique in a way that our hair is so versatile as black people. I don't think anybody else, any other race, can do as much with their hair as we can with our hair. It's just so amazing to me. From locks to free bouncey afros and it's just...beautiful, awesome, awesome thing."

I love my hair-and I'm not the only one. I recently saw an article in Vogue magazine that had white models wearing bantu knots, or mini buns as they called them. This is uncool on so levels.  

These styles were created by black people and for me, as a young black women, this example of appropriation makes me feel like someone is slowly plucking each individual hair from my head and taking away another aspect of who I am.

Obasuyi believes these hairstyles are major parts of black expression, that need to be kept within the culture.

"You can admire that, and I have no problems with you admiring that, I have no problems with you...acknowledging that," Obasuyi said. "But you have to respect it and know that your place is just that -- to admire it. Certain things are very sacred...Why is it that our culture can not be sacred and we have to let everybody in, and everybody has to demand to come in and bulldoze their way into our culture?"

My natural hair is a very important part of who I am. I will never change it for a job, a group, or for anyone else because I love it, and because it is me.

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