Inside the Festival Celebrating Black Women's Natural Hair
I was in fifth grade when my mother gave me my first chemical hair relaxer. Every Sunday she’d turn our kitchen into a DIY beauty salon and run a stove-heated hot comb through my hair. This would take hours, and my thick coils would regularly snap “unbreakable” combs in two, so I can’t even blame her for turning to chemicals that promised manageability.
But that was when I started thinking of my thick curls as something that needed to be managed — which I did until 2006 at age 21 when I decided, like a growing number of Black women, to grow out my relaxer and embrace my natural curls.
Solange Knowles’ iconic big chop, Beyoncé singing about her daughter’s afro hair, and natural hair products lining the shelves at my local Target were all still years away. I would have given anything for a community of Black women to help me nourish my thirsty roots and feel less alone in my natural hair journey.
Four years later, a group of newly-natural girlfriends started the Curly Girl Collective, a mission-driven meetup to help women with natural hair feel beautiful and celebrated. Their annual gathering, CurlFest, takes place in New York City and brings thousands of naturals from all over the world to connect, grow, and most importantly, feel seen.
Black women are more likely than their white counterparts to express themselves through their hair, according to an InStyle survey of American women in 2018, and that spirit of bold self-expression was on display at CurlFest 2019, on Sunday, July 27th at Randall’s Island. But the importance for many Black women wearing their natural hair goes beyond expression to something weightier, and that was in the air on Sunday, too.
Again and again, our hair is policed and regulated. Earlier this year, Andrew Johnson, a Black student wrestler in New Jersey, was told by a white referee that he’d have to cut off his dreadlocks mid match or forfeit. Rather than force his mostly-white team to take the loss, he obliged. A white woman hacked off his dreadlocks with scissors as Johnson stood courtside with tears in his eyes. White teachers, parents, and coaches looked on without protesting on his behalf. Maya and Deanna Cook, two Black students in Massachusetts faced two weeks detention, were banned from their prom, and kicked off their sports teams because they wore their hair in braids.
Change has been slow, and is long overdue. Just in 2018, the Navy loosened regulations that once kept Black women from wearing dreadlocks, buns, and braids (which is extra-ridiculous considering those styles tend to be low-maintenance). In June of 2019, California became the first state to formally ban hair discrimination against Black students and employees with the CROWN Act. The law is the first to extend the definition of bias against one’s racial identity to include hair. New York soon followed suit.
Curly Girl Collective co-founder Gia Lowe told InStyle she feels a long overdue paradigm shift brewing. Wearing a crown of tight cornrows, she said, “It feels like we’re a part of elevating a generation that grew up feeling invisible, ignored, and told that how we desired to show up in the world was not enough, was not beautiful, was not professional, was not acceptable. It feels like the culture is listening and we can see the results of that.”
It wasn’t always like this. Lowe remembers working in finance spaces with her natural hair. A white colleague once introduced her to a client saying, “This is Gia and she’s doing something crazy with her hair.”
“It didn’t matter that I had prepared an airtight presentation and that I knew the material forwards and backwards. He still felt it necessary to explain my look to a client in order to justify something,” she explained. She saw the experience as a “teachable moment” and a chance to usher in a cultural change in her workplace, but remembers it feeling lonely and exhausting as well. CurlFest was in part borne out of those feelings, to give other women a place to feel nourished and validated, and to “keep showing up for ourselves.”
Lowe sees the new legislation in California and New York as a necessary step that furthers her work. “When you have laws like the CROWN Act that are here to protect us from feeling like we have to question whether we can show up to an interview with our afro out, feeling like we have to question if we can apply to the US military if we have dreadlocks or a twist out, feeling like we might not be able to compete in an athletic competition, like Andrew Johnson, because we might be asked to cut off our hair. We know this kind of legislation puts a light on the fact that it’s not okay, and that we can’t continue to allow how we present ourselves in the world to be a place of fear or discrimination.”
From the main stage at CurlFest, speakers shouted out the CROWN Act and urged for it to become law nationwide, to jubilant choirs of “YAS!” from the audience, a sea of Black women feeling beautiful and affirmed.
And someplace deep down, fifth grade me was feeling it, too.
Click through to some of the best looks on display at CurlFest 2019, and see what attendees had to say about embracing their natural hair.