In Wakanda, the techno-brilliant African nation of the Marvel film “Black Panther,” black warrior women don’t wear wigs. Compelled to conceal her shaved head to carry off an undercover mission, General Okoye, played by Danai Gurira, calls her flowing wig “a disgrace” and discards it the instant she draws her spear to battle the bad guys.
The general and her royal guard of female combatants, the Dora Milaje warriors, are among a cast of characters graced with gorgeous natural hairstyles that imbue this film with the visual power of holistic black beauty. The movie weds a Black Nationalist aesthetic to an ethos of global kinship. It projects a resilience that captures the mood of our present moment.
Despite and perhaps because of a surge in white supremacist language in the United States, a wave of black cultural resistance is flooding the arts as well as the streets. And with it, black hair in its natural state of sublime uprightness has returned as a symbol of political consciousness and visionary imagining. The self-assured leading women of “Black Panther” wear their “Wakanda knots,” elaborately interwoven braids, regal snow-white dreadlocks and decorated bald scalps with ease. When I saw these actresses onscreen in the company of my awe-struck children, I felt an exhilarating sense of community pride.
I am a black woman who stopped chemically altering my hair after an inner battle that began in childhood. Like countless other black girls, I once donned a yellow bath towel as a makeshift wig as a child, luxuriously flipping it as if it were real blond hair.
I decided to go natural in 1991, during my junior year in college. It was a difficult choice, and it was possible only in a context of black female friendships and the shared epiphanies of a feminist collective called The Rag. The women on The Rag (yes, we thought we were quite clever) met on the Radcliffe campus to discuss our emerging understandings of feminism, and black feminism in particular. Paramount for us, as in the #MeToo movement now, was the emboldening recognition that we were not alone.
When I stopped straightening my hair — as a way of affirming my worth despite mainstream messages to the contrary — I had the support of an emotional, intellectual and political community. My college roommate, Keiko Morris, and I enacted this ritual together: cutting off tresses made foreign by chemical “beauty” products and choosing how we would relearn what our nappy hair could mean to us.
Keiko, who went on to become a journalist, and I wrote about the experience, as did Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Pearl Cleage, Bell Hooks and the many other black female writers before us who have made hair a recurring theme. Our essay, “The Straight and Narrow,” was published in the book “Testimony,” edited by our college classmate Natasha Tarpley, who would later publish the uplifting children’s picture book “I Love My Hair!” Keiko and I wrote that as young girls, “we saw white women, not ourselves, in the images that America chose to project — we heard family members comment that so and so’s baby had been born with good hair and they ‘hoped it would stay that way.’ ”
Our undergoing the “big chop” disappointed family members and lessened our value in the heterosexual dating market, but we were determined to endure recrimination and rejection, together.
The early 1990s was a long time ago. So much seems to have changed in the decades since I stopped straightening. There is a rich and varied digital discussion of black natural hair care, thanks in part to the early-aughts natural-hair movement, when digital innovators like Curly Nikki (Nikki Walton) and Afrobella (Patrice Yursik) recorded their transition from straightened to natural styles and offered hair care tips to thousands of followers. Chris Rock released the HBO documentary “Good Hair” (2009) and expressed the wish that his daughter would treasure what is inside her head instead of what grows on it.
Fewer white strangers today tell me that I look just like Whoopi Goldberg because I wear dreadlocks (though it happened in Montana last summer) or have the nerve to reach out and touch my hair without permission (though it happened in Michigan last fall).
Despite this progress, hair remains a raw nerve for young black women. I learned this when I began offering a course on hair in the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan three years ago. The students in my classes were telling stories much like those my college friends and I had shared. They were still describing the pain and humiliation they felt as women with nappy or “bad” hair, or the preferences and privilege they knew as women with wavy or loosely curled “good” hair.
A black trans man recounted the freedom that he felt when he transitioned in high school and no longer had to control his hair as a black girl would, fearfully running away from the rain and avoiding swimming pools. Students talked about high school teachers who said their hair was blocking others’ view of the board. Female students said potential romantic partners saw only straighter hair, and lighter skin, as attractive and assumed that any dark-skinned woman with long hair was a “fake”; they wrote about despising themselves because their hair made them alien and ugly. They had reclaimed natural hair despite self-doubt and rampant rejection.
Going natural is still hard for many black women with kinky hair. The choice means risking the mantle of respectability for which middle-class African-Americans have long fought and relinquishing a dream of beauty that popular culture prizes. Professional costs remain as well, as demonstrated by a United States Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in 2016 affirming a company’s right not to hire applicants with dreadlocks.
Now, it seems to me, a cultural tide is meeting the more individualized, self-care focus of the natural-hair movement. In 2017, Colin Kaepernick defended his Afro by implying that the former quarterback Michael Vick — who said Mr. Kaepernick should trim his hair to look “clean cut” and “presentable” — suffered from Stockholm syndrome; the “Black Panther” actress Lupita Nyong’o criticized Grazia U.K. magazine for retouching a cover photo to remove her natural hair; and Davina Bennett, Miss Jamaica, won second runner-up in the Miss Universe pageant while daring to wear a spectacular sundial Afro.
The record-breaking “Black Panther” is the sensational popular example, a visual anthem for this moment. The hair director for the film, Camille Friend, said in an interview with The Cut that she insisted on natural hair for the actors and drew on Zulu, Masai, Hima and Afropunk looks. But the movie does not stand alone.
The fiber artist Sonya Clark has produced the elegantly stylized Hair Craft Project, which features black hairdressers as craftswomen whose intricate art form is the braid. Regis and Kahran Bethencourt of the Creative Soul studio in Atlanta have created an “Afro Art” series featuring African-American girls with sculpted natural hair and elaborate costumes. The children in these images face the camera with a deep-down, dare-me beauty complemented by glistening Afros, voluptuous rolls and undulating braids with cowrie shell accessories that enhance the texture of a proud and voluminous birthright.
In the mid-1990s, soon after I stopped relaxing my hair, the prescient race and gender theorist Angela Davis warned about the devolution of natural black hair from a strong statement of political solidarity to an empty sign of consumerist acquisition. The Afro was being resuscitated as “revolutionary glamour,” she said, black chic in a bottle, denuded of political potency.
Angela Davis lamented fashion masquerading as politics, but the pendulum has swung back, reflecting what the historian Tanisha Ford has called “a revolutionary politics of style.” Natural black hair is again a sign of political intention, visually cuing a culture of resistance that asserts the value of difference, of conviction in the face of adversity, of the intrinsic worth of all human beings. The ultra-Afro, the meta-cornrow, the rocket-shaped twists springing out into space. Africa has produced a hair type with an innate capacity to defy gravity. It demonstrates to us all in these times: And still we rise.