What do white people think when they see a black man with cornrows?
Recently I got my hair professionally braided for the first time.
Since being in quarantine I wanted to put my hair in a protective style to stimulate growth and nourishment. I kept my hair hidden under a Du-Rag (a protective hair covering) most of the day as I was remaining indoors. I told myself it was because I was not going anywhere, but truthfully it was also guilt.
You see, I was never allowed to let my hair grow as a child. I was never allowed to embrace my natural hair because my parents would not allow it.
Braids and/or cornrows were and still are associated with "gang violence". A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the Tignon Laws of the 18th century which made it illegal for black people to show their hair in public and how those beliefs are still practiced today. For example, in 2019 California became the first state to make hair discrimination in the workplace illegal. In 2019. Sit with that for a few seconds.
Growing up in Dallas, TX, the evening news had black men's faces plastered in mugshots and arrest footage like it was a trend. These men often had cornrows. Many in the black community kept their kids from having these hairstyles from fear that their faces would be on the evening news for the crime of being black in the wrong place at the wrong time. So often the wrong place for a black person to be is anywhere in America.
My parents always kept my hair in a "low cut Caesar with the deep waves". You attain this style with a low haircut, Sportin' Waves pomade, and a Du-Rag or stocking cap. I remember one time my mom needed to run a quick errand and asked me to go with her. I was maybe 14. It was a Saturday. I was still in my PJ's (basketball shorts and a T-shirt) and my Du-Rag, so I threw on some clothes. It was probably noon which was early for me as a high schooler on a weekend. I still like to sleep in. I remembered that I needed to pick up a book I accidentally left at the school. We pulled up to the school and I ran in. There was a fundraiser going on. As I ran to my locker a couple of my white friends who were working the fundraiser saw me and said, "YO WHATS UP HOME DOG"? I looked at them like one does when one is deciding if today is the day to go to jail for smacking the racism out of someone. Then I realized I was still wearing my Du-Rag. I grabbed my book and ran back out to the car. My mother looking alarmed and angry said, "I can't believe you left that on. Did anyone see you? You look like a thug!" I was reprimanded by both her and later my father once she told him. At the time I could not wrap my teenage mind around why they were so upset. How exactly did I look like a thug? What does a gangster look like? Because I'm protecting my hair? I can wear this in front of my family, but not my friends? I was both confused and frustrated. I was also irate with my friends for how they addressed me differently because they saw me in a way to which they were not accustomed.
Only now am I understanding that my parents feared for my safety. They were trying to protect me. My school had armed police officers. My parents were trying to make sure I did not look threatening. Unfortunately when your skin is viewed as a weapon there is not much else you can do. I recall my mother being pulled over by an officer and asked what she was doing in a neighborhood she's lived in for over 20 years.
As a freshman I was in the principals office often for things I did not do. Falsely accused of dress code violations by my racist AP Biology teacher every other day while white students in her class were actually out of dress code. Some weeks I spent more time in the principals office than in her classroom. It wasn't until the principal found out that I was in all AP classes, Varsity Choir, Varisty Swimming, Show Choir, and had a 3.8 GPA, so I was "one of the good ones". Then he'd just send me back to class. Never bothering to ask my teacher why she continuously sent 1 of the only 2 black kids in her class to the office every week. An educator entirely ignorant to the fact that black boys are 3x more likely to be suspended. In my school cornrows were associated with the black kids and they were the considered the troublemakers. Never mind the white kids smoking weed in the parking lot, or having sex in band practice rooms during the pep rallies.
Here I am 10 years out of high school and still just scratching the surface of what it means to embrace my natural hair. It even affects how I'm type cast for roles in stage and film. Then I get on Instagram and I see Kim K or Gucci models with "boxer/French braids" as they're sometimes called. This is cultural appropriation at its finest. On a black man it's gang related, but on a white woman it's fashion. I shaved my head in college because I allowed someone I loved to make me think my hair was ugly. That I looked better bald.
But this is my culture, and it is fear that has ruled how black people are able to express ourselves in this world.
"Braiding started in Africa with the Himba people of Namibia,” says Alysa Pace of Bomane Salon. “These people have been braiding their hair for centuries. In many African tribes, braided hairstyles were a unique way to identify each tribe. Braid patterns and hairstyles were an indication of a person’s tribe, age, marital status, wealth, power, and religion. Braiding was and is a social art. Because of the amount of time it can take, people often would take the time to socialize. It began with the elders braiding their children, then the children would watch and learn from them. Younger children would start practicing on each other and eventually learn the traditional styles. This tradition of bonding was carried on for generations and quickly made its way across the world. It was around the 1900s when braids became most popular around the world. Almost all women, children, and most men in some way had their hair braided.”
Our languages were stolen from our very lips. I did 23 and Me, but I have no idea what tribe my ancestors came from. I know more about my European roots than I do the origin of the melanin in my being. These braids in my hair give me so much pride. I feel like I'm breaking through the mental cages that had me thinking I was ugly. That my blackness is wrong. We still live in a world where wearing my hair as it naturally grows from my head is a form of protest. Where me wearing braids is something I have to unpack. A connection to my heritage that needs to be mended.
My hair is beautiful. I hope every black person gets to feel the freedom i feel right now.