Black hair comes in various forms and textures. All of the strands of hair create a crown that black women use to create hairstyles. There are endless styles that black women can style their curls with.
“You know this hair is my shit,” Solange sings in her song “Don’t Touch my Hair” on her most recent album.
Hair is used to symbolize the essence of black women. Throughout history, blackness has been policed, especially during slavery, colonialism and through other systems of oppression. Nappy hair — natural hair without any sort of chemicals or straightening — has been used as a derogatory term to describe the afro-textured hair on the crown of black women’s heads.
On campus, black people make up only six percent of the overall undergraduate population. Black students may be few on campus, but their diversity of hues cover the entire spectrum.
These are the stories of five black students who all have different experiences but share a common love for their hair and expressed their struggle with having to prove to the world that they are worth something.
Don’t touch my hair, when it’s the feelings I wear.
Morgan Mitchell, a sophomore at the University of Richmond, wears her hair in its natural state, often out in an afro or in a halo crown twist, and said she saw herself as a very happy black woman. She loves art, color, laughing and anything else that is as bright as her. In all aspects of her life, Mitchell said she believed embodying brightness everywhere was important.
“I see myself as a work in progress,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell is aware of what she likes and what she wants and said all she wanted to do was reach her goals without losing her personality. Mitchell loves art, and all it took was a trip to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in middle school for her love to blossom.
“It was the happiest day of my life,” Mitchell said. “Nothing has ever made me so excited to learn before.”
All of the art that Mitchell saw in the museum has led her to pursue an art history degree.
Mitchell’s passion for art is faced with the obstacle of her not feeling comfortable in rooms where no one looks like her, but Mitchell said that would not stop her. Mitchell looked for art-history programs at historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, but there were few and none of them appealed to her. That is how Mitchell found herself at a predominately white institution (PWI).
Being at a PWI means that Mitchell walks into rooms and frequently is the only black person. Alicia Jiggets, a sophomore, said she felt the same way because she was the only black person in most of her classes, and she was also the quiet, reserved woman in the back of the class.
Jiggets described herself as intelligent, with a good sense of humor, but she comes across as reserved at first, so people in class do not know who she is. In class, Jiggets is serious and focused, but outside of class, she is the opposite because she lets go and becomes a sillier and giddier version of herself.
Mitchell and Jiggets are both in classes where no one else is like them and they said it makes them feel like the odd one out in their classes.
“Being black is what makes me special,” Mitchell said. “It used to make me feel different.” Mitchell has spent all of her education in predominantly white schools. As an elementary schooler, Mitchell said she realized she was different because of how her afro puffs stood out compared to her classmates.
Mitchell straightened her hair every day as a young girl so that she could fit in more. She said she questioned why she straightened her hair every day to resemble people she didn’t like. Since eighth grade, Mitchell has neither straightened or blow dried her hair. “I love that I can do anything to it.” Mitchell said. Mitchell describes her hair texture as very versatile so she can do anything she wants to it and it will still look decent. The only thing she dislikes about her hair is how much care and attention it takes. On the days when it doesn’t look like how she wants it to, she feels differently about her overall appearance.
They don’t understand what it (my hair) means to me.
Black hair comes in a ton of textures and curls. It can be kinky or nappy or tight or colored. A popular system classifies hair as types such as Type 1-4 with the letter A, B or C used to indicate the coil variation. Black girls tend to fall somewhere between 3a and 4c.
Mitchell describes her hair as a mix between 4b and 4c. There are many other labels that can be used to describe hair, such as porosity, the hair’s ability to absorb and hold moisture or strand thickness so hair labels are as simple just being 4a. For black girls, it is can be important to know their hair texture because hair maintenance can be dependent on what hair type they have.
Jiggets wears her hair in 20-inch dreadlocks that she has had for 11 years. As a tender-headed child, she did not like her mother constantly combing her hair. Since Jiggets’s older sister had dreads, they decided to experiment with dreads on Jiggets as a fourth grader.
“I love that my hair is easy to maintain,” she said. “There aren’t too many bad hair days.” Her dreadlocks can be worn in simple hairstyles such as a ponytail but it can also be done in intricate hairstyles without the worry of combing it. Dreadlocks have become popular over the years and have become a common hair option for black people but there are still politics against it, Jiggets said.
“People who do not understand the concept [of dreadlocks] think it’s just matted hair with dirt.” Jiggets said. Dreadlocks have to be maintained even more than most hairstyles because they require frequent appointments to get them tightened every few months to maintain the style. Jiggets has accepted that the perceptions of her hair will affect her career because employers will not like it. Jiggets said she would not cut her hair for a job. “I would rather sacrifice the job than cut my hair.” Jiggets said.
Ivana Marshall, senior, has a huge ‘fro that is close to her identity. Marshall said her hair is the first thing people usually notice about her. “It’s a defining characteristic,” Marshall said. There’s more to Marshall than her hair. She defines herself as someone that is always thinking. In everything that Marshall does, she always tries to be one step ahead of everything.
Don’t touch my pride, they say the glory’s all mine.
Marshall has not always been the confident woman that she is now. Marshall’s journey to becoming a fully natural black woman started when she decided to go back to being natural two and a half years ago. Marshall was natural until she was eight years old, but her mother’s silky hair texture made it hard for her mother to adjust to her daughter’s kinkier hair. Marshall’s hair was relaxed, meaning it was chemically treated to be straight, and long until the sixth grade when her grandmother chopped her hair off into an atrocious bob, Marshall said. After her haircut, Marshall was adventurous with her hair by dyeing her hair several colors such as magenta and blonde.
Going natural for Marshall meant cutting off all of her relaxed hair and starting off with a small amount of hair. Marshall said she assumed it would be easy to cut all of her hair and that her hair would end up being long and curly like her mother’s.
“It made my face so noticeable,” Marshall said. Now that Marshall’s hair has grown into a large afro, she is able to have volume and length if she decides to keep it straight or out. Her hair does take 16 hours to dry and Marshall said it is obnoxious. Despite how long it takes for her hair to dry, Marshall’s hair is a key aspect to her blackness.
It was in fifth grade that Marshall realized she was black. For picture day in class, a comb was passed out to all the student to fix their hair but a boy in her class named John told her she could not use the comb because she is black and black people have different hair. Marshall said that it made her realize that other people knew something about her that she didn’t know or pay attention to. “Initially, I was just a child and student but then I looked through my pictures and yearbook and realized I was different,” Marshall said.
“Being black means I’m constantly walking on eggshells and forcing myself to walk light enough that the egg shells don’t crack,” Marshall said. Marshall describes the eggshells as the standards that societies and communities set for their black people.
To prevent cracking the egg shells, Marshall said she has to pay attention to the group of people, such as non-white people, she’s around so that she isn’t calling too much attention to herself. Around black people that Marshall said she can be herself and not have to worry about being hyper-aware.
On campus, freshman Jennifer Munnings said she is also hyper aware of how she acts and feels out of her comfort zone. All of the black people are dispersed throughout campus so Munnings does not see many people that she identifies with when she is walking around campus.
But this here is mine.
“Black is in my comfort zone,” Munnings said. It is easier for Munnings to be friends with a black person versus a white person because the people she surrounds herself with care that care about the same things as her, she explained. For people who don’t accept movements such as #BlackLivesMatter, Munnings finds it difficult to call those people her friends. “I can’t be friends with a Trump supporter because they don’t stand for issues that affect me personally,” Munnings said.
Being a black woman in higher education is overall an exhausting experience, Cherelle Cotton, sophomore, said. It is hard dealing with people who overtly are against issues that concern black people but Cotton said another difficulty is the expectations that people have. “Black people are expected to not be as smart and capable as whites and other races,” She said, “But I’m also expected to be an exception.”
People are impressed with Cotton’s knowledge and capabilities but she said no one gives her enough to room to meet her potential. Cotton calls this exceptionalism and it does the opposite of pushing students of color forwards because it just keeps them stagnant and behind. Professors and students cut her off and Cotton said they assume that she doesn’t know or understand something in class.
“It’s not fair that I have to prove that I belong here.” Cotton said. Cotton said it isn’t fair that people are surprised that people like herself have the capabilities to attend the University.
For Munnings, she said people have blatantly surprised when they find out that she attends the University of Richmond. Munnings expressed that people don’t expect her to do as well because of the color of her skin.
You know this hair is my shit.
Cotton is mixed but she identifies as black and wears proudly wears her curls out or down her back in a straight hairstyle.
Cotton has a come long way in accepting her blackness because she said she grew up around a lot of people so she internalized a lot of sexism and racism but once she started paying attention to her identity as a black woman, she said she learned to appreciate it.
Being different isn’t a negative thing. “I feel like I have something valuable that people can’t take away from me as a black woman.” Marshall said. Despite always being noticeable in a crowd of students on campus and being the only black woman in most of their classes, these black women continue to appreciate their blackness.
All of them come in such different shades with such different hairstyles but being different is what makes them special.
“[Being a black woman] means that your story starts off pages longer than everyone else’s, and the purpose of my life has been to find freedom,” Marshall said.