by Nia Abram, art by Eboni Statham
“Are you ready?” my Dad asks.
“Yeah, I guess,” I respond meekly.
“Alright, grab your stuff. We should try to start moving in before the rush of all the other students.”
I grab my jean jacket, zip up my suitcase and just before I’m about to turn off the light to our hotel room, my dad asks, “Did you comb your hair?”
I roll my eyes. I can’t remember a day that my dad hasn’t asked me that question, and if he doesn’t ask, then my mother will.
“Here, you missed a spot.” My dad chuckles as he picks a straggling piece of lint from the back of my head. “When it’s dry like this, it’s like our hair turns into Velcro.”
“I guess I should just get used to it. I’ll be living here now,” I reply dimly.
We pull up to the campus, the gold and black signage glaring in our faces: Welcome to Colorado College Mathias Hall. We begin the move-in process and start hauling my suitcases across Nevada Avenue. As we stop at the median in the road, a black man driving a Ford pick-up smiles and waves at us.
“It’s good to know there are some of us folks around here,” my dad says.
We finally settle into my room, and then attempt to get a lay of the land. Where can I buy food? King Soopers. Where can I get cheap clothes? The Arc. Where can I pick up my prescription? Walgreens.
“Where are you going to get your hair cut?” my dad says.
“That’s a good question, but I’m sure it’ll be fine. My hair is never more than about two inches long, so it shouldn’t be that difficult to do, right?” I’m not sure I believe the words I just conjured.
The sun arches just behind the mountains, turning the sky a dusty purple, and my dad packs up his things. We hug, and I’m sad and he leaves. A haunting feeling of isolation washes over me, so I try to sleep it off.
The next morning, I take a walk downtown to see if I can find a place to get a haircut. The first place I encounter is a salon next to Wooglins. A white woman with sharp bangs is sweeping up the empty shop. “Would you be able to cut my hair?” I ask in my polite white girl voice.
“Uhm, excuse me?” she replies.
“I just need my head buzzed,” I say. I’ve never used the word “buzzed” to describe my haircut, but most white people don’t know the term “brush cut.”
“I’m sorry, we don’t take walk-ins.”
“Oh, well, it said on your website that you take walk-ins.”
“Yeah, uhm we might need someone else to cut your hair.”
“Okay, well thanks anyways.”
Even my white girl voice can’t change the fact that I’m nappy-headed. I walk further into town and continue to pass salons with white women sitting in chairs getting their hair dyed, layered and trimmed. I’m beginning to feel like a fly in milk, drowning in a sea of white. I can’t help but have a feeling of desertion as I look around and realize how barren our cultural landscape is for black people. Hair is a fundamental component of the black experience, but unfortunately, in Colorado Springs, we are living in a hair desert.
Coming to Colorado College can leave students of color feeling culturally displaced, while coming to the desert can be just as physically jarring. Being in a dry, desert climate can be harmful to thick, nappy hair. Healthy black hair requires protection, care and immense moisture. In fact, healthy black skin and nails need just as much care and attention, too. The biological experience of blackness can be paralyzed by a climate that bears no resemblance to that of our ancestry. If I walk out of my house without dripping a little oil on my roots, you can guarantee that my scalp will be flaky, my kinks will be dusty and my edges will be far from laid.
For many black women at CC, back in their hometowns, they can spot a black hair salon on every corner owned by mothers, cousins, aunts and family friends. Since getting one’s hair done is often an intimate experience, hair care also occurs in the home. Lacking a place or person for hair care at school can also mean loss of family support and community structure. Hair care is a catalyst for community building, whether it’s through a meaningful conversation with your grandmother while she cornrows your hair or through supporting black businesses. But why is hair so important? Why do I care whether or not my edges are on fleek and my hairline is shaped up?
Hair is a marker of beauty for women across the world, especially through the mainstream white, heterosexual gaze. Hair (or lack thereof), whether on your head or your body, demarcates the women who are actually worth being looked at. Slavery indoctrinated black people with the harmful notion that we had to somehow emulate irrational standards of white beauty, and ever since, the black community has been grappling with the ideals of “good hair.” We’ve been battling white fetishizers who pounce at the chance to objectify our nappy hair texture, while people who think our hair care techniques are dirty and unhealthy have belittled us. A black woman’s hair is a sociocultural nexus that carries the weight of centuries of oppression. Black hair can also be a source of identity and self-worth. What’s it like to wake up every morning with all that power resting upon your head?
Kyana Bell, a junior at CC, says that “talking about my relationship with hair is kind of a long story, but my mom used to place a great amount of pride in hair...and having the ideal type of hair.” Kyana usually only gets her hair done by her mother whenever she goes home for a break.
“My hair was always considered too nappy. So the amount of heat and chemicals that my mom forced onto me at such a young age was just so she could be proud of my hair. This always kind of made me feel self-conscious about my hair, so growing up I was always fighting against the idea that your hair should be long and curly. Hair is really important to me. It’s a way for me to reverse the damage that I’ve done to myself because of how my mom viewed hair and what I’ve internalized.”
Kyana has gone to a salon in the Springs a couple of times to get a restorative keratin treatment to reverse some of her hair damage, but the results weren’t what she wanted. She has yet to find another stylist who could potentially do a better job.
Like Kyana, CC senior Lyric Jackson typically gets her hair done by her mother during academic breaks. Lyric is from Little Rock, Arkansas, and “there’s a [black] hair salon on every corner.” She says, “At home I was always known as ‘Lyric with the pretty hair’ or something like that. So I tried not to put so much emphasis on my hair because I wanted to be known for something else. So my hair was a property. It was like that was my identity. And my hair texture has all kinds of implications, especially because my skin is chocolate. My [softer] hair texture actually worked in my favor. It made me “prettier” to people because being darker skinned and having coarse hair doesn’t work in my favor. It has all those implications of the stereotypes of being masculine and unattractive.”
Lyric notes that her experience coming to CC allowed her to somewhat escape the expectations that she had at home. “Sometimes I’ll be walking out the house looking like a fool, with my edges looking busted,” she says, but most of the white students don’t know enough about black hair to even notice the difference. “When I’m at home, it’s like I have to have a certain image. You have to have this certain presentation of yourself because [as a black woman] you’re worried about the way society views you. My mom really cares about respectability politics and being ‘the Respectable Negro’.” But despite this, Lyric wears her hair naturally.
Wearing one’s hair in its natural kinky state is in some ways an act of rebellion against white normativity. However, while Lyric is proud to wear her hair naturally, she does worry, “about wearing natural hair for jobs.” She says, “Usually when I go in for interviews I don’t wear my hair naturally unless it’s like in a slick back bun. I have to tame it a certain way for people to not get the wrong impression. And I’m just thinking ‘this is so stupid, like my hair is not going to change my résumé or my qualifications’.”
Lyric’s fears of being defined by her hair permeate the minds of many black women. In many circumstances, conforming to white beauty standards is an act of survival; therefore, lacking proper access to hair care methods only marginalizes people even further.
DeAira Hermani, another senior, echoes similar sentiments to Kyana and Lyric. “It’s interesting for me to get my hair done in the Springs,” she says. “I change my hair blockly. So I’m always looking to get my hair done. I love embracing the versatility of my hair texture. And it’s such a huge part of saying, ‘I’m black and I’m proud.’ And Imma switch my hair up on you as much as possible because I can and you can’t. It’s almost a way of exercising the privilege I have with my hair, and this is the type of privilege that white people can’t take away. They keep trying to reinvent our hairstyles, but you can’t replicate our hair texture. So for me being able to own my hair texture is a sense of power.”
Since DeAira is always looking to change her hair, she’s attuned to the ways that CC and the geography of Colorado Springs inhibits her from pursuing some of the hair care methods she wants to use.
“CC always has those free haircuts in Worner, and I’ve always wanted to get a free haircut, but I don’t want anyone to mess up my hair. And I know there’s not a stylist that actually knows how to actually handle black hair….and getting my hair done is more than just getting a quick trim. I know I’m at least going to be in the salon chair for an hour. So it’s about the conversation I’m going to have with the stylist, and finding someone I can trust to actually put their hands in my hair. And I don’t want any random white lady putting her hands in my hair, but I also don’t want any old black lady doing that either. Because some black stylists will be like ‘you need to assimilate and get a perm.’ You know, the slave mentality type of older black women.”
DeAira also notes that the climate has proven to be an obstacle. “I’m so dry all the time. Like already having a kinky texture, dryness just makes it so easy for your hair to break off. So now it’s like my prized possession is falling off. I’m constantly having to moisturize and find new [black hair care] products, but even that comes back to just finding those products. If I’m looking for products for black natural hair, I’m paying at least $6 for something that should cost $3....and even finding beauty supply stores is not accessible. Everything is far from campus, and there’s only so much I can do with the ‘ethnic’ hair care section in King Soopers.” DeAira harkens back to an important point about accessibility. Maintaining a central tenant of black culture—hair—seems to have incessant roadblocks.
DeAira and Kyana have both searched for stylists on Craigslist and on an app called Style Seat, which matches clients with stylists who are willing to provide specific hair care services. DeAira used Style Seat recently, and it brought her somewhere unexpected. “I finally was able to find someone to do my hair, but I had to go on base [Fort Carson]. The military brings a lot of black families and black people, and so for a lot of military wives, doing hair is their occupation. So it was weird. I was going to base, not going to a salon, so I was going there with my hair undone and semi-blow-dried out in four little Afro puffs. Just getting on base everybody’s asking me, ‘What are you here for?’ or, ‘Why is your hair like this?’ So just having that whole interrogation, and then the process of getting on base was strenuous. And the interrogation was weird because it was clear the military officers were not familiar with black hair.”
The irony of DeAira’s experience at the base is deeply rooted in the military’s historically oppressive stance on black hairstyles. In 2014, the military passed Army Regulation 670-1, the “Guide to the Wear and Appearance of Army Uniforms and Insignia.” This new regulation banned most black natural hairstyles like twists, cornrows and Afros. According to an article in The Guardian by Phoebe Gavin, a former black woman soldier, “Formally or informally, by superiors or by peers, every soldier spends the entire day being compared to AR 670-1.” The military eventually rolled back the regulations on these hairstyles in 2015, but this is not the first time that American institutions have tried to deem black hair “unprofessional,” “dirty” or “unkempt.” DeAira’s trek to the army base marks the bleakness of the COS cultural geography. If, just to get her hair done, DeAira has to walk into an institution that believed (only a year ago) that her natural hair was punishable, what kind of cultural climate has been created? This is not to say that the army cannot redeem itself and foster a healthy hair care space for black military soldiers and wives, but should CC students really have to embark to a military base when we have a bustling downtown area just 10 minutes from campus?
Serena Anderson, owner of Talaa African Braiding and Weaving Salon, has been in business for awhile now. Her salon is located on 2529 Airport Road, which is not accessible by foot or bike, but is only about a 15-minute drive. She started her business in 2009 after she moved from Kenya and retired from her career as a professional long-distance runner. Serena came to America initially to go to law school, but she wanted to help put her siblings through college, so she had to forgo her own education to help pay for theirs. She’s put six of her seven siblings through college so far. When Serena first opened her business, she said it was difficult to find clients because she “noticed that black people are such a minority.”
“We used to walk into Walmart and other stores to find black people, and I couldn’t find one.” Serena grew up learning how to braid hair as a childhood activity, but when she came to America, she realized the culture around hair was much different. Most importantly, she realized she could actually make money doing something that was merely considered a pastime in her home country. In Kenya, Serena and most other girls were not allowed to wear their hair longer than about three inches until they finished high school, but when she came to America, she realized that everyone wanted long hair. When she lived in Washington State, she noticed that it was rare to see someone with short hair because there was moisture in the air, but in Colorado, the dryness inhibits black women from keeping longer, healthier hair.
“So I am working on a new hair care product specifically for hair at high altitudes. Because everyone keeps complaining that their scalp is dry, which is something I never had to deal with in Kenya…actually the ingredients I’m using are going to be from Kenya. There is an orphanage in my country that rescues females from circumcision practices, and there’s a tree at the orphanage that has an oil extract that I’ll be using in my products, and it’s cheap. I am a survivor of attempted circumcision too. I mean I kind of fled from it, but I wanted to find a way to give back to my fellow survivors who have unwillingly been under the knife.”
Serena and I talked about advertising her products at CC and doing some collaborative hair events with the Black Student Union. Her story illuminates the importance of hair as a tool for community building.
There are never any quick solutions to the complex effects of marginalization that students of color feel on CC’s campus. However, there is a tiny oasis that lies in the vast cultural desert that surrounds us, and it begins with people like Serena Anderson—people who have found ways to create a transnational community of empowerment and resourcefulness. As we fumble to find our footing in a predominantly white context, we don’t have to drown in it. We can come up for air and find solidarity through some of our most deeply complex and historically oppressive biological narratives. We can stick around, even if this desert wasn’t made for us.