Sestina: Sisterhood, Hair and Self-Acceptance

I lived my life as a combination of so many things that fought against blackness until a little over three years ago when I decided to cut my hair off.

I thought I was going to have these gorgeous pillowy curls.

When I saw my wild coils flying back at me I called myself ugly. Standing right there in a mirror, I'll never forget it, I told myself I was ugly out loud and walked out of my bathroom.

I got braids down to my waist the very next day so I wouldn't have to REALLY see myself again. Thankfully, that self-hate lasted all of 2 days.

To assist in the disassociation from braided slave styles, black people were using everything from bacon grease to goose fat to straighten their hair. Sometime in the 1890s, a black woman named Annie Malone was the first person to patent a hot comb. Madame CJ Walker would later improve this comb.

Simultaneously, in the late 1800s, a man named Garret A. Morgan invented the first relaxer: the first chemical hair straightening agent for black people.

Generation upon generation straightening out the natural state of black hair, what you end up with is an entire black identity that doesn’t know how to manage their own hair. Women take their hair seriously. Black women take their hair personally. 

The intent is to ease manageability. What results is a permanently altered notion that you cannot be beautiful within your natural state. You are criticized HEAVILY if you change it. My mama said to me, when I cut my hair at the age of 24: don't expect your hair to be as curly as your cousins.

And what resulted, with me at least, was a long history of—every 6 weeks, from elementary school until post grad—chemically altering the natural structure of my hair. Chemically altering the natural structure of my existence. Burning my scalp into submission, picking scabs out of my hair that refused to grow past my ears.

Is someone going to comment about my hair today? A style, texture that I’m just starting to get used to? Am I going to have to explain myself today? Is someone going to touch me without asking today? Is my hair that much of an anomaly?

To manage it we braid, …

Do you know what it's like to be in your mid-20s and never know what your real hair looks like?

To stare at Youtube and learn about hair patterns, styles that suit your texture and natural hair maintenance with a notepad writing a product list of things to try? To truly learn yourself from scratch? To reimagine yourself as beautiful? Do you know what it's like to know that there are rules made that deem your hair wild, unkempt, threatening--unlawful in certain spaces? To worry about whether or not your hair will keep you from simple things like jobs, romance or going out with your friends?

My story is not my own.

I'm sharing Sestina, the final chapter in Magnolias, because I want to remind black women that we are all in the same story no matter what we look like--and that this story, the "bad hair" story, is one that is handed down to us and can be rewritten.

All throughout Magnolias, models are masked in braids because who I am as a black woman began when I grew my REAL hair out.

Sestina is about acceptance of oneself as a natural woman and others no matter where they are in their own narrative. It explores the heartache of preference and relationships among women and how hair, texture and skin could hurt and reduce us.

These images are intentionally simple and stoic, and brilliantly accompanied with rich poetry by Nina Foster. The whole of Magnolias is now on my site, but I'm sharing Sestina because it felt right tonight.

Models in this chapter: Asia LeachHali Shepard, Lailah Chism, Sonya AlexisSarah ElizabethAria JohnsonShadai Ashley and Khadijah Peay